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A little religion, a little politics and a little self-discovery

Common Ground

I was going to write about intolerance and the idiocy of labels.

I was going to write about prejudging people on the strengths of half-truths and full fictions.

I'd even written some of it in my head before I sat down at a keyboard. I was going to write about how, according to political labels, Franco and Tito were at opposite ends of the spectrum. One was a fascist, the extreme tip of the right wing. The other was a communist, the leftest of the leftists. Yet, at their heart, they were the same. They were dictators. They ruled by force and intimidation. They kept people in line by making them fear the government and distrust each other.

Even white supremacists and black separatists — two opposing camps if ever there were two — have some common ground. They both see integration as some kind of plot, and they both think parts of the United States should be cordoned off so black people can have their land and white people can have their land and never the twain shall meet.

It's as if all the extremists of the world bend reality around until its opposite ends touch each other on the far side of some alternate existence most of us can hardly imagine.

I was thinking all of this because I was going to hear a speech by Wallace Deen Mohammed, son of Elijah Mohammed, founder of the Nation of Islam. In 1975 Wallace became the leader of the Nation of Islam; that group is now called the Muslim American Society. (The current Nation of Islam led by Louis Farrakhan broke off from Deen Mohammed's group in 1977.)

To prepare for the experience, I read Elijah Mohammed's "Message to the Blackman in America." Elijah Mohammed preached that all white people are devils. That white people added falsehoods to the Bible so they could use it to subjugate black people. That the only hope for black people in America is to separate themselves from whites. That, since white people stole the United States from the Indians and built it with black sweat, white people should give a chunk of the United States to black people so they can create their own nation.

I've heard Louis Farrakhan. I know what's up with this stuff.

Then I heard the speech.

Wallace Mohammed didn't talk about separation. He talked about unity. He didn't talk about conflict. He talked about cooperation.

"The conflicts come and go," he said. "The unity abides forever."

"I'm going to say many things that may surprise many of you," Mohammed said that night. And he was true to his word. According to him, the Koran tells Muslims, "You will find the nearest people to you to be the Nazarenes ... Christians."

When he began to follow his curiosity from the Nation of Islam his father led, Mohammed went to the Bible. "I read it once to read it," he said. "I read it again to study it."

The night I heard him, Mohammed talked about the ideas Christianity and Islam share.

"Islam is a religion of peace. Christianity is a religion of peace. Islam is a religion of the unity of mankind. Christianity is a religion of the unity of mankind . … Christianity's invitation to the individual is to be responsible to God. Islam's invitation to the individual is the same — to be responsible to God. … Both religions want a spiritual change within us. …Christianity and Islam both want us to walk the path of God."

That's not to say Islam and Christianity are the same. Their interpretations of Jesus Christ's crucifixion create a fundamental difference between Islam and Christianity. For Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus is the cornerstone of their religion. For Muslims, the crucifixion story is symbolic. They do not believe Christ literally died and then rose from his borrowed tomb.

After hearing Mohammed talk about his study of the Bible and the similarities he found between its message and the Koran's, a woman in the audience asked which version of the Bible Muslims should read.

"The Holy Koran version," he answered. "That is your version."

Wallace Mohammed's Islam is not interchangeable with Christianity. But Wallace Mohammed's Islam is not his father's Islam, either.

Elijah Mohammed, his son said, was "the biggest psychological gunfire in America in its whole history." But the message Elijah Mohammed brought was a "temporary message, with a time bomb in it." In time, the younger Mohammed said, people were meant to see through that temporary message. It was supposed to fall away, leaving only the message of Islam. That temporary message was bait, he said, to draw black people to Islam, "to hold them until conditions got better for black folks in America."

"It was a masterful job of psychology and it worked," Wallace Mohammed said.

"That was not Islam."

At least one man in the audience had heard Wallace Mohammed speak in the same place 20 years before. As he said, "There has been an evolvement."

At the end of the evening, I thought of something John Wesley, the Anglican minister who founded Methodism, wrote to a clergyman he'd been arguing theology with: "If we cannot all believe the same, at least we can love the same."

I knew I was going to write about intolerance and the idiocy of labels.

I knew I was going to write about prejudging people on the strengths of half-truths and full fictions. I just didn't know I was going to write about me.

Tim Thornton is a writer who lives in Greensboro, N.C.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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