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Farrakhan's address billed as final

Published February 22, 2007


DETROIT - Former Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan is heading into what's billed as his final major address Sunday, and some Muslims are wondering if the fiery orator - now slowed by poor health - will try to repair old divisions between his movement and mainstream Islam.

Farrakhan's scheduled appearance at Ford Field will be his first since ceding leadership last year to an executive board because of illness.

Farrakhan, 73, was released last month from the hospital after undergoing a 12-hour abdominal operation to correct damage caused by treatment for prostate cancer. A statement from the Nation at the time said Farrakhan "doesn't see himself coming before the public on such a major stage as we are preparing in Detroit." He might, however, honor lesser engagements.

The event will be a homecoming of sorts for the Nation of Islam movement, which promotes black empowerment and nationalism. It was founded in Detroit by Wallace D. Fard in 1930.

Fard attracted black Detroiters on the margins of society with a message of self-improvement and separation from whites, who he said were inherently evil because of their enslavement of blacks.

Farrakhan rebuilt the movement in the late 1970s after W.D. Mohammed, the son of longtime Nation leader Elijah Muhammad, moved his followers toward mainstream Islam.

Farrakhan angered many Americans in the process. He became notorious for his provocative comments, calling Judaism a "gutter religion" and suggesting crack cocaine might have been a CIA plot to enslave blacks. He met with foreign leaders at odds with the United States - Moammar Gadhafi, Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein - prompting the State Department in 1996 to accuse him of "cavorting with dictators."

"In the course of his career, I have to say, the external gaze of others generally has not been at the top of the list of what he's worried about," said Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University. "It's late in his life, he's ill. There are questions of legacy. All of that tends to soften a leader."

In Detroit, some blacks who practice mainstream Islam say a shared history and personal ties with the Nation have united the groups in worship and work. Mitchell Shamsud-Din, a founding member of the orthodox Muslim Center in Detroit who runs its community service programs, is like thousands of Detroit-area Muslims who came to orthodox Islam through the Nation.

"There's a friendship and brotherhood between our two groups," said Shamsud-Din, whose projects include Nation of Islam volunteers.

"We work with Christians, and they believe Jesus is God," he said. "Why wouldn't we work with a Muslim brother who has another difference?"

Nation leaders won't say how many members the movement, now based in Chicago, has. But it is estimated it has between 10,000 and 50,000 followers in the United States.

[Last modified February 22, 2007, 01:05:21]

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