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`Black Muslims' shift from militancy to emphasis on religion

The nation's largest ``Black Muslim'' organization is trading in its militant tactics of the 1960s for more traditional tools to gain black progress in the '80s. The American Muslim Mission, called the Nation of Islam when it was founded in the '30s, is disbanding, and its member groups are being encouraged to move into the mainstream of the Islamic religion. The new emphasis is on religion, education, and economic advancement as means for improving conditions for American blacks.

The move, announced last week, represents a strong shift from the radical policies of Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam from 1932 until his passing in 1975, and the movement's most well-known spokesman, Malcolm X.

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The two men ran a strictly disciplined blacks-only organization with a military-like security arm called the Fruit of Islam (FOI). Known as the ``Black Muslims'' (a name its leaders shunned), the group -- a symbol for black power during the height of the civil rights movement -- was isolated from the orthodox worldwide Islamic movement and sought a separate nation for black people within the United States, calling whites ``devils.''

Muhammad's son, Imam Warith Deen Muhammad, who assumed control in 1975, abandoned the militancy of his father, and adopted more of the tradition of the worldwide Muslim movement. He dropped the FOI and the goal of black separatism and opened membership to nonblacks. This moderation caused the creation of several opposition Muslims groups, the largest of which is led by Louis Farrakhan.

The move last week by the American Muslim Mission dissolves the group as a formal corporation. The religious body will continue, however, although with less rigid links to its member congregations.

Imam Muhammed has long expressed a desire to decentralize the movement.

``I have never believed in a one-man government as practiced by my father for our religion,'' the imam (leader) said in a Monitor interview last year. Racism, he adds, is not a part of true Islam.

``Moral neglect in our society is the most serious problem in America,'' says Imam Muhammad. ``We need leadership -- not racism, not nationalism.''

Wali Akbar Muhammad of Chicago, editor of the Muslim Journal and spokesman for the Muslims, stresses that ``we are not disbanding as a religious movement.'' Under the reorganization, the National Council of Imams will continue to set national goals, but each masjid, or Muslim congregation, will govern itself in the tradition of American Baptist churches in Christianity.

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The group's new strategy for black progress heavily emphasizes educational and economic advances instead of protest tactics. ``Blacks are too much in the grievance groove,'' says Imam Muhammad. ``I'm convinced that the black man in America has never exercised his authority to solve his own problems.''

The American Muslim Mission is now working to establish a national teacher's college on the campus of the old Palmer Memorial Institute, a former black prep school near Greensboro, N.C. Imam Muhammad says his goal is to see a nationwide parochial school system with high moral and educational standards.

Business is a major thrust through the American Muslim Committee to Purchase 100,000 Commodities Plus (AMCOP), says Wali Akbar Muhammad. ``Our religion will not run businesses,'' he says. ``We encourage our members to become private entrepreneurs.''

Imam Muhammad says there are plans to provide low-cost or no-cost loans to prospective entrepreneurs. ``We are planning an economic program for the 21st century.'' The imam will coordinate his actions through AMCOP meetings and activities throughout the nation.

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