PERSONAL FREEDOMS

Farrakhan sees a new opening for black separatist message

Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan addresses the audience at the metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in in Washington June 24, 2015.

Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan addresses the audience at the metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in in Washington June 24, 2015.  (REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

Minister Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam, spoke from a podium draped in the red, black and green of the Pan-African flag, a symbol of black pride.

It was the week after Donald Trump won the presidency. The result had delighted a new generation of white supremacists, and Farrakhan was analyzing the political landscape.

In a speech before the State of the Black World Conference in New Jersey, he warned, "The white man is going to push. He's putting in place the very thing that will limit the freedom of others." Then he pointed to the crowd, smiled and said, "That's what you needed," as motivation to finally separate from whites.

"My message to Mr. Trump: Push it real good," Farrakhan said, building to a roar that drew applause and cheers. "Push it so good that black people say, 'I'm outta here. I can't take it no more.'"

After a presidential campaign that emboldened white identity politics, the Nation of Islam, a black separatist religious movement, is positioning itself as newly relevant.

Some watchdogs who monitor Farrakhan say his latest appeal is a desperate grasp at significance for a group far from its heyday. However, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremism, has found black separatism growing alongside white supremacy, creating a more favorable environment for the Nation's teachings.

"Racial nationalism of all kinds is on the rise," said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Theresa X, an alcohol and drug counselor from Northern California, said after this "vicious" election, she hoped others, including her Mexican American relatives, would follow her into the Nation of Islam, which she joined in the 1980s. "I think they should," she said in a phone interview. "They're afraid."

The Nation has been largely closed off to outsiders, making it impossible even for those who follow the movement closely to gauge its strength. Neither Farrakhan nor the head minister of the movement's Mosque Maryam in Chicago, Ishmael Muhammad, responded to interview requests.

Still, Farrakhan and his message of black empowerment clearly have an ongoing impact. The Million Man March he organized in 1995, drawing hundreds of thousands to Washington, remains a cultural touchstone, and hip-hop artists praise him in their music. The Nation has an extensive prison ministry, along with health and social service programs, and the movement's militia, the Fruit of Islam, provides security at public housing and elsewhere.

That name recognition and high level of organization has left the Nation well situated to take advantage of the current political moment, including the emergence of Black Lives Matter protests over police shootings of black men.

"We have to turn to each other," said Nation member Duane Muhammad, 63, a Chicago-area elected official who helps produce videos of Farrakhan.

In Chicago, Nation members stood between police and marchers at a post-Thanksgiving protest last year over the killing of black teenager LaQuan McDonald by a white police officer. Marchers blocked traffic and store entrances along the Magnificent Mile shopping district, and Nation members "formed a line and made sure we were OK," said Ja'Mal Green, a Chicago activist.

Zain Abdullah, a Temple University professor who specializes in Islamic studies, noted the Nation first gained national prominence in 1957 following their stunningly disciplined Harlem protest after police beat Nation member Johnson Hinton. "Before that, the membership was a couple of hundred. After that, people were coming to the temple to listen and join," Abdullah said.

Online, the Nation's presence has grown. Sunday services from Mosque Maryam are streamed live. Farrakhan's public speeches and sermons are on YouTube. He has more than 637,000 followers on Facebook and 462,000 on Twitter.

Mikal Nash, a professor at Essex County College in Newark and author of "Muslims in Newark, New Jersey: A Social History," said he has noticed increasing interest in "the voice of people like Minister Farrakhan much the same way there's been an interest in the voice of Donald Trump."

During the campaign, Trump called Mexican immigrants rapists, advocated policies that put Muslims under general suspicion and drew an endorsement from the Ku Klux Klan. The president-elect has been criticized for being slow to condemn white supremacists.

"I think people are attracted to those voices as a result of a racially polarized society," Nash said. "This election, you could see the whole issue of race arose more than any election in my lifetime."

During the campaign, Farrakhan sent mixed signals about Trump, indicating the minister saw some reflection of his worldview in the candidate's rhetoric, including the Republican's talk of a "global power structure" that has rigged the economy. Farrakhan has long promoted conspiracy theories, blaming Israel and Jews for the Sept. 11 attacks, and accusing Jews of controlling the American government.

In an extensive interview last January with Alex Jones of InfoWars, a conservative website that traffics in conspiracy theories, Farrakhan described Trump as a "businessman par excellence" and agreed with Trump's proposal to more strongly vet refugees from Muslim countries, pointing to the resentment generated by American policies in the Muslim world.

"The hatred for America is in the streets now," Farrakhan told Jones. "Now, if you let them in and you don't vet them carefully, you might be letting in your own destruction."

During a February address on Saviours' Day, an annual event commemorating the movement's founder, Farrakhan praised Trump for confronting Republican establishment candidates like Jeb Bush. "Not that I'm for Trump, but I like what I'm looking at, because I know by Allah's grace where it's leading," Farrakhan said.

Then, he noted that Trump had previously told some Jewish leaders he didn't need their donations for his campaign. A couple of months earlier, Trump had said to the Republican Jewish Coalition, "You're not going to support me because I don't want your money," and "You want to control your own politician."

Farrakhan said in his sermon, "Anytime a man can say to those who control the politics of America, 'I don't want your money,' that means if I don't take your money, you can't control me. And they cannot afford to give up control of the presidents of the United States."

For longtime Nation watchers, the praise held an echo of the 1960s, when then Nation leader Elijah Muhammad tried to make common cause with the American Nazi Party over their desire for whites and blacks to live separately.

Abdullah said he'd be surprised if the Nation membership increased significantly in the age of Trump, mainly because the movement demands so much from its followers, including a strict diet, several daily prayers and extensive study of the movement's beliefs. Still, Abdullah said conditions are ripe for spreading the minister's views.

While the Nation shares some practices of mainstream Islam, the movement, which started in 1930s Detroit, deviates from the orthodox faith in significant ways, including on race. Mainstream Islam teaches the unity of all believers no matter their ethnicity.

"Because of the failure of integration, I think we're finding that people are attracted to, out of their frustration, Farrakhan's message. It often speaks to self-determination and black uplift," Abdullah said. "Middle class blacks are finding they don't have the kind of integration or gains they expected because of civil rights gains. Black college students are actually now realizing that education is not going to protect you from police brutality. Farrakhan becomes appealing to people because of this."