Every few years, Louis Farrakhan re-enters the national consciousness.
He was recently back in the news because one of the leaders of the Women’s March attended one of his speeches.
There are also numerous accusations against Farrakhan himself. He is accused of being an FBI informant, with the job of splitting the African American and Muslim communities. He is accused of being a charlatan, exploiting Islam and exploiting his downtrodden followers, while living a lavish lifestyle. He is blamed for creating the climate that led to Malcolm X’s assassination; he admitted his culpability some years ago.
For his supporters, however, he is something different. He is an authentic voice of African American dissent in a hostile society. Meaning, his message is, “If nothing I say will make you happy, then I will say whatever I want. I will say what everyone else believes but is afraid to say.”
I am not a follower of Louis Farrakhan; I find his theology nauseating and many of his comments to be empty of any substance or benefit. Still, I understand the sentiment. Since 9/11, I have given thousands of talks on Islam across the Chicago area. While the reception has been overwhelmingly positive, I am frequently chastised for the actions of terrorists, misogynists, dictators, and despots who have nothing to do with me.
At a church in Kenilworth, a woman asked me, “How dare you stand in front of us knowing the way you treat women in Iran!” I was raised in Chicago; I have nothing to do with Iran, which has one of the highest rates of female college graduates in the world. In many audiences, there was nothing I could say that could make them happy.
Farrakhan has earned credibility among many people of color over the four decades since he took the helm of the Nation of Islam. When the original head – Elijah Muhammad – died in 1975, his son Warith Deen Mohammed took over. It was Deen Mohammed who inspired Malcolm X to make his famous pilgrimage, in which he embraced mainstream Sunni Islam after witnessing hospitality across races. Deen Mohammed abandoned his father’s Black Nationalist teachings, moving his community into the universal teachings of mainstream Islam. Farrakhan was part of this change.
Half a decade later, Farrakhan separated himself from Deen Mohammed, and re-launched the Nation of Islam. While the Nation holds numerous absurd teachings, including the assertion that a scientist grafted the white man as the devil, its true appeal is in its programs of reform.
The motto of the Nation of Islam has been “Do for self”; it is the responsibility of African Americans to take care of their own selves, their own families, and their own neighborhoods. The Nation reformed thousands of young men and women who were formerly addicted to drugs or locked in gangs, transforming them into well-dressed self-respecting fathers, mothers, and professionals. Further, Farrakhan has been successful in holding gang summits, convincing rival leaders to participate in nationwide truces.
While he never had a following as large as Deen Mohammed had, he was a darling of the media for his fiery rhetoric. In contrast, Deen Mohammed was very soft spoken and given scant attention by the press. Farrakhan has been the black man that white America loves to hate.
His formula has been the same for a long time. In a speech, he will make provocative comments and we will give attention to them, demanding condemnations. Then, he invites us to listen to those comments. In every case, he fills his attacks with quotes from others.
In his recent “Saviours’ Day” speech, when attacking Jews, he quotes anti-Semitic statements from the late Billy Graham and Richard Nixon. For decades he has been using the same strategy, pointing out hypocrisies, that we are attacking him, but not Graham or Nixon.
Ann Coulter uses a similar formula to sell books. She will author a work that will have a highly controversial paragraph, for example, attacking the wives of 9/11 victims. We raise a fuss, and her book becomes a bestseller.
Farrakhan has said many things that have offended many people, especially in this climate in which Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are at their highest. But we also have to concede – given our ugly history that has stripped African Americans of their humanity and dignity – he is a complex figure who has also brought positive change to many others.
Omer M. Mozaffar is the Muslim chaplain at Loyola University Chicago.