Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
November 30, 1997 | Razvi, Raeshma
The tumultuous wake of a four-day Nation of Islam conference entitled “Islam in the 21 st Century” indicates that American Islamic movements will not reach the next millennium free of the problems of this century. With Muammar Qaddafi’s image beamed on two large screens, a Cypriot iman overseeing a “coronation,” and Minister Louis Farrakhan, the center of it all, many people wondered just what was going on in the Windy City.
The leader and spokesman of The Nation of Islam, Farrakhan was by all accounts the chief sponsor of the four-day event. Described as a gathering for Muslims from all over the world, the event was lacking in participation by Muslim organizations in Chicago.
Most major Islamic organizations were invited to the event, and Farrakhan had personally contacted many leading imams and Muslim dignitaries from around the world. Many Chicago-area Muslims and their organizations, however, felt uncertain about its purpose and nature.
One Muslim activist voiced the concerns of many when he asked, “What is it about? What do you get into when you attend Farrakhan’s events?” Another activist, Mazher Ahmed, said that when the invitations were received, most organizations wondered what to do. “People met in their groups and discussed it. But we asked, What good will it do for the community? This is our main concern.”
Although many “mainstream” Islamic leaders seem to share this concern, many also see Farrakhan as a powerful speaker and potentially strong ally. In a press release prior to the conference, Secretary-General Dr. Sayyid Muhammad Syeed of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) said that Farrakhan had “charisma and dynamism for a far larger role than as a leader of a particular group.” He called upon Farrakhan to use his position to “reform the belief system of the NOI to the path of true Islam.” This, Dr. Syeed said, “will help remove the doubts that have developed in certain minds about the alleged racial interpretation that does not belong in Islam.”
Dr. Syeed’s statement suggested that in fact Farrakhan already had affirmed “the oneness of Allah, the finality of the prophethood of Prophet Muhammad and the globality of the Islamic message” at a conference in Chicago in 1990.
By contrast, the managing director of the Institute of Islamic Information and Education in Chicago, M. Amir Ali, said that Farrakhan made it “impossible for himself to be recognized as a Muslim, when, last February, he declared himself to be a `messenger of god.'”
The followers of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, the son of Elijah Mohammed and a leader of Sunni Islam, were also not optimistic — and, indeed, have a different historical basis from which to view events. They maintain that the leadership of this community was conferred to Imam W.D. Mohammed in 1975. Farrakhan’s conference, therefore, prompted a special issue of the Muslim Journal (Aug. 1, 1997), a newspaper which promotes Imam Mohammed’s ministry. The cover page depicts W.D. Mohammed on a podium, “raised to leadership” in 1975 following the death of his father. The ministry, which believes that its mission is to transform the NOI into mainstream Islam, has devoted pages to “setting the record straight,” including pictures and statements from witnesses and other Muslim leadership.
The outcry over the conference would have been less emphatic had not the major Chicago newspapers portrayed the event as a watershed in the history of mainstream Islam’s relationship to the Nation of Islam. Chicago Tribune writer Jerry Thomas began his article, “It has taken 67 years for members of the Nation of Islam to be accepted as true Muslims.” The scene that prompted this was the “coronation” of Farrakhan as “Iman” by the grand imam of Cyprus, Sheikh M. Sobhi Billo. The placing of a white turban on Farrakhan’s head and the proximity of several robed and suited Muslim dignitaries was interpreted by the Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times and others as mainstream Islam’s acceptance of Farrakhan.
Representatives from groups such as the Louisville-based Islamic Research Foundation, and Burbank, CA-based Geo-Political Academy also said that Farrakhan was indeed a leader of “the entire Muslim community.” Nevertheless, such major U.S. Islamic organizations as ISNA and the Islamic Circle of North America were, like Imam W.D. Mohammed’s ministry, not represented at the Chicago event.
Some leaders in the Chicago area believe that Farrakhan’s success with mainstream African Americans during the Million Man March prompted a similar gesture to the mainstream Islamic communities. But judging from their responses, the 21 st century might be a better time.
Until then, “mainstream” Muslims and Farrakhan’s much smaller but highly motivated following will remain separate, awaiting the day when the charismatic leader’s statements seem less jarring when measured against traditional Islamic teachings. Ironically, however, as both sides keep wrestling the mainstream press into fairer and more accurate reporting, it seems Farrakhan has won a journalistic bon-bon — hopefully not at the expense of the other Muslims.
Article Courtesy: wrmea.org
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs