My wife Patricia and I spent the four-day July 4th weekend in Chicago at the International Islamic Conference, hosted by the Nation of Islam, in conjunction with the World Islamic Peoples Leadership. It may have been the single most important political event I have witnessed in my life. You didn’t hear about it unless you caught a 10-second soundbite on network television Sunday, or if your eye yesterday chanced upon a story on Page 16 of the Chicago Sun-Times: “Muslims Honor Farrakhan as Imam, Sheikh.” What made the event so important was that when the weekend began, Farrakhan was the spiritual leader of 200,000 members of the Nation of Islam and clearly the most influential of 33 million African-Americans. At its conclusion, Farrakhan stands a good chance at uniting 1.2 billion Muslims under his spiritual leadership.
Of course I may be wrong, but I don’t think so. I’ve been watching this brew since the Million Man March of October 16, 1995. It persuaded me that like it or not, Louis Farrakhan is emerging as the most important religious leader in the world -- and a force for positive change in the political, social, cultural, and economic realms. Our political establishment and national media remain in denial, hoping what they see is not happening. They see no clue to the millennial forces he has come to represent. In his concluding speech to 3500 faithful at the McCormick Center, he essentially asserted that global leadership. With the end of the Cold War and the triumph of the United States over all ideological foes, the Nation of Islam that he leads is here, at the pinnacle of global power. Given our Judeo-Christian culture, without Farrakhan to represent its interests, the Islamic world would remain as impotent as it is, in a weak and divided political universe. It was only a matter of time before the principal Islamic political leaders would coalesce around Farrakhan, once they were assured by their religious leaders that he and his Islamic variation was worthy of representing their central faith.
That’s what occurred this weekend. Thirty-three Islamic scholars and holy men from two dozen nations traveled to Chicago to see Min. Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam up close. The orthodox sects have treated the Nation with disdain since its inception some 67 years ago -- and there will continue to be complaints from the traditional Islamic spokesmen in the U.S., who insist his brand of Islam is not pure enough. They boycotted the conference and then complained that the delegates from abroad honored Farrakhan as they did. But the very idea that he could rally a million black men under the Nation’s auspices has been the talk of the Islamic political world since it occurred. When Farrakhan followed up the MMM with a tour of Africa and the Middle East, with stops in Iraq, Iran and Libya, the hue and cry against him here only confirmed his willingness to stand without flinching against the media blasts of America’s religious and political establishment.
By satellite at the Sunday session, the chairman of the World Islamic Peoples Leadership, Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi, delivered his usual tiresome tirade against the “racist” U.S. government and its financing of “the Hebrew state.” In fact, the audience for the most part tuned out Qadhafi’s ramblings, applauding warmly only when the Libyan dictator sang Farrakhan’s praises as a global leader of oppressed people of all races and religions. There is no more talk of jihad from Qadhafi, especially as Pope John Paul II has now established diplomatic relations with Tripoli. In his address, Farrakhan praised the Pope for reaching out to Libya and Cuba and the former communist countries, wryly noting that no American politicians have accused the Pontiff of “cavorting with thugs,” which was the complaint when Farrakhan visited Libya. He also called upon the government of China to invite the world’s religious leaders to Beijing to discuss freedom of religious worship, as a means of “normalizing relations with Judaism, Christianity and Islam.”
Over the four-day period, Patricia and I attended each of the plenary sessions and one of the workshops. We were the only Catholics at the conference and at several of the events we were the only non-Muslims in attendance. I was not on the program, but was asked by Leonard Muhammad, the Nation’s chief of staff and Farrakhan’s son-in-law, to fill in with a presentation at the workshop on Islamic economics and banking. I gave a basic talk on economic growth, the Laffer Curve, and supply-side economics. [In listening to the other panelists, it dawned on me that “Islamic banking and economics” is based on principles associated with entrepreneurial capitalism, with equity preferred to debt and a money defined in terms of gold.] We attended three of the dinners hosted by Min. Farrakhan and sat with him at two of them. The only reason I mention our wall-to-wall presence is so that I can bear witness to the spirituality of the weekend. There was not one word I heard that could be considered anti-Semitic or bigoted. I thought I heard the beginning of an anti-Semitic statement at the first plenary session, when a guest scholar made the observation that “The Jews control the financial world....” and went on to say, “the Muslims control the energy world, and the Christians control the political world.” If they could work in harmony, instead of in conflict, she said, they could preserve the peace.
The central theme of Farrakhan’s 2½ hour address rested on Chapter 12 in the Gospel of Mark, in which Jesus answers a trick question to test his loyalty by pointing to a picture of Caesar on the head of a coin and saying “Render unto Caesar those things which are Caesar’s, and to God those things which are God’s.” The 20th Century, he said, has been Caesar’s century -- one long century of war, with religious leaders forced to stand aside and watch the warriors do battle. There is now a window of peace, he said, and religious leaders must unite in demanding that Caesar stand aside and allow them to enter the battlefield, to cure the world of the sickness and disease that has enveloped it during the long war. It was in this context that he called for an end to all economic embargoes by the United States, and a willingness by President Clinton to receive the petitions of all world leaders who wish to reconcile with the lone superpower. The goal should be to open the new century and new millennium with all political and religious differences that were the products of the century of war reconciled. At the Saturday plenary session, the same grand theme was voiced by the most senior of the Islamic leaders, the Grand Mufti of Syria, who is now 85 and who has held that title since 1963. Speaking by phone from Damascus, he spoke repeatedly of the need to unite Christians, Jews and Muslims to make the next century the first in the history of civilization free of war -- with high praise for Min. Farrakhan for convening the conference with that goal in mind.
The only sharp criticisms I heard from Farrakhan during the four days were directed at those Muslim scholars who “strain at gnats and swallow the camels of hypocrisy.” They waste their energies arguing about how long a beard should be, or if there must be one at all, instead of doing the work of the prophet, Muhammad. He urged them to lift their eyes from trivial differences among them and unite toward a common goal, elevating Islam to its highest standard. At the private Sunday night dinner, one after another of the guests from abroad stood and told him that all their concerns about him and his Nation of Islam had been satisfied. There was no doubt in my mind that I was watching history being made.