Two Faces of Islam

Two distinct factions of a religion -- one extremist, the other orthodox -- are vying for the minds and souls of Miami's Muslims

A surprising statement perhaps, coming from a representative of the Nation of Islam, a movement that has often demonstrated a virulent streak of bigotry against whites in general and Jews in particular.

"When Rasul Muhammad came to speak at the University of Miami [in March 1996], his voice was gentler, and his face was smiling," recalls Art Teitelbaum, Southern area director of the Anti-Defamation League, "but he is the declared, personal representative of Louis Farrakhan, a person who trades in anti-Semitism and anti-white racism. Farrakhan's Nation of Islam is an engine for bigotry, and no amount of good works or constructive words can detoxify the poison of the hatred."

Rasul Muhammad contends that teaching about the crimes that white and Jewish people have done to blacks does not make the Nation of Islam a bigoted group. "You cannot begin the restoration or the reparation of a people who have suffered throughout the centuries, a systematic genocide, without first pointing out what's wrong," he says. "And that's probably the controversy around the Nation of Islam and its leader, the Honorable Louis Farrakhan. That we do not bite our lip or our tongue, we don't bow or scratch where we don't itch, we don't buckle under pressure, and we don't shake up under threats."

While responding to accusations of anti-Semitism made against his mentor, Rasul spends a few minutes explaining that most Jews are not Semitic people but white Europeans -- which, according to the original NOI canon, makes them just as much "devils" as any other whites. "Anybody who makes any constructive criticism with regards to the State of Israel, or Jewish affairs, is immediately called anti-Semite, going back to Henry Ford, when he put out his book The International Jew. He was ruled out as anti-Semitic for his views comparing the Jew and the gentile in this country. And he later apologized for it." He lets out a single, rueful laugh. "And that's another mechanism. You're supposed to apologize. Who's apologizing to us?"

Neither Rasul Muhammad nor any other member of the NOI is apologizing for a book its Historical Research Department produced in 1991, The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, which propounds the theory that Jews were primarily responsible for the slave trade that brought Africans to the New World. The work is predominantly a compilation of quotations from Jewish scholars. Many current scholars, white and black, Jewish and otherwise, have roundly condemned The Secret Relationship as a deliberate effort, using distortion, selective quotations, and outdated sources, to exaggerate the role of Jews in the enslavement of Africans. That its contents are accepted as truth by members of the Nation of Islam is seen as evidence that Farrakhan's followers, despite the diplomatic skill and eloquence of ministers like Rasul Muhammad, continue to embrace anti-Jewish conspiracy theories.

Rasul Muhammad maintains that, while "race-consciousness" is an essential part of the Nation of Islam's program for the improvement of black people's lot in America, white people -- or Jews -- are not the real problem. "The mindset of Satan is in black, brown, red, yellow, white, Mexican, European, African, American, South American," Rasul declares. "It's all throughout the world. That's why Paul says in the New Testament, we fight not against flesh and blood, but principalities, the rulers of darkness. Who are the rulers of darkness? Those who rule over the ignorant."

And black Americans' ignorance of their history, he adds, keeps them from dealing with the rest of humanity as equals. "Do I know enough about me to come around you, and not stop being me as long as I'm with you?" he asks. "You understand? It's a matter of identity, the extent to which you can be yourself, and not like something or somebody else. Amongst black people in America, we do still suffer, in 1997, an identity crisis."

The identity of the Nation of Islam's followers as Muslims has been a subject of much debate throughout the movement's history. Congregants at both Mosque No. 29 and Masjid Al-Ansar say they strive to uphold the tenets of Islam as outlined in the Koran, which Muslims believe was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad directly from God. But aside from its black-nationalist political platform, which calls for reparations for slavery and the formation of a separate country for black people, the catechism of the Nation of Islam -- under Farrakhan, as under Elijah Muhammad -- contains some concepts that give pause to other Muslims.

"What's the controversy, if any?" Rasul Muhammad asks rhetorically. "The Honorable Elijah Muhammad said that he met God in the person of Master Fard Muhammad. That's controversy number one. Controversy number two: The Honorable Elijah Muhammad became known as the Messenger of Allah. Orthodox Muslims have a problem [with that]."

Abdurahman Alamoudi, executive director of the American Muslim Council, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that lobbies on behalf of American Muslims, says that these ideas are so far removed from mainstream Islam as to be heretical. "We believe Islam is for everybody," Alamoudi says. "And the crucial difference is that, for us, Allah is in the heavens; for them, God was incarnated on Earth. That, we cannot accept."

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