As Michael Jackson spoke for the first time since he was charged with child molestation his loyal spokesman was missing from the Christmas Day taping session for a television special.
After more than a decade of service to his pop star boss, Stuart Backerman’s place was taken by Leonard Muhammad, the Nation of Islam chief of staff and newly installed Jackson confidante.
Last Sunday, the interview with Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes, for which Jackson was said to have been paid $1m, was broadcast in the United States. The following day Backerman resigned in protest at the group’s presence. He was just the latest casualty in the internal battle to control the life of the King of Pop, who is said to be under the influence of one of America’s most violent cults.
Jackson’s involvement in the Nation of Islam is as shrouded in secrecy as the group itself. His brothers Jermaine, a Muslim convert but not a member of NOI, and Tito are said to have called in the group to act as “security” at the Neverland Ranch after fresh allegations of child sex abuse surfaced in mid-November.
But media reports in the US claim that the black separatist group’s leader, Louis Farrakhan, is after the pop star’s assets, which remain considerable, at about $200m, despite rumours that Jackson is broke.
The Nation of Islam, until recently more often called the Black Muslims, is an extremist American cult whose belief system comprises a kitschy mixture of bad science fiction and corrupted Islamic theology.
It believes that a circular spaceship carrying 1,500 smaller ships filled with bombs will at some indeterminate point destroy both Britain and America. But despite this, the Nation of Islam has played a significant part in the history of America in the 20th century, in particular the history of African Americans.
Founded by the Honourable Elijah Muhammad, known to his followers as “The Messenger”, and often associated with its two most famous members, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, the group blazed a trail of recalcitrance, deception and violence through America from the 1930s onwards.
The Nation of Islam is still fighting for mainstream acknowledgment, an acknowledgment that was partially, and grudgingly, conferred on Farrakhan in 1995 for his prominent role in organising the Million Man March on Washington DC.
The original Nation was reformed in the 1930s and eventually renamed the Muslim American Society, its theology integrated with the Sunni Muslim beliefs of Elijah’s son, Warith Muhammad so as to become virtually indistinguishable from orthodox Islam. There are today numerous splinter groups, the largest being Farrakhan’s own “Nation of Islam”, which clings to Elijah’s original teachings and has about 20,000 members.
The majority of African Americans are wary of the NOI, generally focusing on its negative aspects: its role in complicating the civil rights movement and its legacy of black-on-black violence. But mainstream African American commentators also point out that the NOI carried out valuable social work functions in the community.
Muhammad became a Jackson adviser in mid-December and remained close to the star throughout the Christmas holiday season. He was present with Jackson’s attorney Mark Geragos during a press briefing after the singer was formally charged on December 18 and his men acted as security at the party held in support of the star at Neverland Ranch two days later.
Subsequent reports claimed that Jackson had become a member of the Nation of Islam. All communication with the singer has gone through Muhammad, said several sources, and he is now “restricting access to [Jackson] and has begun making decisions for him related to the news media, his business affairs and even his legal strategy”.
After reports were initially denied by Geragos, Jermaine Jackson admitted the NOI involvement, saying: “We didn’t ask them to pray. We asked them to secure him.” Geragos said he fired Backerman, which Backerman denies.
Roger Friedman, a television journalist with Fox News, said: “The interview could have been a little more enlightening, couldn’t it? For one thing, Bradley didn’t get into the whole issue of control over Jackson’s finances and fortune – shaky at best – being sought by several camps, including the Nation of Islam.”
But Muhammad has denied the rumours, saying: “We have not tried to recruit Michael. Nor has he expressed any interest in becoming a member of the Nation of Islam.”
Muhammad also dismissed “absurd” rumours that Farrakhan is looking into ways to gain control of The Beatles’ back catalogue by bailing out Jackson, who owns it, financially. He added that whatever friendship he had with Jackson did not necessarily extend to Farrakhan. “If someone’s a Catholic, that doesn’t mean he knows the Pope,” Muhammad said.
When asked about the NOI involvement, Jackson’s business adviser Charles Koppelman said: “It’s not the case as to his music, finances and assets. I think it’s primarily in security.”
Jackson, 45, who was booked on November 20 and released on $3m bail, was charged with seven counts of committing lewd and lascivious acts on a child of 14 and two of administering an intoxicating agent for the purpose of molesting a child, reported to be wine. Jackson is to be arraigned on January 16. He has denied all the charges.
The Nation of Islam issued a statement strongly denying that it has taken over some of Jackson’s business affairs or that it is taking a central role in his defence strategy. It said: “The Nation of Islam, in response to several inquiries, has said today that it has no official business or professional relationship with Mr Michael Jackson. The Nation of Islam joins thousands of other people in wishing him well.”