CHICAGO: Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan speaks about his ousting from Facebook at St Sabina Catholic Church on May 9, 2019. ィC AFP

demagogue and dangerous fundamentalist to some, heroic crusader for black
rights to others, incendiary religious leader Louis Farrakhan is finding the
audience for his message increasingly hard to reach. The head of the Nation of
Islam - barred for years from Britain and blocked from mainstream TV - has been
declared an undesirable by Facebook for his long record as an unrepentant
merchant of anti-Semitism and homophobia.

Farrakhan's black
advocacy and mantra of self-reliance has lent him a measure of legitimacy over
the years, bolstered by his role a quarter century ago in organizing the
Million Man March that drew hundreds of thousands of African Americans to
Washington. And while his continuing influence is undeniable, critics of the
86-year-old son of a Massachusetts seamstress point out that he has compared
Jews to "termites," called Hitler a "great man" and claimed
that the white race was created by an evil wizard.

True to form, one
of the most divisive political figures in modern American history reacted to
his May 2 ouster from Facebook by casting himself as a victim silenced by
powerful forces. "What have I done that you would hate me like that?"
Farrakhan asked before an audience of more than 1,000 at Saint Sabina Church in
Chicago on Thursday. Cheered on by the rapt congregation - many of whom were
members of the Nation of Islam - he denied misogyny, homophobia and racism,
telling the crowd: "I do not hate Jewish people. No one who is with me has
ever committed a crime against the Jewish people."

supporters say his words have been twisted. "If they actually heard what
he had to say and not listen to a soundbite it would be very helpful,"
said Enoch Muhammad, 40, a member of the Nation of Islam and founder of the
community group Hip Hop Detoxx.

'Most popular

What hasn't been
taken out of context is Farrakhan's claim that Jews played a key role in the
slave trade and have systematically oppressed black people in the US. On
Thursday night, he once again uttered the kind of statements that have gotten
him in trouble, criticizing the influence of Jewish scriptural thinking on the
Catholic Church. "It's this that they fear," he said, pointing to his
mouth. "I don't have no army. I just know the truth. And I'm here to
separate the good Jews from the Satanic Jews."

In recent
decades, his star has faded, but the current era of increasingly high-profile
hate crimes may have finally caught up with Farrakhan. Last month, a teenage
gunman who wrote a hate-filled manifesto online opened fire at a synagogue in
Poway, California, killing a worshiper. Six months earlier, another man
spouting anti-Semitic and white nationalist vitriol shot dead 11 people at a synagogue
in Pittsburgh. "Farrakhan may be the most popular anti-Semite in the
United States," said Oren Segal of the Anti-Defamation League, describing
his group as Farrakhan's "biggest foil". "He often gets a pass
for his vitriol, because of the way he's tried to present his standing within
the community," Segal said.

'Bold voice'

Born in 1930s New
York as Louis Eugene Walcott, and brought up in Boston's fundamentalist
Christian tradition, Farrakhan has been credited for bringing hope to African
American communities. His followers have stood guard in neighborhoods against
gang violence and ministered to convicts in prison who are disproportionately
African American. And while former president Bill Clinton may have been
criticized for sitting alongside Farrakhan at the televised funeral of Aretha
Franklin last year, many younger Americans have no qualms about being
associated with the preacher.

As recently as
April, he commanded a crowd while giving a speech in Los Angeles on the spot
where popular rapper Nipsey Hussle was shot dead. "The enemy wants to keep
this killing of one another going," he told the rapt crowd. "Because
as long as we keep killing one another, he can maintain power in what we call
the tyranny of white supremacy," he said.

Ahmed-Rufai, a Chicago-based history and African American studies professor at
Malcolm X College, said Farrakhan's group speaks to "the pain that a lot
of African Americans feel". Prominent figures that have come to
Farrakhan's defense include hip-hop artist Snoop Dogg, who posted an angry
Instagram video following Facebook's action asking his 31 million followers to
post clips of Farrakhan's sermons. "Show what he really be talking about -
educating the truth. Can't ban all of us," Snoop Dogg said.

Among Farrakhan's
other supporters is Father Michael Pfleger - the politically-active Chicago
priest who invited Farrakhan to speak at his Saint Sabina church Thursday
night. The public show of support gave Farrakhan a boost and led to a public
rebuke of the priest from the Illinois Holocaust Museum. "Minister
Farrakhan has been a bold voice against injustice done against black people in
this country and his voice deserves and needs to be heard," Pfleger said.