Farrakhan Steps Back

Farrakhan’s failing health causes the Nation of Islam to look to the future.

Salim Muwakkil

Minister Louis Farrakhan failed to deliver the keynote address at the 11th anniversary celebration of the 1995 Million Man March. Complications from cancer treatments forced the Nation of Islam (NOI) leader to cancel the first major address he has missed in his 29 years of leadership.

While Farrakhan is often credited (or blamed) for sustaining the link between Islam and Black Nationalism, his role in maintaining peace between rival factions has been overlooked.

The 73-year-old Farrakhan was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1991 and in 2000 underwent a surgical procedure that implanted radiated seeds’ rather than traditional radiation treatments. In a Sept. 11 letter to NOI members and supporters, published in the group’s Final Call newspaper, Farrakhan said the implanted seeds indeed killed the cancer cells that had broken the prostate capsule.” But, he added, over time, these seeds have done severe internal damage.”

Farrakhan’s withdrawal from all NOI business has sparked much speculation about the group’s future should he die. Many analysts doubt the group would survive Farrakhan’s absence.

The prospect of no Farrakhan also comes at a time when debate is growing within the black community about the need for new leaders as well as new leadership paradigms. The Nation of Islam’s messianic and authoritarian mold of leadership seems particularly antiquated as African Americans gain prominence in so many areas of American life.

The group has exemplified that leadership style from its murky founding in the 30s by the mysterious W.D. Fard, who members later deified. Elijah Muhammad took over as God’s messenger”when Fard disappeared.

When the eloquent and charismatic Malcolm X (Little) emerged from prison in 1952, he soon became Muhammad’s chief aide and the Nation of Islam’s best recruiter. They parted company in 1963 when an increasingly popular Malcolm defied the Messenger.” 

Members of the NOI murdered Malcolm in 1965 and sectarian violence scarred much of the black nationalist community. Many analysts wrongly predicted that Malcolm’s assassination would also kill the NOI. Farrakhan eventually got Malcolm’s job as head of the group’s Harlem Mosque and as Elijah’s representative.

In his recent letter to the flock, Farrakhan said his absence would be a period of testing” that could prove to the world that the Nation of Islam is more than the charisma, eloquence and personality of Louis Farrakhan.” This was not a boast but an implicit acknowledgment that the NOI has become too dependent on his charisma.

Were it not for that dependence, however, the group may well have splintered into several warring factions. Farrakhan is noted for his powerful oratory and amiable personality, but his deft political instincts are what helped sooth a cauldron of sectarian animosity. 

When Elijah died in 1975, his son, Wallace D. Mohammad (now known as Imam Warithduddine Mohamed), took over and changed the name and Black Nationalist focus of the group. Farrakhan initially pledged fealty to the new leader’s more orthodox” vision of Islam, but broke away in 1977 to resurrect Elijah’s race-focused version.

While Farrakhan is often credited (or blamed) for sustaining the link between Islam and Black Nationalism, his role in maintaining peace among rival groups with a history of violence is often overlooked. Many analysts predicted a bloodbath – an escalation of the kind of violence that followed Malcolm X’s assassination. That chaos never occurred but few acknowledge Farrakhan’s role in corralling those dissident energies.

Farrakhan customarily is described as a race-baiting anti-Semite and his rhetoric occasionally justifies that description. But there’s little attention paid to the major changes he’s made in a doctrine that once deemed whites the seed of Satan and black people inherently divine. While not exactly rejecting that black supremacist catechism – taught as gospel for 40-odd years by Elijah Muhammad – he has transformed it into a metaphor. Satan no longer has a genetic identity; the mentality of white supremacy is the real devil.

He is regularly charged with inciting anti-Jewish sentiments among African-Americans, but few realize that Farrakhan’s voice is a relatively conciliatory one in the Black Nationalist community. He can’t be too conciliatory, however, lest the NOI chief alienates the fire-breathing militants who comprise a major part of his base – and, more importantly, still fall under his influence.

Through an artful combination of outrageous rhetoric and mollifying gestures, Farrakhan has managed to maintain his radical base without undermining his mainstream credibility. His dominance of the radical fringe also has served to limit the appeal of Islamist radicalism among those African Americans most vulnerable to its lure.

Those who welcome Farrakhan’s retreat from the national stage may not have fully considered the implications of his absence.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of The Salim Muwakkil show on WVON, Chicago’s historic black radio station, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Photographs from the Harold Washington Years.
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