[Editor’s note: The following edited text is taken from a June 20, 2003 interview with Minister Louis Farrakhan by National Public Radio host Tavis Smiley. The interview took place at Min. Farrakhan’s residence in Chicago.]
Tavis Smiley (TS): As part of your 70th year milestone, you’ve also been celebrating your success and your survival in the battle against prostate cancer. Tell me, one, how you’re feeling these days, and how this experience has affected you, your family, your ministry.
Minister Louis Farrakhan (MLF):
Near death always has an impact on anyone who enters the portal of death and is brought back from it. The things that one takes for granted, like the rising of the sun, or the rain, or the thunder, or just watching the blades of grass, or watching a bird fly, and roses bud, these are things that we see, but sometimes they are so magnificent that we take them for granted. But when you’re at death’s door and God spares your life, you are cognizant of all the little things that make life the majestic gift that God has ordained for all who have it.
Because of my prostate cancer and my near death experience, and because people of many faiths, many ethnic and racial groups sincerely prayed for me, there was no way that I could come out of that experience less conscious of my commitment to the struggle of Black people for total liberation. But also, I was much more cognizant of my duty to all of humanity. Those who prayed for me caused me to see in greater depth the silliness of people of God being divided by their misunderstanding of God and His oneness, and yet we, as a people who believe in God, are so divided and filled with bitterness and hatred.
TS: The Louis Farrakhan Prostate Cancer Foundation was launched on your 70th birthday. What do you hope to do with this particular effort?
MLF: First, it will be raising money to help in making men in general, Black men in particular, more aware of this disease and the impact that it is having on our community. And then we hope to have in Washington, D.C., at Howard University, a Louis Farrakhan Prostate Cancer Center, where we will raise money for this, particularly to aid Black men who are unable to pay for this treatment, to be able to get the treatment and be examined, without fear that they won’t have money to do this. It will make the remaining years of my life more meaningful if I can help tens of thousands of Black men, if they have it, to catch it early, so that we never lose our giants, as we have up to this day lost so many.
TS: You were quoted last October as describing President Bush as being off course, victimized with the greatness of the power of America. A lot has happened since then. What is your assessment now of the Bush administration and this U.S. war on terrorism?
MLF: I think it was a mistake that America is paying for in the way the world sees this great nation. It grieved me last year this time when I was on tour in the Middle East begging the leaders of the Middle East, Muslim leaders, to unite to speak with one voice to President Bush, that our unity might be able to stop a war. I was not allowed to enter Israel, where I would have talked with Brother Arafat and to the leaders of Hamas and others, as well as, hopefully, to talk to Prime Minister Sharon. I did believe and I do believe that there is a better way than the way we have chosen to go.
Unfortunately, the war has cost America greatly politically throughout the world. And now (after the war), many Americans are dying, probably almost as many as were killed in the war itself. This is continuing to happen in Iraq and also in Afghanistan. And even though President Bush has said that this is not a war against Islam, yet (Secretary of Defense Donald) Rumsfeld warned the Iranian leaders not to meddle in Iraq, even though the majority of the people in Iraq are Muslims and Shias. The call for an Islamic government that rules by the Qur’an rather than rules by the precepts or doctrines of men is what disturbed Mr. Rumsfeld, so he warned Iran not to meddle in Iraq.
But this is what America is doing all over the world–meddling in the affairs of nations–and it will not bring good results. Regardless to how it seems, America is losing because of her drunkenness over her greatness and her power. And though I don’t wish to be perceived in any way as anti-Semitic or any such thing, but the neo-conservatives, or the strong Jewish influence on the American political scene, are using the might of America not to destroy America’s enemies but to destroy the enemies, perceived or real, of the state of Israel. That is why Iraq was attacked, then Syria warned, then Iran.
TS: Since you have raised the issue here of the state of Israel, and American Jews in particular, I am certain that I am not letting you in on a big secret when I suggest to you that many years later, there are still many in the Jewish community who see you as domestic public enemy number one. There are others who still point to, in particular, two comments attributed to you years ago. One in which you said, “Hitler was a very great man.” The other statement attributed to you apparently referred to Judaism as a “gutter religion.” Since you raised this issue, let me ask you about those two comments in particular.
Let me start with the comment about Hitler being a very “great man.” I dug up these quotes attributed to you. In context, I see you responding to a Jew who called you a “Black Hitler,” which I did not know. I also did not know the full context of this quote, which you also said two sentences later, “I am not proud of Hitler’s evil toward Jewish people, but don’t compare me with your wicked killers.” So I’ve seen this thing in a broader context now. I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you to talk to me about this comment, this quote, “Hitler being a very great man,” and whether or not you understand, even in context, the pain that many Jews have about this comment, and why so many of them still view you as suspect?
MLF: First, let me say for the record that I am not now, nor have I ever been, a hater or disrespecter of the Jewish people. I am not, nor have I ever been, a person that is against the Jewish people’s faith, for it is God Who revealed to them and sent them prophet after prophet. As a Muslim, we respect all of the prophets that were sent to the Children of Israel and we believe in the scriptures that they brought. These prophets were agents of correction for the Jewish people. They were agents of reform for the Jewish people that they might keep their favored position with God.
I would view myself, not as a prophet, but as one who respects this people and knows that this people can make a tremendous contribution to our rise from ignorance and savagery into the highest manifestation of civilized behavior. The Jewish people can help us to become that, because they once were in the state of condition that we are in and God raised them up through a prophetic voice.
My disagreement is with aspects of that community who seek to control Black thought, Black expression, Black talent, Black politics, Black religion, Black people. I want our people to be free of all control, except by God and ourselves. When I speak out against this control by certain elements of that community, I am looked upon with disfavor as a hater or as an anti-Semite.
Now, to your question about Hitler. I, in my spare time, always look at the Biography channel and History channel, and though Hitler has been dead for at least 60 or more years, his name, his image, his history, his life are always before the American people and the world’s people through the many stories that are told and the insights that historians give to all aspects of Hitler’s life. Greatness is not goodness, and this is what I attempted to say 17 years ago when I became persona non grata because of these alleged statements.
You said exactly what I said, that I am not proud of any evil that Hitler did to the Jewish people. I said, don’t compare me with your wicked killers because I have killed no Jew. Nor have I ever ordered those who love me, and would do as I ask, to harm one hair on the head of any Jew. We have never boycotted one Jewish store or made any Jew in business uncomfortable. But, my words, taken out of context and improperly placed before the American people, have put me in this ugly position.
There are many in America who say what I just said earlier about the strong political influence of the Jewish people on the political direction of this nation. I’m not alone in saying it. Others will speak it under their breath or say it quietly, but I am blasted because I want to correct something that I believe will lead the country to ruin and destruction.
If we, as a Black people, had people in Congress that could influence the direction of this nation, reparations would be a fact in America today and billions and trillions would be paid to the children of slaves. It is clear that any of us who attempt to use our influence to get our government to be more just where the Blacks or the Hispanics or the Native Americans are concerned, we get squashed.
The Jewish community, small in number, yet powerful in influence and wealth, has every right to seek advantage for themselves and their group, but not at the expense of America, at the expense of the greatness of this nation.
The last part of that is, I never said that Judaism was, in fact, a gutter religion. I believe in that which God revealed through the mouth of His prophets to the Jewish people. Many rabbis have come and sat at my table and we’ve discussed these things amicably and amiably. What I’m referring to is how people who claim to be religious can dirty their religion by their foul actions in contravention to what their prophets taught them.
Everybody today has to clean up their actions in order to give religion a better name. There are Muslims that have to clean up. There are Jews that have to clean up. There are Christians that have to clean up. There are Buddhists and Hindus that have to clean up. Otherwise, religion in the world is dead, because it is the number one purveyor of hatred and misunderstanding between people.
TS: What do you think are some of the greatest myths and misconceptions about the Nation of Islam?
MLF: That we are a hate group; that we are anti-American; that we are a “fifth column” within the United States that must be dealt with in this climate since 9/11; that we are anti-Christian. These are false ideas promoted in the American media and sometimes contributed to by ourselves, by our misunderstanding of the teachings, or our zeal in speaking the message.
All of the problems that Islam corrects in our socialization and in our behavior are the same problems that are undermining America’s moral and social fabric. I think that, rather than condemning Islam, Islam needs to be studied by those who are sincere; study it and see what is it in Islam that it changes us from an anti-social person, from a criminal, from a prostitute, from drug addiction, from wife-beating, from a person that had no will to do something for self into a self-reliant, self-respecting, self-loving, self-producing people.
TS: I wonder if the future of the Nation of Islam is inextricably linked to charismatic leadership like that which you have exhibited these many years?
MLF: I would hope and pray that that will not be the case. I think charismatic persons and personalities are always good in initiating a new religious idea, philosophy or direction. But when that idea and the principles that undergird it are institutionalized, then charismatic personalities are no longer necessary to fuel that entity. I would hope that my life and my death will end the need for charismatic persons and personalities to keep this movement going. To institutionalize the principles that undergird the life of Elijah Muhammad and the life of Louis Farrakhan or the life of any charismatic personality is what gives life to the movement.
TS: I don’t know if you quite see it this way, Brother Minister, but there are many who would suggest that your crown jewel was the Million Man March. What was the most significant accomplishment of the Million Man March?
MLF: It was a stunning, shocking and inspiring event for those of us who were used to call it into existence, as well as for those who heard the call and came. The most important aspect of that was it showed Black people that we, as Black men, could come together for 12, 14 or more hours and stand shoulder to shoulder without one argument, without one fight, without one bad spirit. The spirit of the Million Man March was so high, so great, so magnificent that the many lives that were there were transformed as a result of it.
TS: Speaking of public policy and Black leadership, what would you say is the single greatest challenge facing Black leadership today?
MLF: I would think that Black leadership has to recognize that principles, more than speech or character, more than acclaim, are greater in advancing the cause of our liberation than what has transpired thus far. The greatest of our leaders were always men of high character and high morals, even though moral lapses have been found in all. But overall, I would say that the challenge of leadership is both moral and one of developing the characteristics that make us respected by one another.
And this, I think, will mean that, as leaders, we need to structure a Black United Front or an African American United Front, where those in leadership of organizations should be able to sit in a room and think on the problems of our people and the problems of the nation and come up with a solution that all of us in our own spheres can work on. That can happen.
TS: One of the most fascinating things about you, for me at least, is that you are an accomplished violinist. You started playing at age 6 and by age 13, you’d played with the Boston College Orchestra and the Boston Civic Symphony. Is music still your first love?
MLF: No, God and His truth and His religion are my first love. Our people are my second love. Humanity is my third love. Then, how my gifts, skills and talents serve God, serve our people and serve humanity. God is first, always, and His way of life is first.
TS: You mentioned love a lot in our conversation. Speaking of love, 50 years now, you’ve been married to the same woman. Talk to me about that relationship.
MLF: I think my wife has been a great blessing to me, a gift to me and my children from God. Every man should have a wife like this. My teacher, Elijah Muhammad, helped my wife in a class that allowed her to help me to become a man. A man is a very delicate creature who needs care, because God has constructed the man to carry the ideals of the nation and to work to fulfill these ideals. And that means that men are, by nature, to be producers. They conquer mountains, they conquer oceans, they conquer space. There is no impediment that nature produces that man does not have the ability to overcome. When I say man, I’m speaking of the male now.
But the female is his natural consoler, comforter and helper in that which God has given to the man to perform. And when we have that proper male/female relationship, the man leaves his home with peace and contentment of mind to go out and face the challenges of life. And then can’t wait until he can get back home to that environment that relieves him of the stress and the pain of what he faces as he tries to forge progress for his family, for his community, for his nation.
I’ve tried to be a good husband, a good father, but I have not been as good as I could be or should be. There is much that I am growing to learn about mission and family. And even though I have always sensed a mission to liberate Black people, I should never have tried to do it at the expense of my family, because in the final analysis, if your mission is “out” and not “in” then, whatever you’ve done “out” you can’t reflect it back “in.”
The mission should start “in” and then go “out.” A man that has a mission “out” and doesn’t have a mission “in,” he’s only half the leader or the man or the father or the husband that he could be. So I’m only halfway there. But at 70 years of life, I’m learning now how precious my wife is, my children are, my family is, and I’m trying to achieve the balance between mission and family.
TS: I close by asking you, what, in fact, do you want your legacy to be?
MLF: I don’t give that much thought, because I’m still writing my testament. As long as I’m alive and continue to function as I do, every day that I live, God willing, I will add breath and depth to my life experience and, therefore, breath and depth in my service to our people and others. I would hope that my legacy would ultimately be that he lived his life in service, first, of God and His people. For that I am not ashamed.
I make no apologies for my love of my people and for my love of humanity. And the more that I live and grow, I would like to see all of humanity living as we should in the image and in the likeness of God. I believe with all my heart that a day like that will come. And as my dear and beloved brother Martin Luther King said, I may not be there to see it, but I’ve already seen it through the eyes of the prophets of God that such a day will come. Each of us must do our part to bring that day to fruition.
TS: Minister Louis Farrakhan, thank you so much for your time and thank you for sharing.
MLF: Thank you and thank NPR for the privilege of being a part of this broadcast.