An Illinois anti-discrimination task force has found itself in disarray after one of its commissioners refused to distance herself from comments made by the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan, leading a number of the commission’s Jewish members to resign in protest.
Five Jewish members of the Illinois Commission on Discrimination and Hate Crimes, including the commission’s founding chairman, resigned after fellow commissioner Sister Claudette Marie (Johnson) Muhammad, a high-ranking official in the Nation of Islam, refused to repudiate antisemitic remarks by group leader Farrakhan and after Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich failed to criticize Muhammad or to request her resignation. The Chicago Board of Rabbis has sent an e-mail to its members, urging them not to accept an appointment to the commission.
Muhammad, Farrakhan’s chief of protocol, is national director of community outreach for the Nation of Islam. Though she was appointed to the commission this past August, her appointment didn’t make headlines until late February, when she invited her fellow commissioners to hear Farrakhan speak at the Nation of Islam’s Saviour’s Day. In his remarks, Farrakhan accused “filthy Jews” and “wicked Jews” of promoting lesbianism and homosexuality. He also warned that “neocons and Zionists” were manipulating the government.
Three days after Farrakhan’s speech, commissioner Lonnie Nasatir, midwest regional director of the Anti-Defamation League and son of the president of the Jewish federation in Chicago, Steve Nasatir, held a press conference in which he criticized Muhammad’s presence on the commission.
In response, Muhammad issued a statement in which she made no mention of Farrakhan’s remarks and defended her own credentials, declaring, “I respect those who practice the true tenets of their faith, be it Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Judaism or any other religion.”
Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center executive director Richard Hirschhaut, former regional director of the ADL, had been on the commission since its founding. He told the Forward that Muhammad’s reference to “the true tenets” was “tantamount to code for the kind of language that Farrakhan speaks — true Jews vs. wicked Jews.”
(When the Nation of Islam posted Muhammad’s statement on its Web site, the aforementioned sentence was omitted.)
Despite protests from Jewish lawmakers and commissioners, Blagojevich defended Muhammad in a statement. The governor said: “As much as I deplore Minister Farrakhan’s statements, I also don’t believe in guilt by association.” He also told reporters that he hadn’t known that Sister Muhammad was a member of the Nation of Islam until he read about it in news reports.
Calling Muhammad’s remarks inadequate and the governor’s response disappointing, Hirschhaut and Nasatir resigned from the commission March 2. State Representative Lou Lang promptly accepted an appointment from Blagojevich to fill one of the seats on the commission. However, the next day, he, too, tendered his resignation. So did Howard Kaplan, former chairman of the Chicago Jewish Community Relations Council. Kaplan had been the founding chairman of the commission when it was convened by then-Governor George Ryan in 1999. On Wednesday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that a fifth Jewish member of the commission, attorney Alan Spellberg, is planning to resign.
A source at the Chicago Board of Rabbis told the Forward that two of its members had been asked by the governor’s office to fill the newly-emptied slots and that they had refused.
On Tuesday, Muhammad appeared on a radio program to defend her position. “Please know I am not the victimizer here, okay, but instead I am the victim,” she said, according to The Associated Press. Her chief of staff, Brother Leonard Muhammad (it is common for Nation of Islam members to take the last name Muhammad), attacked the commission members who had resigned. “They need to come back or shut up,” he said. “And leave me alone,” Claudette Muhammad added.
That same day, the state’s lieutenant governor, Pat Quinn, called on Muhammad to leave the commission.
“I think she should resign, and if she doesn’t resign, the panel ought to be disbanded,” Quinn said. “The purpose of the commission is to bring people together, and it’s clearly not serving its purpose.”