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Sects and the city

In looking at religious sects Pete Smith sees the Nation of Islam as the Protestant ethic dressed up in the trappings of black nationalism

Most sociologists and other writers have tended to see religion as a force to underpin and reinforce the status quo in society. Functionalists as diverse as Emile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons have seen religion in these terms. Religious beliefs provide a basis for norms and values which are shared in common.

Durkheim, in particular, was concerned that the decline in religious belief in modern society posed the threat of anomie, literally a state of normlessness, the lack of a moral framework which enables society to hold together. This was the basis for Durkheim’s interest in socialism as an ethical system that could provide an alternative to religion in decline.

Talcott Parsons saw religion as the basis for ‘value consensus’ providing the underlying assumptions which give society a basis for existence.

Marxists (though not Marx) often go down the same route. Religion is a shell game which persuades the masses that there will be pie in the sky by and by when you die. “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, He made them high and lowly and ordered their estate.”

Life is not as simple as this. Religion gives a very different set of messages. A clear example is that when the peasants rose up against the feudal system what they said was “when Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” In other words, religion becomes the vehicle through which people express social protests and radical political movements.

Religion is not always an agency of the status quo, but can be a place where people without a voice find a word. Religions of the oppressed are perhaps the most positive version of this. Cults and sects can give us a darker version of this picture.

Very often sects draw their supporters from the members of society who are most marginalised, who have no stake or claim within the established institutions, but the irony is that by bringing them into the institution of the sect, the organisation often brings them into the mainstream of the wider society. This is something which Max Weber was very aware of in his analysis of the Protestant Ethic, that sectarian Protestants drawn into the world of business and commerce often found themselves drawn into the same mainstream world as other religious currents. Unless you reject the world and head for confrontation with it, it is so very difficult to keep it out of your head. Look to examples such as Louis Farrakhan to illustrate this.

World rejecting sects always find themselves in a confrontation with the “evil world” they despise and this normally ends with tears before bedtime in terms of the confrontation between their world and that of an increasingly secular society. We see this in the Waco siege and elsewhere, where people wish to reject an external reality which they see as sinful, corrupt and beyond reformation. The trouble with this view is that it often leads to a self destructive set of steps, often with cult leaders being able to exercise enormous influence over their members, not to their members’ advantage.

An interesting point is the way that so many religious sects, from Joseph Smith and the Jesus Christ Church of Latterday Saints via David Koresh and the Branch Davidians to the leaders of the Covenant of the Sword and the Arm of the Lord, assumed that God had given them a divine right to have sex with the female (frequently very young female) members of the group. Divine inspiration and patriarchy seem so regularly to go hand in hand. On the whole, we do not get the same message from female revelations from God.

What these sects seem to do is legitimise behaviour which would be unacceptable in the wider society. In other words, they create and reinforce a subculture which runs against the norms and values of the “normal” society. Sometimes, these subcultures can be quite harmless, for example a refusal to use information technology, but in other circumstances they can involve behaviour which is destructive and even murderous, in which the individual loses any sense of their personal moral responsibility. Think about September 11 and what was in effect a cult within Islam wreaking so much havoc. Other examples of destructive cults include the mass deaths in the jungles of Guyana in 1978 of the members of Jim Jones’ People’s Temple, the suicide of Heaven’s Gate members in 1998 or the gas attack on the Tokyo underground by Aum Shrinrikyo.

An example of what might be seen as a sect, which might also be seen as a religion of the oppressed, is the Nation of Islam. The movement was founded in the 1920s by Wallace Dodd Ford, an itinerant door-to-door raincoat and silk peddler, and further developed by Elijah Muhammad (alias Robert Poole), who became the movement’s leader in 1934 when Ford disappeared. The founders argued that Christianity was the white man’s religion and had to be rejected by blacks in favour of Islam, the religion of Africa. The white man was the devil and the Nation of Islam preached racial separatism and proposed that three southern states be set aside as a homeland for American blacks (imagined to be the lost African tribe of Shabazz). The ideas of Elijah Muhammad were very far removed from those of orthodox Muslims and, initially, for that reason, the movement did not encourage its members to read the Koran, or study Islam, except through the temples (note, not mosques) and ministers of the Nation of Islam itself.

The Nation of Islam owed much more, in terms of organisation and methods, to black churches than to Islam itself. Religion had provided a basis for black organisation and identity for a long time - mostly through various forms of “African” or “Ethiopian” Christianity and occasionally through black “Zionist” or “Jewish” sects.

Blacks’ existing surnames, which had been given to them by slave owners, should be rejected. Since their African names were unknown they would be replaced by an X or a Y (as in Malcolm X). X the unknown. This provided the inspiration for Alex Haley’s book Roots. Haley also co-wrote Malcolm X’s autobiography.

The Nation of Islam stressed black identity and self-reliance. The group had its greatest success amongst urban blacks, often people from the poorest groups in society. Anti-drugs and anti-alcohol its young supporters “The Fruit of Islam” often take it upon themselves to “clean-up” black neighbourhoods of drug dealers etc.

Because of its racial separatism the Nation of Islam tried (without much success) to make common cause with white racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi party led by Lincoln Rockwell. Marcus Garvey, who led the Universal Negro Improvement Association in the 1930s, tried similar approaches to the extreme right.

The Nation of Islam made an important contribution to the Black Power movement of the 1960s through Malcolm X who eventually broke with Elijah Muhammad, who then had him murdered. Malcolm’s family blamed Louis Farrakhan who called for Malcolm’s death in the Nation’s newspaper Muhammad Speaks, which Malcolm X had founded. Malcolm had wanted the Nation to play a more active role in the struggle for civil rights and believed that the leaders of the Nation had become corrupt. Malcolm also made the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, and rejected anti-white racism.

After the death of Elijah Muhammad the organisation broke up into conflicting factions each claiming to be the Nation of Islam. Some groups have dropped their political and social message and have adopted a more orthodox Islamic stance (perhaps in return for money from Arab and Iranian benefactors).The most important group still using the title is led by Minister Louis Farrakhan, a former nightclub singer who married into Elijah Muhammad’s family. Farrakhan retains the black separatism stance and has made outspoken comments on Jews and, most recently, the War in Afghanistan. His organisation the Fruit of Islam (FOI) provided stewards for black presidential candidate Jesse Jackson’s rallies and meetings both in the 1984 and 1988 election campaigns. In the 1990s the Nation of Islam received some publicity because of the activities of the group Public Enemy and their espousal of Farrakhan’s beliefs.

In 1995 the Nation organised the Million Man March, which was an assertion of black male pride and a call for black men to take responsibility for themselves, their families and their community. Although attendance never actually reached one million there was a very substantial response to Farrakhan’s call and, perhaps, over half a million black men turned out in Washington DC. This showed Farrakhan’s and the Nation’s ability to reach out far beyond those who are members or supporters of the Nation and to those who do not accept its religious or political message.

Farrakhan has been barred from entering Britain because the government considers that he is a threat to public order and race relations. He is, apparently, very ill and we will have to see if whoever takes over from him takes the Nation in a new direction. The Nation of Islam newspaper is now called The Last Call. It can be argued that some of Farrakhan’s message - don’t do drugs, stay in school, don’t drink, get a job and take responsibility for yourself and others - is not that far from the American mainstream and established black churches. Maybe Louis Farrakhan really is as American as apple pie after all.

The Nation of Islam is just the Protestant Ethic dressed up in the trappings of black nationalism. Although I abhor the racism and anti-Semitism that Louis Farrakhan has espoused, if his message can keep young black men away from drugs, gangs and gun crime, maybe, just maybe, the old monster has to be given some credit.