Complexities of the Nation of Islam

In the post below, Star Tribune reader’s representative Kate Parry testifies to the “journalistic standards for verification” used by the Star Tribune. As luck would have it, the Star Tribune has put those high journalistic standards on display in today’s story by Jean Hopfensperger on the Nation of Islam.
The sole purpose of Hopfensperger’s story appears to be to whitewash the Nation of Islam in connection with Fifth District congressional candidate Keith Ellison. Unfortunately, while whitewashing the Nation of Islam, the Star Tribune has also whitewashed Ellison’s involvement with the Nation of Islam and Ellison’s manifold lies concerning that involvement.
Hopfensperger continues the Ellison whitewash in this story, suggesting that he was merely “collaborat[ing] with the Nation of Islam on common goals.” She appears not to know that Ellison was himself a local leader of and spokesman for the Nation of Islam, probably because she has been relying on the Star Tribune for her information about Ellison.
Hopfensperger’s story is in any event one that has to be read to be disbelieved:

By day, Jason Muhammed works to help Hurricane Katrina survivors resettle in Minnesota, serves on Minneapolis’ Police Community Relations Council and takes part in community gatherings on the North Side.
On nights and weekends, Muhammed dons a crisp dark suit, which highlights his large silver ring bearing the likeness of longtime Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. And he exhorts a small cadre of followers at his storefront mosque to take responsibility for their lives, to be better husbands and fathers, and to rise to the heights that black people are destined to attain.
“We work with anyone who wants to help clean up the Twin Cities,” said Muhammed, who heads the Nation of Islam in the Twin Cities. Historically a small group, it has found itself at the forefront of a debate over who will be the next member of Congress from Minnesota’s Fifth District.
DFL candidate Keith Ellison has been blasted by political opponents for his past ties with the group. But Ellison, who has distanced himself from the group, is among many black leaders and organizations that long have collaborated with the Nation of Islam on common goals.
The organizations don’t necessarily embrace all the tenets of the Nation of Islam, which calls for a separation of races, or its fiery leader, Louis Farrakhan. But Nation of Islam members here focus their public work on issues widely recognized as critical in the black community — strengthening families, promoting economic development, halting gangs and violence.
If you work on these issues in the central cities, you’re bound to bump into Nation of Islam members, they say.
“When I think of the Nation, I don’t think of separatism,” said Lester Collins, executive director of the Council of Black Minnesotans, which advises the state government on issues affecting African-Americans.
“I’ve never heard that kind of message,” Collins said. “It’s been a message of self-reliance, responsibility to one another, stepping up as fathers, husbands, and being better community participants.”
That’s not to say the Nation of Islam enjoys universal appreciation in the Twin Cities. Many have condemned the rhetoric of its ailing leader, Farrakhan. And many Muslims try to distance themselves from the Chicago-based group.
“We consider them a sort of fringe organization that believes in the supremacy of race, which mainstream Muslims don’t,” said Sumbal Mahmud, communications director for the Islamic Center of Minnesota.
The controversy
Interest in the Nation of Islam, which in the Twin Cities has about 20 core members and an additional 100 followers, took off after conservative bloggers brought up Ellison’s previous ties to the organization. Those ties have evolved into a central issue in the campaign.
Specifically, Ellison has been condemned for writing two articles defending Farrakhan while in law school at the University of Minnesota, for appearing on the same stage as Khalid Abdul Muhammed, then a Farrakhan aide and who has called Jews “the bloodsuckers of the black nation,” and for arranging logistics for the 800 Minnesotans attending the Million Man March in Washington in 1995. The march was spearheaded by Farrakhan.
Jason Muhammed says he has never seen Keith Ellison at a Nation of Islam event. And Ellison, who long has belonged to a traditional Muslim mosque, said he was among many young black men in the 1990s searching for solutions to persistent problems in the black community, such as high unemployment and incarceration and too many single-parent households.
Ellison has said he distanced himself from the Nation of Islam after the march because of its “anti-Semitic” stance. And he has apologized to Jewish groups for failing to scrutinize the group earlier.
“We had fundamentally different ways of approaching the world,” said Ellison. “I wanted to reach out to people of diverse cultures and backgrounds. And they had a narrow focus on who they wanted to talk.”
Many black leaders are surprised that Ellison’s association with the Million Man March could be construed as something sinister. It was the call of the march that attracted hundreds of Minnesotans, they said, the call for a million disciplined, committed men to come to Washington for a day of atonement. Many, however, were critical or ambivalent about the march because of its controversial sponsor and focus solely on men.
Almost every black man in leadership in Minnesota had a connection to that march,” said Tyrone Terrill, director of the St. Paul Human Rights Department, who was the lead organizer in the state. Ellison was among several men in charge of arranging buses and logistics for the Minnesota delegation, he said.
In the 1990s, national leaders of the Nation of Islam were keenly interested in the Twin Cities, said Vilbert White, a former minister and national leader of the organization. Organizers from Milwaukee and Chicago were sent to the Twin Cities to develop study groups and a temple, in part because the allegations of police brutality made Minneapolis “ripe for recruiting,” said White, now a history professor at the University of Central Florida.
White became disillusioned and left the group in 1997. The Nation of Islam’s black nationalist rhetoric wasn’t always part of its public face, he said, but it was part of sermons in the mosque.
“People like the rhetoric because … it makes them feel strong that they can tell white America that all of their problems are because of them.”
How the group works
On a recent Sunday, Muhammed — a stocky young man from Georgia — and about 120 followers filled a small storefront mosque in north Minneapolis. Muhammed is a former drug addict who credits the Nation of Islam with turning his life around in 1991. Before being appointed minister, he was a farm worker and a customer services representative, he said.
The faithful at that Sunday service listened to a long lecture titled “The Majesty of Master Fard Muhammad” (the founder of the Nation of Islam). After the lecture, they typically share conversation over bowls of bean soup, farina bread and bean pies — reflecting the strict diet that Nation of Islam members follow. But because it was Ramadan, the food had to wait until sundown.
But Sunday is just the beginning. On Monday there are “manhood classes,” instructions on how to be fathers and husbands and wage earners. Wednesdays bring classes on entrepreneurship. Friday brings a “self-development” class. Saturdays are for “womanhood training” on how to cook, clean, sew and be a good Muslim wife.
“We’re either on the streets or going door to door,” said Muhammed.
And nearly any day, Nation of Islam members in trademark suits and bow ties can be found selling their newspaper, the Final Call. Last week’s issue contained a column on Louis Farrakhan’s dramatically failing health and the 21st anniversary of Farrakhan’s “vision” of being swept up in a UFO, taken to a mother ship and talking to the late Elijah Muhammad before being beamed back to Earth.
Nathaniel Khaliq, president of the St. Paul branch of the NAACP, said he was a member of the Nation of Islam in the 1970s but left because of differing interpretations of Islam. Khaliq credits the group with helping him overcome a drug addiction.
“I don’t agree with all their rhetoric,” said Khaliq. “But the fact of the matter is, they spend 99 percent of the time talking about black people.”
Today the St. Paul NAACP has worked with the Nation of Islam on anti-gang events, co-sponsored a forum on community justice and helped with security at the Rondo Days celebration in St. Paul, he said.
The Nation of Islam rented space for a number of years over at the Sabathani Community Center in south Minneapolis. The center’s longtime executive director, Jim Cook, said the group caused no trouble. Cook says stereotypes of the group — as violent separatists — contrast with the serious, disciplined men he saw.
“I defy you to find a crime committed by one of its members,” he said.
Muhammed believes the group has been unfairly stereotyped. Farrakhan isn’t anti- Jewish, he said. He has invited rabbis to his home and attempted to build bridges with them, Muhammed said.
“The only thing the Nation is anti is anti-oppression, anti-suppression,” said Muhammed. “We’re against these things that will hold us down.”
Minneapolis City Councilman Don Samuels, a former businessman who represents the North Side, said he has been impressed with the Nation of Islam’s community presence, in particular its work rehabilitating young men in jail.
Muhammed sent Samuels an e-mail after a vigil they both attended for a homicide victim, offering to help in any way, said Samuels. He said he plans to invite Muhammed to be part of a future initiative to stem community violence.
“It’s been a challenge at times when Farrakhan has been more belligerent than I’m comfortable with,” said Samuels. “But in total, I think the organization does more good than harm.”

I wonder if Muhammed discussed Farrakhan’s February 2006 speech with the rabbis when he invited them over:

“These false Jews promote the filth of Hollywood that is seeding the American people and the people of the world and bringing you down in moral strength…It’s the wicked Jews the false Jews that are promoting Lesbianism, homosexuality. It’s wicked Jews, false Jews that make it a crime for you to preach the word of God, then they call you homophobic!”
“And the Christian right, with your blindness to that wicked state of Israel…can that be the holy land, and you have gay parades, and want to permit to have a gay parade in Jerusalem when no prophet ever sanctioned that behavior. HOW CAN THAT BE THE ISRAEL, how can that be Jerusalem with secular people running the holy land when it should be the holy people running the holy land. That land is gonna be cleansed with BLOOD!”
“Is Jerusalem surrounded by armies now? These neo-cons and Zionists have manipulated Bush and the American government and our boys and girls are dying in Iraq and in Afghanistan for the cause of Israel, not for the cause of America! Israel is the tail waggin’ the dog, which is America. You may not like me, and I really don’t give a damn. I’m throwin’ the gauntlet down today.
“I’m warning you America. You better get rid of them neo-cons. That’s the synagogue of Satan. They have made America weak. You’re a weak nation now, and your country has been taken from you by the synagogue of Satan. They own congress. That’s why the congress ain’t right.”

If Muahammed discussed the speech when he invited the rabbis over, it wouldn’t have done much to defuse those “unfair stereotype[s]” of the Nation of Islam. But it would have made for an interesting conversation.

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