The Nation of Islam, anti-vaccine falsehoods and Covid-19 denialism

The Nation of Islam (NOI), one of the most famous and wealthy black nationalist organisations in the US, has been cooperating with anti-vaccine fanatics, and recycling antivaccinationist falsehoods in their social media content. While the NOI has an extensive and bizarre theology setting it apart from other right wing organisations, it has found common cause with other antivaccinationist and Covid-19 denier spokespeople on the political spectrum.

The NOI, founded in 1930, advocates a bizarre invented cosmology, purportedly demonstrating the inherent superiority of the black race. A UFO religion, NOI adherents are taught that the original, divinely imbued human is the black man. Consisting of the Arabic-speaking Tribe of Shabazz, the black man himself is the original Allah.

Already, we can see a major divergence from the beliefs of mainstream Islam; the NOI is a polytheistic religion, advocating multiple gods. In fact, Islamic scholars have denounced the NOI as a completely different theological sect, believing in concepts alien to mainstream Islam.

While Wallace Fard Muhammad was the founder of the NOI, it was Elijah Muhammad who made the organisation into a strict, hierarchical setup we see today. Proclaiming himself the messenger of Allah, Elijah Muhammad advocated black separatism, a theologically-nationalist outlook, and black empowerment through wealth creation. Finding recruits among the black prison population, as well as among the poor and dispossessed African Americans in Detroit, the NOI appealed to many because of its message of black nationalism in confronting white supremacy.

Elijah Muhammad taught – and longtime NOI leader Minister Louis Farrakhan reiterated – that a mad black scientist, Yakub (identified with the biblical Jacob) created a new race through selective breeding and combining recessive genes. Weeding out the darker-coloured babies, Yakub created what became the white race – an inherently sinful, depraved people who would rule the Earth for 6000 years. This experimentation apparently took place on the Mediterranean island of Patmos.

This white race is currently approaching the end of its time, according to the NOI. At this point, the man-made Mothership, an alien intervention, would intercede in human affairs and bring to an end the domination of the white race, restoring the black man to his rightful place as custodian of the Earth. Once again, these beliefs are completely foreign to mainstream Islamic thought.

The NOI’s most famous recruits – Malcolm X and the boxer Muhammad Ali – helped the NOI gain a national following. It is important to stress here that black nationalism is not racism; after centuries of racial oppression, it is no surprise that ethnic minorities react by proposing a complete separation from their abusers. Malcolm X, while famously breaking with the NOI and denouncing its theology as fraudulent, never broke away from black nationalism.

The NOI has performed remarkably successful outreach among marginalised African American communities; its influence extends far beyond its core membership. The NOI membership is estimated at 50000, the African American population in the US is at 46 million. It has successfully built its organisation, requiring members to lead an abstemious lifestyle – no alcohol, tobacco, gambling or premarital sexual relations.

The NOI, under Farrakhan’s leadership, emphasised the importance of racial justice and economic empowerment for African Americans. In 1995, the NOI organised the Million Man March on Washington. In contrast to the white supremacist gathering in Washington on January 6 2021, not a single NOI member attempted to storm the US Congress or subvert the democratic process.

Since the beginning of the current pandemic, NOI leaders have advocated a Covid-19 denialist position, and preached an anti-vaccine message. This vaccine denial stems at least in part from a very real mistrust of government institutions and directives. The US has a long and sordid history of unethical medical experimentation on marginalised communities.

However, the NOI, alongside other antivaccinationist voices, have exploited such skepticism to promote harmful misinformation and deter African Americans from receiving the required vaccinations. Uniting with anti-vaccine proponents such Robert F Kennedy Jnr, and ultranationalist conspiracy theorist and politician Marjorie Taylor Greene, the NOI has amplified antisemitic and tawdry conspiracy theories about the Covid-19 virus and the vaccinations for it.

Conspiratorial viewpoints, reproduced in NOI materials, usually blames the Jews for either instigating the virus, or in another iteration, producing vaccines to depopulate the planet – by reducing the numbers of African Americans. Apportioning the culpability for the plight of the black community to the Jewish people has long been a staple tactic of the NOI. Everything from the transatlantic slave trade, to the civil rights movement – the latter advocating racial integration, the opposite of racial separatism – have been blamed on conspiracies by rich and powerful Jews.

While the NOI has given voice to marginalised African American communities, we should be honest in also repudiating the misinformation they spread, and the ludicrous fictional cosmology they advocate. The NOI’s antivaccinationist platform is a huge disservice to the communities they purport to represent.

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