And I'm not particularly disappointed that people who have long ago vilified Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam as the black equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan are now having a field day draping this suspect in the trappings of the Black Muslim movement. Black people in America--all people in America--are better off today because of the presence of the Nation of Islam in our midst, no matter how many "bad apples" turn up in the bushel. The Hon. Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam, always stood his ground, even in the face of withering condemnations from white America. His message was never corrupted, and he never forsook those who sincerely embraced his teaching. In the face of hostile criticism, he often told the story of the donkey that fell into a ditch. He said that every person who came by and saw the donkey in the ditch threw a stone at him. Pretty soon the passersby had thrown so many stones that the ditch filled up and the donkey walked out of the ditch without any further assistance. "Every knock is a boost," Mr. Muhammad would explain.

Louis Farrakhan lives according to that credo. And while there are few references to him in academic literature or elsewhere that do not include the word "racist" alongside his name, I do not believe he is a race-hater or anti-semite.

There is a superior spiritual dimension to the Islamic message taught by the Hon. Elijah Muhammad, which separates his true followers from all miscreants, deviants, and criminals, whether or not they profess to be Muslims. No matter how appealing the sociological and political effects Mr. Muhammad's message may have appeared to those not in the Nation, his message was textbook religious reform: Believe and accept the message, repent from your wicked ways taught by the slave master, and you will find salvation in prayer toward Mecca, in giving charity, in fasting, in the pilgrimage. Mr. Muhammad emphasized obedience and faith in Allah (God) above all else. Period. That is why his followers have always been unarmed since he first taught the message in Detroit in 1931.

When I attended my first Nation meeting, I was carrying a knife in my pocket. I was afraid to walk the streets without it. I was embarrassed when the speaker warned that those of us who carry such weapons carry them for one reason and one reason only: to do harm to other black people. I may have said that the weapon was to "protect myself," but I knew all along exactly from whom I felt I needed protection.

Mr. Muhammad said--and I now believe it's correct--that whenever someone carries such a carnal weapon, that person has made a god out of that weapon, above Allah, because by that action the person has demonstrated that he or she believes the weapon is better able to protect him or her than is the Almighty.Now it is said that this sniper suspect may have participated in the Million Man March. If he did, that was a good thing. On that day in Washington, when as many as 1.4 million mostly black men assembled at the west front of the U.S. Capitol, there was hardly one single crime reported in the entire city. There were no muggings, no burglaries that day. There were no sniper murders in Washington in October 1995 the way the air itself was filled with death in October 2002.

If only our sniper suspect had held onto and tried harder to practice the message of forgiveness, atonement, and personal responsibility that was taught by word and lived out by example at the Million Man March, we might not have seen a dozen of our neighbors gunned down in cold blood around here.

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