Profile: Louis Farrakhan; Between hatred and hope

John Carlin on the leader of Nation of Islam, who wants a million black men to march
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The Independent Online
AMERICA'S next showcase trial will star Timothy McVeigh, the ex-soldier charged with planting the bomb that killed 168 people in Oklahoma City. If in that trial the prosecution fails to obtain a "guilty" verdict, the militias, the white supremacists and other paranoid extremists will be overjoyed. "Look," they will say, "we told you so. The state planted the evidence."

Last week most black Americans celebrated the acquittal of OJ Simpson. Not because of their love for Mr Simpson but because the verdict appeared to confirm a belief most white Americans reject: that the system is out to get blacks. The proof was provided, as they saw it, by Mark Fuhrman, the racist detective who ruined the prosecution case. For a people who have elevated victimhood to a badge of collective identity, Mr Fuhrman was a godsend.

Not all black Americans think this way. A fair number - nearly a fifth, according to the polls - did not see the Simpson verdict as a victory. Not all black Americans have a persecution complex either. The grievances of black Americans, especially those in the ghettos, are not the product of over-ripe imaginations.

But the analogy between the white far right and the black mainstream remains instructive. In each case political attitudes are determined by low self-esteem and characterised by self-defeating hysteria. Rather than take a good look at themselves and seek to resolve their problems, they shift the blame for their condition on to the ruling establishment.

It is in this context that Louis Farrakhan emerges as a voice of purposeful, unillusioned clarity. Mr Farrakhan is the leader of the Nation of Islam, once known for its association with Malcolm X and today the most radical black political organisation in America. White Americans detest and fear him. Yet many would be surprised to hear of his words at a political meeting in San Diego last month.

He related the true story of how, recently, a black woman driving through Detroit accidentally bumped into a car driven by a black man. The man leapt out of his car, smashed her windscreen and beat her. She fled on to a bridge, jumped into Detroit River and drowned.

"She wasn't killed by Mark Fuhrman," Mr Farrakhan told his black audience. "She wasn't killed by the oppressor. She was killed by her so-called brother because he was mad she had bumped into his shiny car ... The world looks at you, the world looks at me, the world looks at us, and they wonder, 'what kind of a people is this?' "

Mr Farrakhan was in San Diego to promote a march through Washington on 16 October. Billed as "the Million Man March", it will be primarily an exercise in black group therapy. The goals, as Mr Farrakhan defines them, are atonement for wrongs committed by black males within their families and communities; reconciliation with those that have been wronged; and commitment to "African-American economic, political and spiritual growth".

The deeper objective is to address the insecurity that many black American men, for all the strutting, keenly feel. Black women's groups neither disagree with this diagnosis nor, on the whole, object to their exclusion.

If the march is to succeed, Mr Farrakhan said in San Diego, it must forge trust between men of all creeds. "If you are Muslim and you stand with a million men, you look and you see Christians, you see Hebrews, you see black Jews. You can't hold on to your concepts. You have to see that your world is bigger than you thought."

He sounds like America's Mandela. Why, then, is he reviled by the white establishment and continually subject to character assassination by, among other sober organs, the New York Times?

The main reason, and certainly the reason why he is one of America's best-known media celebrities, is that he has a track record of voicing incendiary anti-white opinions - especially if the whites happen to be Jews.

Jews, he has said, are "bloodsuckers" who have become rich on the sweat and toil of blacks; Judaism is a "gutter religion"; the Holocaust was nothing compared to the historical oppression of American blacks. In a speech in March he said: "Little Jews died while big Jews made money. Little Jews were being turned into soap, while big Jews washed themselves in it." He also said a few years back that Hitler was "great", and though he said later he meant "wickedly great" the idea has taken hold that he has borrowed Hitler's strategy of using ethnic scapegoats to build up his own political power.

ALL THIS and more has persuaded leading white opinion-makers that Mr Farrakhan is an evil and dangerous man. They find it a comfort that he is not likely ever to be president of the USA, but they cannot dismiss him. The Nation of Islam may have no more than 100,000 members but, as a recent poll showed, Mr Farrakhan is neck and neck with Jesse Jackson for the title of black Americans' favourite politician. His Million Man March will take place with the blessing of Mr Jackson, the black caucus in the US Congress and most of the black political establishment. So what is the secret of his appeal?

In the first place, he is an electrifying orator with a charismatic stage presence. He honed these talents as a young man after he dropped out of college to go into the music business. Born Louis Eugene Walcott in the Bronx, he became a successful nightclub singer under the name Calypso Gene, "The Charmer". In 1955, after hearing Elijah Muhammad speak, he dropped out of showbusiness but preserved his showman's flair. Always turned out in his trademark bow tie, double-breasted suit and sharp, slicked- back haircut, he looks unnaturally immaculate, like a black Dick Tracy. Remarkably youthful for a man of 61, he has been married for 36 years and has nine children. Friends say that he is a thoughtful, complex man in private who has the quirk of playing the violin, in the fortress-mansion he inhabits in Chicago, between 1am and 3am. At his 60th birthday party last year he played Mendelssohn.

All of which is hard to tally with an anti-Semite who despises European culture and bases his theory of black superiority on the notion that all mankind's greatest achievements flow back to "African" Ancient Egypt. Some black commentators who disagree with the theory but admire the man suggest he is merely playing politics when he says these things.

Be that as it may, the reason he appeals so successfully to black people is that he is a consummate politician. His genius consists in his ability to mobilise support by tapping into the genuine anger and resentment that exists among blacks; and then channelling that anger into a creative alternative of action.

Not unlike Steve Biko's Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa during the Seventies, he works on the premise that blacks will only stand tall when they have their own house in order. The goals of Nation of Islam, sharpened by Mr Farrakhan since Elijah Muhammad founded it half a century ago, are to instil self-respect into blacks by overcoming drug abuse, street gangs, poverty, family disintegration and the other harrowing problems of the ghetto.

One of the more tangible results of Mr Farrakhan's leadership has been the relative order his sharp-suited, unarmed "soldiers", the Fruit of Islam, have brought to black neighbourhoods. On the rare occasions when these soldiers stray out of the ghettos white people tend to be intimidated, but the black people who live in the areas where they have established their own rule of brusque law are grateful that they have succeeded where the police so manifestly failed.

At a Nation of Islam school in Chicago, black parents clamour to get their children in because discipline is so tight. Mr Farrakhan also strives to encourage economic self-help by using his organisation's funds to start up grocery stores, bakeries and even a supermarket.

What troubles whites and disturbs more moderate black leaders is that this empire is built on hate. "I've got hate in me," Mr Farrakhan said last year. "I can't love evil if I say I'm with God. I must hate evil. And if the evil-doer won't change his or her ways, I can't love them either." Such talk always wins roars of approval from black audiences, especially the young. They see him as he sees himself, as "the voice that speaks to the hurt of our people".

Mr Farrakhan's capacity to mobilise black Americans is founded on a curious mixture of finely tuned political sensitivity and ugly racist rhetoric. And there is genius there. The question is where is it all heading? Will he be content with laying the foundations of black self-esteem necessary for a gentler, wiser successor to lead black Americans into more harmonious understanding with their white compatriots? Or, as the logic of his self- determination rhetoric suggests, is he striving towards apartheid, or racial separateness?

Right now conditions are propitious for the latter. The responses to the Simpson verdict have laid bare the truth that black and white Americans inhabit different worlds, that they are engaged in a dialogue of the deaf. It is a moment for Mr Farrakhan to make hay.