I'm on the road to see nation of Islam (NOI) firebrand Louis Farrakhan - America's "most ardent and visible hatemonger," according to the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League - deliver his 2003 Holy Day of Atonement address at the Wyndham Bristol Place, up by the airport strip. Farrakhan himself will not be here on this Thursday evening, October 16. Instead, his address will be pumped in via webcast live from Chicago .
Originally founded as "The Lost-Found Nation of Islam in the Wilderness of North America" to guide African Americans to new vistas through self-respect, economic independence and ethnic integrity, the NOI opened its first Canadian mosque in 1998 in a Vaughan Road storefront under the leadership of Don Muhammad.
After years of internal jousting between local versus U.S.-based concerns, Minister Karriem Shabazz opened Temple No. 4 in Montreal's Little Burgundy district. Both of these mosques are no more. The NOI's presence in Canada now consists of study groups in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.
The buzz around the NOI seems to have faded. Outside the Bristol, the sign-in sheets have but a smattering of signatures. The Final Call, NOI's official organ, can be had for a donation. There are about 70 attendees in all. It's a far cry from 1998, when Farrakhan drew about 3,000 to a downtown hotel conference room.
Dudley Laws, of the Black Action Defence Committee, who also happens to be prominently featured on the NOI's Web site, says, "All organizations were more active in the black community when there were police shootings and other problems."
One local reporter formerly on the NOI beat says, "I stopped following because nothing was going on. No one was talking about them."
NOI's Toronto study group coordinator, Philip Muhammad, admits he's a little flummoxed by the turnout, but retorts, "Whenever a black man is doing something good, it's always hidden. Only the negative is exposed. We black folks don't find things in good taste unless they're promoted by someone else."
Tonight, a wild mix of young and old, well-dressed and unkept, from quite a surprising array of races and ethnicities are scattered in bunches across the room as a collection bucket makes the rounds.
As with any long-in-the-tooth stalwart of a crusade, Farrakhan has been accused in recent years of taking a watered-down stance in order to attract a broader constituency.
This atonement address, such as it is, starts out somewhat light and mostly easy - a god-heavy rap by rote, lacking the fire, brimstone and rhetoric that the house of Farrakhan was built on. He does surmise, though, that white society "has been dealing with a passive black man," yet nevertheless "we're killing each other," leaving us "savage," without "knowledge of self" and "living the life of a beast."
But Farrakhan is nothing if not a paradox, so while point number 10 of the NOI's Muslim Program states: "We believe that intermarriage or race mixing should be prohibited," he goes on tonight about the need for "a strategic alliance between the native American and the black American. Many of us have native American blood running in our veins." Conveniently omitted is the little-noted fact that some First Nation tribes were slave owners.
Later, paradoxically, reflexively or just true to form, Farrakhan scowls, "I'm not with integration."
Old habits may die hard, and you don't stick around for as long as he has without giving the people what they want. So, the previously declared intent to leave the politics of the day for another time gives way to the familiar: "The government of the United States hates us, make no mistake about it."
In this deep, he naturally alludes to America's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and "the composition of the soldiers" - though it's apparent that Latinos have more and more taken the place traditionally reserved for poor blacks in the military. Farrakhan time-warps: "It was just yesterday that we'd come back from war and been lynched in the same uniform."
Before too long, Farrakhan confronts the anti-Semite label that he carries like a monkey on his back: "I don't hate the Jewish people, but... I don't like the way you leech off us." He hauls out the oft-cited black-player/actor/singer-and-Jewish-manager examples, among others.
Say what you will, this one-time calypso singer can be funny as hell, but at times it's hard to tell if he's just jiving: "When we get an independent territory, we have to able to defend it." To that end, Farrakhan, seriously or not, suggests that the NOI should acquire weapons of mass destruction, since the enemy - America - is already packing. The gathering is up chanting and cheering. "If repentance is done, in time there can be forgiveness. Atone for your ills. Let's begin the process of cleaning up our lives." Sounds good to me.