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Farrakhan: militant and conservative

The ornate mansion where Louis Farrakhan lives and directs his separatist Nation of Islam is in an integrated neighborhood of doctors and lawyers and corporate captains, a sheltered place where people are judged less by the color of their skin than by the contents of their wallets.

Two blocks away in the Kenwood neighborhood lie the segregated precincts of 47th Street, in bygone days a bustling thoroughfare through the heart of black Chicago but now a street of sorrow. Today, liquor stores thrive and the corners are crowded with men with no place to go to earn a legal living.

Like his neighborhood, Farrakhan and his Nation are full of contrasts. His bodyguards project an air of militancy, but his dark suits and bow tie are straight out of a chamber of commerce meeting.

He advocates self sufficiency but seeks out government contracts for his followers. He calls himself a minister of love but says there is no shame in hatred.

The basic tenets of the Nation have changed little over seven decades, but Farrakhan's campaign last year to reach out to other black groups and a November speech by his spokesman, Khallid Abdul Muhammad, at Kean College in New Jersey castigating whites, Jews, the pope and homosexuals have brought new attention to the group.

Recent efforts by companies affiliated with the Nation to win multi-million dollar security contracts from public housing agencies have amplified the running debate over religion, racism and what the Nation represents.

Although Farrakhan has attracted attention for his verbal broadsides against whites and Jews, much of his rhetoric and writings about everything from homosexuals to abortion to bootstrap capitalism could come from the Republican Party platform.

Farrakhan was recruited into the Nation almost 40 years ago by Malcolm X. He has called Malcolm X the adored father he never had, but in 1964, when Malcolm X left the Nation for mainstream Islam and its creed of universal brotherhood, Farrakhan was among his harshest critics.

In private, Farrakhan is a cordial 60-year-old grandfather who loves to play the violin in the wee hours of the morning. But once he steps before the thousands who come to hear him speak in New York or Chicago or Atlanta, where he once outdrew a World Series game a few blocks away, he breathes fire.

He has spent most of his adult life fighting bigotry with bigotry, hate with hate, justifying his fury and his hope with the Koran in one hand, the Bible in the other.

When he suspended Muhammad for the way the Nation of Islam aide had delivered a speech filled with anti-Semitic remarks and slurs against Catholics, homosexuals and blacks, Farrakhan said he still agreed with the "truths" Brother Khallid had spoken.

Muhammad sat in the front row at the Nation's annual convention Sunday afternoon in Chicago. Farrakhan acknowledged him several times, and after spending nearly two hours talking about eugenics and how whites were created 6,000 years ago by a troubled black scientist named Yakub, Farrakhan told the 12,000 people jammed into the $10, $20 or $50 seats that Muhammad needed to be more diplomatic but that he was "a warrior, a fighter for his people."

Farrakhan said he and his Nation were under attack for simply telling the truth.

"I'm on the cross," he told the crowd as it jumped to its feet and roared its support. "I'm being crucified. But I'm being crucified to raise your consciousness."

Echoes of this speech and others ripple around the nation in the group's newspaper, the Final Call, television and radio broadcasts, audio and video tapes. Farrakhan also appears regularly on television broadcasts in New York on Channel 39, and in many other cities.

No one seems to know for sure how big the Nation of Islam is, and its leaders generally do not give interviews. Estimates range from fewer than 10,000 members to 100,000. Nor does anyone know how much support Farrakhan really has among blacks outside the insular world of the Nation.

He does get plenty of attention these days. He smiles and scowls from the covers of magazines and from the couch of Arsenio Hall's television show. But the 30-second sound bites that have made him feared and famous have also turned him into a one dimensional character: the black twin of David Duke.

What has been lost over the years in the outcry about remarks like his statement in 1984 that Judaism is a gutter religion is how politically and socially conservative the Nation of Islam leader actually is, said Chip Berlet, an analyst with Political Research Associates of Cambridge, Mass., which studies right-wing and fringe groups.

"If you look at the content of his politics, it's either conservative or reactionary," Berlet said.

"It's all based on Horatio Alger myths, separatism, relying on authoritarian measures to promote security and safety and scapegoating Jews."

But Berlet said too much time is spent discussing and condemning Farrakhan while larger and more influential bigoted white organizations are treated less harshly.

At the convention Sunday, Farrakhan again denied he is anti-Semitic or anti-white or that he is motivated by anything other than God's will and a love for his people.

Michael Pfleger, a white Roman Catholic priest in Chicago who has known Farrakhan for 10 years, agrees. The two men have visited each other's homes and Farrakhan has lectured twice from Pfleger's pulpit.

"I have never found him to be anti-Semitic or anti-white," Pfleger said. "I don't think there is any group or religion in America that has done more for the African-American male than the Nation of Islam. I feel the real problem is, America does not know how to handle Louis Farrakhan or the truth."

According to the Nation, whites were created by Yakub, the mad scientist, as a test for and a curse on the superior black race _ the chosen people.

On Sunday, Farrakhan told the few whites in the crowd, "You are not a devil by the color of your skin _ you are the devil by the teachings you have accepted."

Farrakhan has also been accused of being anti-homosexual. He said while he would never mistreat or mock a gay person, God does not approve of homosexuality.

In his book, Farrakhan writes: "We must change homosexual behavior and get rid of the circumstances that bring it about. We must change all behavior that offends the standard of moral behavior set by God through His laws and prophets."

Abortion, Farrakhan writes, is equivalent to murder. But he says he is "pro-choice in that women should have the right to choose to whom they will commit their lives."

On crime, he talks law and order like a politician 20 points behind in the polls. Saudi Arabia, he writes, has little crime because it is willing to cut off a limb or a life to punish the wicked.

But, so far, he says, "America has not found a way to curb crime and reform those in her society who consistently break her laws, particularly in the black community." Part of his solution: send black convicts to Africa under Nation of Islam supervision.

Adolph Reed Jr., a professor of political science at Northwestern University, has been following Farrakhan's career for years.

"What is most disturbing about Farrakhan has nothing to do with what he says about whites," Reed said. "He has a very conservative, regressive, repressive take on blacks."

The Fruit of Islam

A chorus of voices rang out from the top floors of a 16-story building at the desperately poor Robert Taylor Homes public housing development, one of Chicago's toughest and saddest stretches of real estate.

"Where's Farrakhan?"

The residents were shouting to 75 neatly dressed, stern-faced men standing at attention in the snow below.

The Fruit of Islam had arrived.

The Fruit is the Nation's paramilitary, unarmed bodyguard. Wherever he goes, Farrakhan is surrounded by the bow-tie-wearing members of Fruit, who thoroughly search everyone attending one of their leader's speeches.

Next to Farrakhan, the Fruit of Islam is the most visible part of the Nation. Its members politely hawk the Nation's newspaper and bean pies on city street corners from Washington to Los Angeles.

They also work as security guards in public housing projects in several cities, including Chicago, and are trying to expand their operations, sometimes with the backing of local politicians and often over the opposition of Jewish groups.

During its glory years in the 1950s and 1960s, the Nation built a reputation for turning desperate men away from a life of crime, including one of its most famous converts, Malcolm X, who was a pimp and a pusher before joining the movement.

Farrakhan says that work continues today. So on a cold Saturday afternoon, the Fruit marched through the project to show their colors and to persuade the residents that _ as Farrakhan's chief of staff and son-in-law, Leonard Muhammad, put it _ "This is a love thing, brother to brother."

Muhammad led his men past a line of residents, shaking hands and promising free tickets to anyone who wanted to hear Farrakhan speak at the convention.

"We come in peace," Muhammad said.

"You're always welcome here," said a 17-year-old resident, Alphonso Lewis. "You're coming to tell us how to live right."

As the Fruit marched through the development, at times chanting Farrakhan's name, a van full of white college students on a sociology class trip pulled up. The students seemed reluctant to get out.

"Tell them they're safe," Muhammad smiled. "They're under the protection of the Fruit of Islam."

The rumors

For months, black writers and leaders of community groups who monitor the Nation of Islam say, there has been talk of a power struggle within the group _ pitting a more moderate Farrakhan against a more hardnosed right wing that cherishes the Nation's unbending past.

Khallid Muhammad is believed to be part of the Nation orthodoxy and is popular with youngest members, who, as one former member put it, "like their rhetoric red hot."

It is difficult to determine how serious the talk of internal conflict is because of the thick curtain of secrecy the Nation operates behind. In the Final Call, both Farrakhan and Muhammad have denied a conflict.

On the surface, the focus is on Farrakhan. When he bounded onto the stage Sunday, the crowd applauded and shouted his name, sounding like distant thunder.

But during his speech, Farrakhan seemed to be answering any potential challenges to his throne.

"Some of you want the crown but you're running from suffering," he said. "You would-be leaders, you don't have no government against you talking in an alley. You don't have the might of the Jews against you talking in a basement. I've got it all arrayed against me."

Before Muhammad's speech last November, however, Farrakhan had appeared to be moderating his views and asking to talk with Jewish groups. He also had been mending fences with more mainstream black political figures.

And in the last couple of years, Farrakhan has seemed to be inching closer to orthodox Islam.

"We still have hopes that Farrakhan is going to come into the Islamic mainstream," said Abdul Karim Hasan, an orthodox Muslim and a former member of the Nation of Islam who has known Farrakhan for nearly 40 years. "Muslims are conservative. Farrakhan is conservative. He's no radical.

"But I do know there will be a great falling away if he just jumps into the mainstream all of a sudden. He has to do it gradually; otherwise he won't have anything left."