A historic partnership between Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan and the largest African-American Muslim group in the United States is a “troubling and disturbing” development that threatens dialogue between Jews and black Muslims, American Jewish officials cautioned this week.
The warning comes as the self-proclaimed new and improved Farrakhan — accused in the past of being anti-Semitic and racist — is being publicly embraced for the first time by longtime rival Imam Wallace Deen Muhammad, the more moderate religious leader of the Muslim American Society.
“The upshot can be very bad because [Farrakhan] now carries his poison of the past into the main mosques of Muslims in America — and perhaps not just to blacks,” said Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee.
W.D. Muhammad, whose group is estimated at 2 million members, is the son of the late Elijah Muhammad, the mentor of Farrakhan, whose much smaller black nationalist Nation of Islam claims 20,000 members.
Jewish leaders said W.D. Muhammad’s reputation as a tolerant moderate force is tarnished by associating with Farrakhan, who has called Judaism a “gutter religion.”
And the Jewish leaders are particularly upset that the announcement of the religious merger featured members of Neturei Karta, the anti-Israel ultra-Orthodox Jewish extremist group, who denounced Zionism from the stage of the Chicago’s United Center at last Sunday’s annual Nation of Islam Savior’s Day event.
“It’s a very disturbing trend,” said Yehudit Barsky, director of the Division on Middle East and International Terrorism for the American Jewish Committee.
Barsky contends that Muhammad has grown less moderate in recent years, joining boards of terrorist, anti-Israel Arab Islamic groups.
And she said that by associating with members of Neturei Karta, which believes Israel’s existence is a sin against God, Muhammad “has developed an even more extreme position on Jews.”
Barsky said that in recent years Muhammad has been trying to gain legitimacy and money from the Arab Muslim world, particularly from Saudi Arabia, “which makes him go farther and farther to conform to the expectations of Middle East extremist organizations.” She noted that in 1990 he spoke at a conference of the Islamic Jihad group and is a sponsor of the American Muslims for Jerusalem, which reinvigorated an anti-Israel boycott and condemned a Disney exhibit of Jerusalem last fall.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, called the unification most distressing because it makes Farrakhan, whom he would not sit down with, more mainstream, while tarnishing Muhammad, a dialogue partner.
“If [Muhammad] becomes Farrakhan’s mouthpiece, he will destroy his credibility and relationships and everything,” Foxman said.
Foxman said Muhammad has already damaged his reputation by appearing with Neturei Karta, a scene he called “a sham and a slap in the face of the Jewish community. Foxman criticized Muhammad for standing in silence “and therefore acquiescence to the continued charade of trying to show philo-Semitism when in fact it’s another extension of anti-Semitism.”
Foxman, whose ADL is considered an enemy by Farrakhan, also rejected the notion that the NOI leader has become more moderate.
During his 2 1/2-hour Chicago speech, Farrakhan not only skipped his usual haranguing of Jews and Israel, but said, seemingly for the first time, that the Jewish covenant with God is active, as long as Jews abide by it. In the past he declared that Jews had been replaced by blacks as God’s Chosen People.
But Foxman said, “from our perspective, the leopard did not change his spots. We’ve heard words of reconciliation and atonement before and it’s lead nowhere.”
Retired Duke University Professor C. Eric Lincoln, author of a landmark study of black Muslims in America, told The Jewish Week that the merger would entice more blacks to adopt Islam.
“If Wallace and Louis can bring off their unification, then many blacks who have been suspicious of the Muslims, primarily because of their understanding of Farrakhan’s alleged or actual teachings, will begin to see the religion as legitimate, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t join.”
Lincoln, who knows both leaders well, agreed there would be public concern about the resulting mix of teachings.
“Certainly Wallace will not be able to control all of the people who follow Farrakhan. There are still going to be factions who are going to behave as they behaved. Hopefully it will reduce tensions between those people who had felt that the Nation of Islam was anti-Jewish. I don’t think it’s going to make the problem go away immediately but its a step in that direction.”
Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which promotes black-Jewish relations, said “I don’t think this will impact adversely in black-Jewish relations because there is too much positive energy now in strengthening the black-Jewish alliance.”
Muhammad and Farrakhan could not be reached for comment.
The Muslim merger comes as the 66-year-old Farrakhan recovers from last year’s life-threatening cancer scare, said to have changed his demeanor.
“Has Farrakhan changed? Yeah, I’ve changed,” he told followers Sunday.
In theological terms the change means Farrakhan shedding much of the 70 years of religious beliefs and practices of the Nation of Islam, and moving closer to the Sunni brand of Orthodox Islam practiced by his rival of several decades, W.D. Muhammad.
For example, Farrakhan says he now shares the central belief of orthodox Muslims that the seventh-century prophet Mohammed was God’s last messenger to humanity. Traditional NOI belief is that W.D.’s father, Elijah, was a prophet, and NOI founder W.D. Fard was Allah in human form — blasphemy to Islam.
Also significant last Sunday was the participation of the Islamic Society of North America, perhaps the most important non-black Muslim group in America.
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