A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS.
Warith Deen Mohammed doesn't look like a man who has millions of devoted followers. A tiny, grandfatherly figure, he seems hardly the person you'd expect to find as the leader of the largest Muslim organisation in North America. But looks are deceiving. Mohammed has done more to improve the image of Muslims in America than just about anyone else.
Though the tough-talking Louis Farrakhan and his militant, racial separatist Nation of Islam organisation, with around 10,000 members, grabs all the headlines, it's actually dwarfed by Warith Mohammed's moderate Muslim American Society, which has two million members.
And while Farrakhan has been shunned by mainstream America for his anti semitic and racist comments, Mohammed, a moderate, has become a favourite of both the American establishment and many leaders in the Arab world.
Mohammed made history not long ago when he became the first Muslim leader to deliver prayers on the floor of the US Senate. A year later he was selected to participate in President Clinton's inauguration as the representative for the Islamic faith. He is equally well thought of among many leaders in the Middle East. He was chosen recently by a group of Gulf state nations to decide which Muslim organisations in the United States should be recipients of millions of dollars in economic aid. In 1990, following the invasion of Kuwait, Mohammad led a delegation of Muslim leaders, scholars and educators to Saudi Arabia where, designated the main leader of American Muslims, he addressed a major conference on the Gulf conflict. Five years later he was in Saudi Arabia again, this time at the invitation of its ruler, King Fahd. The meeting led to the granting of several millions of dollars in aid to help support Muslim run schools and businesses in the US.
Most recently Mohammed has struck a major deal with several Muslim nations which will enable members of the Muslim American Society to purchase clothing and foodstuffs at a big discount. They will then be able to re-sell the goods in the US at a significant profit. It is hoped that this, and other initiatives will eventually lead to complete economic independence for African-American Muslims.
"Those African American leaders who come to you and appeal to your hurt, your woes, your need to cry, or to charge somebody else with your problems" Mohammad declared in a recent speech clearly directed at Louis Farrakhan. "They are not doing a service to you, or to us. They are doing a terrible disservice. They are much to blame for the state of our race."
For his part, Farrakhan has dismissed Mohammed as a `cheap hypocrite.' The two have been waging a kind of holy war against one another since 1975 when the leader of the Nation of Islam Elijah Mohammed died leaving his son, Warith, his successor, and Farrakhan, the then national spokesman, out in the cold. This surprised many of the Nation's faithful as Warith had twice been excommunicated by his father for challenging the Nation's unorthodox Islamic practices and racial separatist views.
Within a few months, of Warith Mohammed's father's death, out went tall tales of extra terrestrial life forms waiting to redress the balance of wrongs against African Americans. In came mainstream Muslim practices such as jumah and Friday prayers. Out went the Nation of Islam name. In came, eventually, the more modest, Muslim American Society. Out went the menacing bow-ties and rigid, highly centralised organisation. In came a looser, less regimented, more democratic grouping with Warith Mohammed not the all-knowing, all-powerful leader his father had been, but more the simple Imam, or teacher. Not surprisingly Farrakhan chose to go his own way, rehabilitating both the Nation of Islam and its dated ideology.
Since the split it has been Louis Farrakhan not Warith Mohammed who has garnered most of the headlines. Unlike Farrakhan, w hose hair and flashy suits are always immaculate, Mohammed is a crumpled, shambling figure. Both men are the same age at 68, but Farrakhan looks ten years younger. Farrakhan's wild rhetoric can hold a crowd for hours, Mohammed, who has a noticeable lisp and betrays a bronchial condition with his frequent coughs, loses the train of his speeches quickly and usually all but the most loyal in the audience, as well. The two are an exercise in contrasts. Farrakhan lives in high style in a palatial home in Michigan. Mohammed lives in modest dwellings outside Chicago and in Little Rock, Arkansas.
But this celebrated split in Muslim ranks may be coming to an end. Recently, both Mohammed and Farrakhan embraced one another at a public rally in Chicago, the first time this had happened in a quarter of a century. Farrakhan, who has been battling prostate cancer, declared he was ready to dump racial separatism and would move the Nation of Islam closer to mainstream Islam.
"Has Farrakhan changed?" the Nation of Islam leader asked the audience gathered to witness the meeting of the two Muslim leaders. "Yeah, I have. No man undergoes a trial and comes out the same. A fool changes not, but a wise man will change often."
"Fearing death from cancer has prompted him to repent" Warith Mohammed said of Farrakhan when I sat down with the Imam at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina recently where he had gone to give a lecture at the Centre for Jewish Life on why Islam, Christianity and Judaism are more alike than they are different. "Farrakhan is no fool" he says.
Warith Mohammed speaks of Louis Farrakhan in a way few others would dare to. As if to illustrate this, during an informal chat between Mohammed and a small group of Duke University students and dignitaries before his lecture on tolerance, a handful of broad-chested Nation of Islam members from the local chapter in downtown Durham arrived. Positioning themselves like soldiers on parade, a few feet from Mohammed, they began to harangue him over his depiction of Farrakhan's foibles and folly.
"I challenge you to find one word he says that is a lie" demanded David Mohammad, the head of Nation's Durham chapter. "He never taught me to hate whites, to hate Jews. So you can call him all the names, but look at his work and look at his success in turning a lot of young men and women around. I think we need to look at that side of Farrakhan."
Mohammed was unapologetic and unmoved. "Farrakhan is Farrakhan -- a man who seizes opportunity and wants be to successful in life" he said, indifferent to the menacing bow-tied figures now inches from him. "He wants the good things in life."
For Mohammed this is a victorious time. His once bitter rival appears finally to be coming around to his way of thinking on race and religion.
"He is happy he is free" Mohammed says of Farrakhan. "He has accepted to be in accord with the Koran, and to be at one with all Muslims on this earth, not having differences with them when it comes to religion. I have never seen him so relaxed, and I know he never wants to go back."
What intrigues both Farrakhan and Mohammed is how much more America would pay attention to both of them, and Muslims in general, if there were a united Muslim front.
"Now that the times have changed so much he knows he can't have a strong following sticking with that" says Mohammed pointing to the Nation of Islam's dead-end religious and racial philosophies. "The Nation was designed to attract poor and hopeless blacks to come to something created for nobody but them. But we live in new realities now" Mohammed says, pointing to how life has improved for African-Americans in the past half a century. "Blacks are being encouraged to aspire to the highest positions in America now. Everything is open to us. There is very little place for the extreme idea of the Nation of Islam in America today."
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|Title Annotation:||Warith Deen Mohammed, Muslim American Society|
|Publication:||The Middle East|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2001|
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