The place was Masjid Omar near USC. The speaker was Lydia Camarillo of the Democratic National Convention Committee. The topic was Muslim Americans and politics.
But the day's biggest story centered on the participants: For the first time since African American Muslims were divided into two competing and sometimes hostile forces 25 years ago, members of Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam and W.D. Mohammed's Muslim American Society came together this week to co-sponsor an event in Los Angeles. Unity efforts will get another boost today when both sides hold a family picnic in Los Angeles.
The rapprochement is bringing healing to a bitter legacy of separation that began with the 1975 death of Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad, who preached a doctrine of race-based separatism and taught that God was incarnate in the person of his teacher, W. Fard Muhammad. His son and successor, Warith Deen, quickly disavowed those doctrines and moved his flock to embrace orthodox Islam--which offers a message of universal brotherhood and holds that there is no God but Allah and that the prophet Muhammad was his last messenger.
In 1977, Farrakhan reestablished the Nation and reembraced the doctrines of Elijah Muhammad.
The chaotic split pitted families and friends against each other in a sometimes violent struggle over questions ranging from the nature of God to the best political path for African Americans. Since Farrakhan and Mohammed officially pledged in February to work together, however, that turbulent past is, slowly and carefully, being put to rest as both sides move toward Muslim unity.
"There are people in both communities who are still somewhat resistant to unity, but it's going to happen with or without them," said Najee Ali, a Muslim activist with Project Islamic HOPE who was a leading initiator of the Los Angeles rapprochement. "We're family now."
Ali said the combined forces will strengthen the political clout of African American Muslims, whose numbers are not well-documented and are usually estimated at anywhere between 500,000 and 2.5 million. The Rev. Tony Muhammad, the Nation's western regional minister, envisions joint projects in economic development and social programs--even a "Muslimtown" of prosperous businesses and peaceful neighborhoods free from crime, drugs and dysfunction.
"We want to take back our communities," Muhammad said. "We believe if we pool our resources and do for ourselves . . . we can take the ghettos of America and turn them into an oasis."
For Muslims like J. Rene Mustafa and Imam Saddiq Saafir, the rapprochement also has deeply personal overtones. Both were former members of the Nation who chose to follow the path of orthodox Islam instead. Both retain some positive memories of their experiences in the Nation: for Mustafa, the tight bonds of sisterhood, and the helpful classes in sewing, cooking, etiquette and the like; for Saafir, the empowerment and sense of dignity offered to a people caught in the bonds of "despair, misery, lack of self-esteem and self-worth."
"It was a good alternative to what Christian America was offering to blacks," said Saafir, who says that praying to a white God in the form of Jesus--the same color as his people's slave masters--was psychologically damaging.
Now, both Mustafa and Saafir say they feel a sense of deja vu in reembracing old friends and colleagues. Since May, Mustafa, along with Sabah Muhammad, has helped organize monthly meetings with women in the Nation, at which they eat, visit and discuss everything from religion to recipes.
"It was like getting together with old family you haven't seen in some time," said Mustafa, a senior computer analyst in Los Angeles. "There is so much lost time. I really look forward to a lot of the fellowshipping we had and the closeness we had."
For other Muslims with no Nation experience, like Ali and Sabah Muhammad, the new unity has prompted them to let go of old stereotypes and grudges.
At the first meeting with Nation women in May, Muhammad says, she rose and offered atonement for her negative, distorted images of them: that they were black nationalists who hated anyone who didn't look like them, that they didn't really believe in God. After actually meeting the women, discussing their views, discovering their common ground--and being treated to an extravaganza of food, a fashion show and a drill team performance--Muhammad says she learned she was wrong: "I simply took other people's opinions about them and accepted them as my own, which was a mistake."
Now Muhammad is offering help in learning orthodox ways of reciting prayers in Arabic, reading the Koran, ritual washing and other points of Islamic etiquette. "I'm really grateful that God chose me to be a catalyst in this historic venture," she said.
Ali says he long blamed Farrakhan for creating a climate of hatred that led to the 1965 assassination of his hero, Malcolm X. Just two years ago, Ali was so antagonistic toward the Nation that when members tried to put their newspaper, the Final Call, in a mainstream mosque, he forcibly ejected them and shattered their car windshield.
Now, Ali has helped lead the way in making peace--even over the warnings, he says, of some Jewish leaders and Democratic officials, who continue to mistrust Farrakhan. (Tony Muhammad, Farrakhan's western regional minister, said his leader's recent near-fatal battle with prostate cancer genuinely moved him to a new commitment to harmony and unity, not only with all Muslims but also with Christians and others.)
Despite the headiness, both sides say the very source of the split--differences in Islamic theology and practice--is not yet fully resolved.
When Farrakhan embraced Mohammed at his Savior's Day convention in Chicago earlier this year, orthodox Muslims were led to believe that the Nation of Islam leader had finally disavowed what they view as heretical doctrines: that W. Fard Muhammad was Allah incarnate and that Elijah Muhammad was a divine messenger.
But Tony Muhammad, based in Los Angeles, said this week that the Nation hasn't changed its doctrines. "We believe that Master Fard is the greatest manifestation of Allah that we know today," he said. Told that orthodox Muslims don't believe that humans can be divine, he said: "We beg to differ."
He also said that members believe Elijah Muhammad was a "messenger of God," which differs from the orthodox belief that the prophet Muhammad was God's final messenger.
The process of reconciliation may take time, but both sides say their goodwill and genuine desire for unity will ultimately prevail.
"When we do our [Friday prayer service] together, it's beautiful," Muhammad said. "To see this kind of unity is beautiful."