A FAMILY AFFAIR ; the Nation of Islam Is Usually Associated with Confrontational Racial Politics and Intimidating-Looking Men in Suits. but the Movement Led by the Notorious Louis Farrakhan Also Has a Softer, Feminine Side, as Brian Cathcart Discovers
Cathcart, Brian, The Independent (London, England)
THE PREACHER pulled a coin from his pocket and held it up for his audience to see. He and they were looking at the same object, he explained, but they saw different things. "What's facing you is heads, but what's facing me is tails."
Minister Don Muhammad, speaking at a rally in Chicago, was making a point about the need for dialogue and understanding in marriage, but his metaphor is also a fitting one for the faith of which he is a leading light: the Nation of Islam. What you see in Louis Farrakhan's religion depends on where you are standing.
Heads: if you sat down to design a faith that frightens, you couldn't succeed better. The Nation of Islam theology speaks of a millennial day when every white devil will be consigned to oblivion. Its leaders are hostile to homosexuals, have denied the Holocaust and have spoken admiringly of Hitler; its members wear uniform, are highly disciplined and are drilled from an early age. To cap it all, members profess brotherhood with every Muslim from Afghanistan to Libya. For many, it's the stuff of nightmares.
Tails: this is an organisation that fights drugs and guns in the ghettoes of American cities, values the family and community, opposes the death penalty, teaches respect for women and urges people to show enterprise and take responsibility for their own problems. With an agenda like that, it could be affiliated to New Labour.
The coin analogy is equally appropriate to the question of gender. The Nation of Islam is a mainly male organisation - perhaps 20 per cent of its members are women - and the face it turns to the world is a very male one. The leaders and spokespeople are men, and it is usually the men in their double-breasted suits who are visible during public protests. If women are present at all, they remain in the background, usually in uniform, and always - as Muslim women - with their arms and heads covered.
Yet there is a big place for women in the movement, if mainly as home- makers. Elijah Muhammad, the movement's founder, believed that centuries of slavery had undermined the family, and that stable families and communities were essential to restoring the black race. This was women's work.
Women are also considered important as teachers and carers, and they play a leading role in the movement's economic self-help activities. Visit the Nation of Islam cafes and restaurants in the black districts of US cities (speciality: bean pie) and you will see them at work in every capacity. But their role is not merely traditional. Every Nation of Islam community has a woman in a senior position whose job it is to ensure that women's voices are heard, and at the Saviour's Day weekend in Chicago, where the pictures on these pages were taken, women were to be found speaking at most of the fringe meetings - about crime, education, health, marriage. Several women now work on the movement's newspaper, The Final Call, and there is even a woman leader of a Nation of Islam community - Minister Ava Muhammad, who heads the mosque in Atlanta.
This may not make it an equal opportunities organisation, but it reinforces the message that there are more sides to the movement than a first glance might suggest. The people in these pictures are part of the metal that make up the coin, and - though some might find echoes of Nazi or Soviet pageantry in the boldly coloured choreography - they generally make unlikely bogeymen. Setting aside the costumes, they could be attending a gospel rally anywhere in the US. And, indeed, at this rally there was prayer, there was happy- clappy singing, there were performances by the kids, there was a fundraising moment; and, to round things off, a tub-thumping sermon by Minister Farrakhan brought everyone to their feet.
Did that make it a wholesome, family affair? It depends where you are standing. In the past, Farrakhan's words have sometimes been grotesque, violent and anti-Semitic (this is why he is banned from visiting Britain). …