They walk the streets of London like they own them, preaching that all whites are devils and blacks must live apart. But the intimidating presence of the Nation of Islam reassures many, whites included. Just what are they about? asks David Cohen. Photographs by John Rasmussen
Twelve black men stand, straight-backed, stiff-necked, jaws thrust out as they guard an empty lectern. It's a summer morning at Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park, and a crowd gather round, attracted by the expectation that someone worth protecting is due to arrive.

"Oi, sunshine - give us a smile," shouts a heckler. There is not a flicker of response from the shaven-headed men, all of whom are identically attired, from the tips of their shiny black shoes to their zip-up black bomber jackets, crisp white cotton shirts, trademark red bow ties and dark glasses. "I'm here now, you can start," the heckler pipes up again. "I don't wish to offend you, but I don't like blacks," tries another, more bold. "Bloody Muslims! Fuck you. Fuck Allah!"

For 30... 40... 50... 65 minutes, the bodyguards stand as motionless as mannequins, refusing to take the bait, only their eyeballs moving, left, right, left, right, tirelessly scanning the crowds. And then the bow ties turn as one. An elegant, be-suited black man, flanked by more bodyguards, is striding towards the lectern.

"Some of you may be curious as to who we are and what we represent," he begins. "Well, we are members of the Nation of Islam, under the leadership of the most honourable Louis Farrakhan."

The speaker introduces himself as Leo Muhammad, hand-picked by Farrakhan to be his mouthpiece in London. His tone is calm, his accent a London-Jamaican patois, his style African-American. "Minister Farrakhan is currently banned from entering this country because members of the Jewish Board of Deputies protested to the Home Office in 1986 that he is a racist, an anti-Semite and a bigot," he continues. "In our entire history, the Nation have never been known to attack or murder Caucasian people, nor have we been known to decimate Jewish cemeteries. There is no truth in the malicious statements that we are racist, bigoted and anti- Semitic."

"Why, then," shouts someone, "do you surround yourself by a bunch of bodyguards wearing uniforms? Are you trying to intimidate us?"

Leo Muhammad pauses, nursing his anger as he grips the lectern. "What is it about the black man standing upright, wearing a suit and dark glasses that terrifies you, white man? You got a problem when you hear brothers like me? You don't like my strident voice? You don't like to hear black people talking back to you? Well, I got news for you Caucasians. We are here to tell you the truth about the crimes that you and your fathers committed. You are guilty of enslaving and killing... and killing... 100 million black people. I will say that figure again. One hundred million black people lost their lives in the middle passage alone coming to the so-called New World - 400 years in which black people were taken wholesale as slaves out of Africa. And, if you today wish to mock the memory of these black people that you murdered, does that make you a good human being, or a devil, just like your father?"

"That's right, that right," the bodyguards intone.

"You want to call me a person with a chip on my shoulder?" spits Leo. "Go ahead. I haven't got no chip on my shoulder. I got a whole rain forest on my shoulder. I got a whole log cabin on my shoulder. That's how much I'm angry."

"Go-a-head, blackman. Tell da trut', blackman," encourage the bodyguards, repeating the mantra intermittently.

Leo Muhammad speaks for four hours. His message, which he polishes up and deposits "in-your-face", is this: In 1997, black people in the West are not yet free. Almost 150 years after the abolition of slavery, the black man still lives with the slave mentality inside his head and the white man's foot across his neck. Christianity, the slave-masters' religion, taught them to accept their lot and turn the other cheek. But Islam, their "pre-slavery faith", to which they need only revert (rather than convert), says: "You smack my cheek, I kick all four of yours". The only solution is reparation and separation.

He calls the brothers "warners": "God never punishes people without sending them warnings first." Warner Brothers has a ring to it, a reference to their American roots, their sense of showbiz.

"All around Britain," he says, "minorities are building their communities. The Indians are building, the Greeks, the Jews, the Chinese... all building. But the black man! He's building a spliff." The mission of the Nation of Islam - also known as the Black Muslims - is to raise black people up from their position of inferiority and to pull the white man down so they can meet in the middle as equals. It is a message of spiritual and social self-empowerment and it offers black people both an explanation of, and a solution for, their problems.

It would be convenient to dismiss Leo as the kind of mad-hatter who only gets airtime at Speakers' Corner. But in America, and increasingly in London, the Nation of Islam (NOI) are respected for their practical programmes to reduce crime and drugs and to encourage enterprise in their own communities. Nation members visit jails twice a week, and have a good record of transforming criminals into clean-living citizens. Farrakhan is demonised as an inveterate promoter of white conspiracies - that, for example, the ghettoes are being pumped with crack-cocaine in order to boost the profits of white-owned, privatised prisons - but he's also admired for building the black dollar, encouraging black people to patronise black businesses.

And now one of their much-trumpeted conspiracy theories has been shown to be true. In May, President Clinton apologised to survivors of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. In 1930, the US Public Health Service had injected 600 black men, like rats in lab, with syphilis in an effort to study the long-term effects of the disease if left untreated. Even after penicillin became widely available in the 1940s, these men were callously denied treatment. They were never told with what they'd been injected, even when many of them, and their wives and girlfriends, began to die.

A compelling reason to take the Nation of Islam seriously is their growing presence on the streets. Every weekend, in the four corners of London, earnest brothers with prayerful looks and red bow ties peddle the Nation's weekly US newspaper, The Final Call, and their new, locally produced magazine called Sign of the Times - west in the Goldhawk Road, south in Brixton, east in Stoke Newington, and north in Harlesden and Tottenham. They can also be seen at rap and hip-hop gigs and at Carnival.

"How are you today, brother?" they say brightly to the mainly working- class, young (under 35) black men and women who approach them or walk by. "Are you interested in truth? As a people, we are destroyed and we need knowledge. This paper contains 100 per cent truth in regard to your history, the present and where we are to go in the future. Take this paper for pounds 1 and..." It's the standard evangelical rap, but soft-spoken. And it appears to be working. Every week more blacks arrive at the Nation's headquarters in Goldhawk Road as "Mr Jones" and depart as "Mr Muhammad", clutching their red bow tie. They learn to recite The Secret Ritual of the Nation of Islam verbatim. They take martial-arts classes, and they adopt a clean- living, no-smoking, no-drinking regime.

The size of their membership is a closely guarded secret. As one member, Jacob Mohammed, puts it: "Those who don't know will never know; those who do know will never say." But Nation-watchers estimate that it has grown tenfold, from approximately 250 two years ago to 2,500 (half-male, half-female) today.

Roy Kerridge, a writer who has extensively researched black British culture, argues that the new generation of British blacks are the first whose consciousness is defined by their blackness. "Their parents grew up in the Caribbean and west Africa, where there were few whites, so the concept of a `black consciousness' was absent. There were no whites to assert it against," he says. "When their parents arrived here, they still identified with their home countries, asserting their differences as small islanders or big islanders. But their children born here are not Jamaicans, nor do they feel very English, so all they have left is their blackness. And the way they explore their blackness is by imagining they are black Americans or Africans. The former tend to be attracted to the Nation of Islam, the latter to another new group called the Nubians, a modern, more respectable form of Rastafarianism.

"This obsession with black America is evident in the T-shirts they wear, bearing the names of US black universities. But their idea of black America is romanticised, derived from films and videos portraying black Americans as powerful and socially mobile."

Kerridge's theory explains why the Nation's members are so young - even their ministers seem barely out of short pants. But the rise of the Nation of Islam also represents a failure of Christianity to provide meaning to young black men, says Marcia Dixon, religious affairs editor of The Voice, the newspaper for Britain's black community, and a committed Christian. "They look at Christianity and say, `what has it done for our parents?' In reality, black Christian churches have helped a lot of people get off the scrap heap. But Christianity has an image problem. Islam is trendy."

Robert Beckford, a black tutor in black theology at the Queen's College in Birmingham, says that "when you strip away the Nation's resistance ideology, it's a conservative religion preaching family values. It offers a traditional view of the family, calling upon men to take up their responsibilities as husbands and fathers to their wives and children - Newt Gingrich espoused by blacks. But it also has this ability to empower young black men, as Rastafarianism did before it peaked 15 years ago."

Fifty years since the arrival of the first post-war Caribbean immigrants, black Britons are still bottom of the social and economic pile. In 1997, a black man with a degree has less chance of a job than an uneducated white man, according to a survey by the Policy Studies Institute called "Ethnic Minorities in Britain". The more that racism (and racial stereotyping) disenfranchise Britain's 1.5 million blacks, the more fertile the recruiting ground for the Nation of Islam.

So what do we know about these British disciples of Farrakhan? Will they ever amount to more than a cult? In America, the Nation of Islam is estimated to have a hundred thousand followers, making Farrakhan the most influential American black leader. But there the black civil rights movement has a history. There has never been a radical black organisation with genuine power in the UK. Blacks didn't come to England as slaves; they came as free people. Can American blackness be grafted onto a black British consciousness?

The Nation of Islam is notoriously secretive and mistrustful of the Establishment, especially the media. When Alex Haley first attempted to interview the former Nation of Islam spokesman, Malcolm X, in the late Fifties, he was told: "You're another one of the white man's tools sent to spy." As a veteran black journalist for The Voice says: "No one can get in-depth interviews with the Nation of Islam in Britain, not even the black papers."

Owen Muhammad is the head of Leo's security. In contrast to his hard- man public pose, Owen's private manner is quaintly polite. He addresses me as "Sir", and, for the first time, I notice that he wears glasses. He's 29, makes a living as a book-keeper, and lives with his wife and two children, aged seven and three, in Gospel Oak, north London. He is six- foot tall, and, like the other bodyguards (known as the Fruit of Islam), a martial arts expert, but the rumour that they carry weapons is untrue, he says.

A few days after we speak, he calls to set terms and conditions for an interview with "Brother Leo", who he says is "positive" about it. He will call back in half an hour with the details. But six days later, I'm still waiting. Then I receive an apologetic message from Owen on my answer machine: Leo is unavailable right now. It ends: "Thank you for your interest and... peace."

For eight weeks, we then play cat and mouse. I am being "vetted". Permission for interviews has to come from Farrakhan in Chicago. Since the Nation is run along military lines, a strict protocol is observed. At the bottom of the pyramid are the "soldiers", the grassroots devotees who comprise the Fruit of Islam and their female "sisters". Owen, a "lieutenant", reports to Leo, the "captain" and "Minister of Defence", who takes his orders from Minister Michael Muhammad, leader of the west London Mosque, and he reports to NOI headquarters in Chicago. At the top is Farrakhan, their "teacher and leader", whom they believe is divinely guided.

The origins of the Nation of Islam go back to the Great Depression in 1930, when a mysterious peddler by the name of Fard Muhammad turned up in the Negro community of Detroit. According to Boston academic Eric Lincoln, whose book The Black Muslims in America is a seminal study, Fard Muhammad sold silks from Africa door-to-door. He talked to people about their "true religion", the pre-slavery religion of Africa, and introduced them to the Quran, accompanying his teachings with bitter denouncements of the white race whom he called "blue-eyed devils". Before long, house meetings were inadequate to accommodate his 8,000 followers, and he hired a hall which they named "Temple of Islam", later to become the Nation of Islam.

Four years later, Fard disappeared as mysteriously as he had arrived, leaving one of his officers, Elijah Muhammad, in charge. Under Elijah's militaristic leadership, the Nation expanded massively, opening mosques, schools, farms and restaurants, and moving their headquarters to the south side of Chicago. The Nation came to believe that Allah had come in the person of Fard to rid them of white domination, and that Elijah was his messenger on earth. His chief spokesman was Malcolm X, until he was expelled from the Nation for disobeying the order "not to comment" on the assassination of Kennedy (Malcolm X made the infamous remark: "chickens coming home to roost"). Thereafter, Louis Farrakhan, a one-time calypso singer known as Calypso Gene, took Malcolm's place and, when Elijah Muhammad died in 1975, he stepped in as leader of the NOI.

Some teachings of the Nation apparently involve flying saucers and Farrakhan being beamed up onto a planet peopled by blacks. I expect Owen to deny this as malicious rumour; instead, he embellishes it.

"September the 17th, 1985, was the exact date that Louis Farrakhan was beamed up on board a spacecraft which we believe to be the mother ship," he recites. "There, Elijah Muhammad told him of a plot being hatched by President Reagan and his joint chiefs-of-staff. He was instructed to go to Washington DC to tell the world of a planned attack on a Muslim nation. Soon thereafter, America bombed Libya. We believe that Elijah Muhammad and Fard Muhammad are on this mother ship, which is orbiting the earth as we speak." He asks whether I am aware of UFO sightings in Arizona in March this year. "That was the mother ship."

Owen insists that reference to "the mother ship" can be found in the Scriptures. Ezekiel, chapter 1, verse 1 mentions the "wheel in the sky". He encourages me to study the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, suggesting that this will aid my application for interview, and promises to send me appropriate books and videotapes. Nothing arrives, of course, and no interview is forthcoming. Once again, I am led along an ever-receding path down which the red bow ties, seemingly so accessible, vanish like rare butterflies.

Then a curious thing happens. Owen begins to open up, but every so often he catches himself and protests, "I'm sorry, that information is classified. I am not permitted to be interviewed. I'm being put above my station."

None the less, he recounts how, two years ago, he met Farrakhan face-to-face on the Phil Donahue Show in America: "I was on vacation with my father, and we ended up in the audience. I got to ask him: what's your message to black people in England? And he said, `My message is always the same - we got to get up and do it for ourselves'. I'd already been on the fringes of the movement, but I joined up soon after."

In England, the Nation of Islam began informally in 1986, when nine "brothers" saw a clip of Farrakhan on television. They were a motley crew of "Christians, lapsed Rastafarians, black activists, drug-pushers and ex-convicts", all in their twenties. Two of them, Wayne and Michael, are ministers of the Nation today. Never had they seen a black man speaking so powerfully and unafraid. They sent for his videotapes and audio tapes, and met in one of their bedrooms to pray together and study Islam. Later, they travelled to the Nation's headquarters in Chicago, where they met Farrakhan himself, received their X's in a naming ceremony, and returned to London to set up the first Nation of Islam mosque in Brixton.

Leo, a charismatic political activist with a career in black stand-up comedy, joined soon after. Described as "a shaven-headed prophet of gloom and mirth, with a grin that stretched from slavery to the Brixton riots", Leo X Chester (as he then was) used jokes to "ram home the Nation's message of self-reliance". His profile as a comedian drew in a lot of young people and propelled him to the forefront of the movement.

But in the early Nineties, there was a power struggle between Leo and Wayne, by then the two biggest hitters, which Farrakhan allegedly had to sort out. The rift was resolved by the Nation splitting into two groups, with Wayne heading up one mosque and Leo and Michael starting another in west London. To this day, the mosques run totally separate operations.

Membership really leapt forward after the Million Man March in October 1995, and also with the release of Spike Lee's film, Malcolm X. Today, the NOI have three mosques in south, west and east London, and a study group working towards mosque-status in north London. The mosques hold "Learn the Truth" public meetings three times a week - from which whites are barred - where members and potential recruits watch videos of Farrakhan's speeches and are addressed by the relevant minister.

They have yet to expand beyond London, where 70 per cent of blacks live, but in the last year they have opened two black-only primary schools and a shop selling NOI products called "Respect for Life" on Harlesden high street. With no membership fees, no money from the States, and each "mosque" relying on the charity of its members, these mosques are far from the opulent houses of prayer associated with orthodox Islam. The south-London mosque is an anonymous, run-down shop on the Angel Town estate.

After two months of chasing, I have given up on interviewing Leo Muhammad. As a final act of goodwill, however, Owen agrees to bring his red bow tie, with its white star and crescent insignia, to be photographed. He arrives, "incognito" as he puts it, in an Elijah Muhammad, pill box-style hat and an incredibly cool, full-length black leather coat. He says the bow ties are imported from America, but that the Muslim company which makes them, `Bowties Unlimited', recently went bankrupt. He has a whole wardrobe of them - blue, black, green, orange and gold. The red one is for official engagements.

I tell him how Ozwald Boateng, the most renowned black tailor in this country, described how he had been "blown away" on seeing 30 members of the Nation walking in step down Portobello Road. "I thought, wow! that's how suits should be worn. Such confidence, such style." But Owen says they wear suits simply because that's how Fard Muhammad dressed, and because "if you want to be taken seriously, you got to dress seriously". The bow tie has a cosmic significance: "The red signifies the sun, which, together with the star and moon insignia, comprise the universe which rules us."

At this point, the photographer suggests he leave his bow tie and come back later. "That's tantamount to a policeman leaving his gun," he replies shortly.

"Owen," I ask him, "how close was I to that interview with Leo?"

"You're close," he says. "Very close. What's your deadline? Tomorrow will be 67 years since the Nation of Islam began, and the Honourable Louis Farrakhan has given us permission to do something with the press."

He pulls out his mobile phone and speaks to Leo. "Monday morning, 10am. The foyer of the Kensington Hilton," he says eventually.

The interview at the Hilton begins with another piece of high-farce - Leo and Owen have neglected to bring their tape recorder, and protocol "demands" we wait until they find one. Numerous phone calls and 90 minutes later, we are ready. Leo, in a white suit and orange bow tie, spends most of the interview staring right past me. Ironically, there is little he tells me that I haven't already heard. He talks initially about how he still works as a comedian - he calls it "edu-tainment", telling jokes that have a moral message.

I learn that Leo Muhammad, now aged 39, was born in Jamaica as Hugh Chester Jones. He came to Britain when he was nine, his parents separated when he was 11, and he was taken into care. After numerous foster homes, the slide into delinquency began. "I used to go to nightclubs with a sawn- off shotgun under my coat and, if you talked to me the wrong way, I'd give you both barrels," he says. "That was my mentality. I was in the dirt, a beast.

"I was jailed for possession of offensive weapons, car theft and joy riding. For 10 years, I was in and out of prison, in and out of solitary confinement. I didn't do it to get rich. I did it because I was in pain and I wanted relief from the pain. Then one day I heard the word coming out of the mouth of a black man, and that man's name was Farrakhan. He said to me: `Black man, wake up! You are far removed from God, you are a danger to your people. But you're not inferior. Do something for yourself'.

"The teachings saved my life. At times, it really was a long, dark tunnel. But without them, I'd be dead today or incarcerated. I was in pain. I was in pain in a society that did not love me."

Leo's story exemplifies why many black academics and journalists regard the Nation of Islam as a potential force for good. They go onto estates where the police can do nothing and close down the drug pushers. They give many blacks a belief and pride in themselves to change for the better. How, they ask, can that be a bad thing?

But the problem the Nation faces in recruiting really large numbers is that the idea of Islam as "the authentic black religion" is anathema to most black Britons. Their separatist programme makes no sense to blacks outside America. Their 10 demands - recorded on the penultimate page of each issue of The Final Call - includes one for "a separate state or territory of their own, either on this continent [America] or elsewhere", and for "intermarriage or race mixing to be prohibited".

Professor Stuart Hall, professor of sociology at the Open University and a prominent theorist on black Britain, says that he "cannot see the NOI gaining widespread popularity in this country because of the extent to which this society is racially integrated. Fifty per cent of Caribbean men, and one-third of Caribbean women, have white partners. Moreover, blacks and whites mix more comfortably on the streets of Britain than they do in America. There is not the critical mass of blacks in this country for black people to talk realistically of separation."

For blacks who live in the ghettoes on the south side of Chicago, whose only contact with whites is with policemen, it is easy to believe that whites are "the blue-eyed devil". But in Britain, where blacks and whites live alongside each other on the same estates, such an attitude is hard to sustain.

When I ask Owen whether I, a white Jew, am a devil, he appears embarrassed. He offers a lame explanation that "devil means a devaluer, and that whites, by their actions, have devalued black lives". But I can see that his heart is not in it.

The Jewish Board of Deputies begs to differ. When I ask for proof of the Nation's anti-Semitism, they send me a fax 64 pages long. There are screeds of Farrakhan quotes which show that, as they put it, "Farrakhan signs up to an extreme version of the Jewish conspiracy theory, blaming Jews for the current situation of the black community." But there is another Jewish perspective. Just a few months ago, the Jewish mayor of Philadelphia, Mayor Rendell, invited Farrakhan to his city to help tackle racial tensions. Farrakhan accepted, and the two men publicly joined hands at a rally, Jew and Muslim, and agreed to work together to beat racism.

Orthodox Islam is less accepting of the Nation's credentials. Sheikh Attiya, imam of the Regent's Park mosque in central London, says: "Louis Farrakhan and his movement might accept the Quran, but they have invented many things, add-ons if you like, that are not Islamic." Although the process of conversion to Islam is a simple one (the convert recites the Shahada, swearing their allegiance to Allah, and is then considered a Muslim), Sheikh Attiya insists that "the spirit of Islam is peace and love for each other, whereas Farrakhan puts an angry face on Islam."

Leo is scathing of the Muslims who reject the Nation. "You wear a long gown and think that makes you a Muslim, or say that we are not Muslims because we wear a suit? Shaddup, you fools! You liars. The clothes don't make the man, the man makes the clothes. We do all the prayers you do, and we fear no one but Allah, as you do. You talk about loving everybody, but the holy Quran don't talk that language. We are the ones standing up against the Caucasians... against the enemies of God. We're more Muslim than you."

Another invocation of black consciousness will be on parade this month with the release of Spike Lee's new film, Get on the Bus, a fictional account of 12 men travelling across America to the Million Man March. The bow ties will be out in force No funny business: at Speakers' Corner, Minister

Leo Muhammad, a stand-up comedian, preaches a separate state for blacks (main picture), a message which is spread on the streets of Brixton (below)

One-time singer `Calypso Gene', Louis Farrakhan (above) is now the Nation's leader after the expulsion of Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad's death; selling The Final Call (top) outside the Nation's west London headquarters in Goldhawk Road