Denver minister speaks to race issues
Denver Post, Aug. 1, 2003
By Eric Gorski, Denver Post Religion Writer
Most of the time, minister Gerald Muhammad’s audience is confined to Muhammad’s Mosque 51, housed in a northeast Denver shopping center slated for demolition.
There, under gold-stenciled letters that read, “In the Name of Allah,” the fiery 41-year-old Nation of Islam minister rails against the injustices suffered by blacks at the hands of whites and preaches a gospel of self-responsibility.
In recent weeks, Muhammad has moved from the margins of Denver’s faith community to the middle of the intense debate over the July 5 shooting of 15-year-old Paul Childs by a Denver police officer.
The developmentally disabled boy, who was black, was killed after refusing to put down a knife.
Muhammad’s presence at news conferences and rallies has helped keep race alive as an issue in the shooting’s aftermath and again raised the profile of Denver’s small Nation of Islam community.
“We have to speak to the injustice and the wrongs in our community and give our people some hope that someone will speak to the issue and not be afraid,” Muhammad said in an interview after services at the storefront mosque in the Dahlia Shopping Center.
Muhammad can come across as a paradox.
On one hand, his likening of rogue cops to slave-owners conflicts with the pleas of Christian pastors in the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance who have downplayed race as a factor in the Childs case.
But a moment later, Muhammad will talk about working together with other races and religions, in keeping with controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan’s recent efforts to distance his group from its separatist past and embrace mainstream Islam.
“We want to break down the barriers that divide us, the greatest barrier being religion,” Mohammad said. “There needs to be dialogue in religion because we really are saying the same thing, we are just using different terminology.”
That’s a relatively new sentiment within the Nation. Farrakhan in the past called Jews “bloodsuckers” and Hitler “a great man.”
The father of the organization, Elijah Muhammad, called white man the devil and demanded a separate state for blacks as compensation for slavery. After his death in 1975, his son, W. Deen Mohammed, denounced separatism and race baiting and embraced mainstream Sunni Islam, which preaches unity.
Three years later, Farrakhan broke off and resurrected the Nation of Islam under the previous beliefs.
In Denver, the movement took root after Farrakhan visited in 1981. As was the case elsewhere, themes of black power and economic self-sufficiency resonated in prisons and street gangs, in particular. The Denver community ran two restaurants, founded a private elementary school and delivered meals for the needy.
The organization has held rallies, registered voters, helped shut down drug houses and sought potential converts by selling its newspaper, the Final Call, on the streets.
In 1996, Gerald Muhammad’s more confrontational predecessor, Jamal Muhammad, drew attention when he said during a speech at a Denver high school that white people were eating their dead and living in caves when black people were building the pyramids.
Some Nation members have left over the years for mainstream Islam, including W.A.M. Al-Haqq, who said he was minister of the Denver mosque from 1988 to 1992.
“It took me about four years to realize Louis Farrakhan’s ideas had primacy over even the Koran and the Hadith,” or the sayings of the prophet Muhammad, said Al-Haqq, a lawyer and director of the Institute for Arabic and Islamic Societies in Denver.
Al-Haqq called the Nation’s impact on Denver negligible.
The Rev. Patrick Demmer of Graham Memorial Church of God in Christ in Denver, however, credited Gerald Muhammad for making a positive impact.
“There are a lot of people we have failed to reach in Christendom that Muslims have reached, especially the harder individuals in the community,” said Demmer, who traveled with Muhammad to Washington, D.C., for a conference on families a few years ago.
The Nation of Islam’s efforts to reach out to the wider Muslim community date to Farrakhan’s near-fatal battle with prostate cancer four years ago.
The word has filtered down to Denver. Gerald Muhammad said he is learning Arabic. He points out “our Hispanic brother” in a photograph of mosque members.
“Our philosophy has not changed,” Muhammad said. “It has evolved.”
Muhamad Jodeh, spokesman for the Colorado Muslim Society, the state’s largest mosque, said he is encouraged by the Nation’s move toward Sunni Islam. He said several local Nation members accepted his invitation to pray with him at a banquet last fall.
The Anti-Defamation League, however, says Farrakhan is the same old anti-Semite, pointing to his statements this year about “Israeli Zionists” influencing Bush administration foreign policy.
Muhammad claims hundreds of members and said the mosque is growing. Nationally, estimates put Nation of Islam membership between 30,000 and 70,000.
Muhammad said he hopes to work with religious, political and community leaders to find ways to stop police shootings and tackle gangs, drugs and teen pregnancy.
“We need good police officers,” Muhammad said. “We need ones who are trained in patience and kindness and trained to protect and serve, not walk around our community saying, ‘Hell, man, I’m the overseer on the plantation.”‘
Lawrence Mamiya, a religion professor at Vassar College in New York who specializes in studying the Nation of Islam, said such racially-powered messages resonate in the right conditions.
“To a certain degree, the black middle class has moved away from that, but in a crisis, perhaps it reminds them that racism still exists in America,” he said.