CHICAGO — IT shines like an oasis in stone amid the grimy, battered storefronts of Chicago's South Side: a new sand-colored edifice with a golden star and crescent perched on the roof.
The $5 million Salaam Restaurant and Bakery was opened last week with much fanfare by Louis Farrakhan, minister of the Nation of Islam. It is the centerpiece of a major business expansion to nourish the fortunes of his organization and, he says, the surrounding black community. The black supremacist group plans to build Salaam outlets in five other major United States cities as well as expanding farming, trucking, entertainment, and media enterprises.
The new business ventures parallel a political effort by Mr. Farrakhan to broaden the influence of his organization in black and urban America. For brief periods during the past several months, Farrakhan has leashed his invective toward whites and Jews and met with black legislators and civil rights leaders.
The emergence of Farrakhan as restaurateur and executive elicits mixed reactions from critics and analysts. On one hand, the business might kindle at least limited prosperity in some inner-city areas. It might also blunt the Nation's combative edge if its fortunes depend on attracting a broader clientele, critics say.
An expansion of business ``might move the institution to a more positive standing,'' says Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League of the B'nai B'rith in New York. ``I would view this as a positive effort,'' Mr. Foxman says, noting, however, that Farrakhan continues to make rancorous public comments toward Jews.
But the business revenues might also strengthen Farrakhan's wherewithal in activities that worsen interracial tension, critics say.
``I don't think that going into business will change the Nation's underlying philosophy,'' says Chip Berlet, an analyst with Political Research Associates of Cambridge, Mass.
``They have a history of doing publicity to encourage people to think they have changed their tune and become just plain folks. But every time you listen it's the same chords,'' Mr. Berlet says.
The Nation upholds that the black race is supreme. It calls for economic development and self-reliance among black Americans, advocating the creation of a separate black nation-state. (Although Farrakhan frequently loads his speeches with attacks against whites and Jews, he says he is neither anti-white nor anti-Semitic.)
The new businesses arise out of the Nation's conviction that blacks will not be entirely free until they improve their economic fortunes by themselves.
``As far as Farrakhan is concerned, everything begins with the freedom you gain by being independent of the white man,'' says C. Erik Lincoln, professor emeritus of religion at Duke University in Durham, N.C. That is the sort of independence Farrakhan apparently seeks springs from the power of finance and business.
``Japan was not as well respected as it is today until it became an economic giant,'' says James Muhammad, editor of the Final Call, the Nation's biweekly newspaper.
``We intend to reach a level where we have power and force and command respect from everybody for our people,'' Mr. Muhammad says.
It is imperative for African-Americans to unite in bootstrap development now that Congress is dismantling welfare and abandoning many affirmative-action programs, Farrakhan says. Indeed, the Nation stands to gain from the harsh political climate, experts say.
``The new Contract the Republicans are bringing in will do more to sell Farrakhan than anything else,'' says Mr. Lincoln, author of ``The Black Muslims in America.''
But even if political currents were reversed, analysts say, the Nation's campaign for prosperity through self-reliance would still appeal to many African-Americans. ``One of the things that has always attracted the black middle class to Mr. Farrakhan has been his cold sense of economic reality,'' Lincoln says.
``Economic development is his principal interest and that is where black people are hurting the worst,'' according to Lincoln.
Farrakhan's pillar for economic development is a group of businesses vertically integrated around his planned restaurants.
The Nation has already purchased 1,600 acres of farmland in Georgia, part of a total of 10,000 acres it plans to own by 1996. Ultimately, it aims to buy and till 1 million acres, Muhammad says.
The Nation will haul crops to its restaurants with a fleet of tractor trailers. It has purchased three Peterbilt trucks and plans to buy seven more by 1996. The eventual goal is a nationwide commercial trucking enterprise with 100 trucks, Muhammad says.
The organization will break ground later this year for the Emerald Palace, a 2,000-seat performing-arts center next to its South Side restaurant. It will feature a mix of events ranging from classical music and opera to closed-circuit boxing matches, according to the Nation.
Moreover, Farrakhan last year announced construction of a $1.5 million plant to print the Final Call and other black newspapers.
The new enterprises, funded by members and sympathizers of the Nation, join the organization's affiliated security-guard companies, a bakery, banks, insurance companies, a line of hair and skin-care products, and stores selling cassette tapes and books.
Farrakhan says the inner-city businesses, while aimed at strengthening black America, will also employ and serve other races. The consultants and contractors behind Salaam include a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds. Some 50 percent of the employees at Salaam are not African-Americans, Muhammad says.
The effort to reach out to other races and ethnic groups through business is part of a campaign by Farrakhan to broaden his base within the black community, say some Nation analysts.
Move to the center?
Farrakhan ``is a strategic thinker and he realizes that to expand he has to at least appear to move to the center,'' says Berlet, who has studied the Nation for more than a decade.
``But it's a veneer, I don't believe it for a second,'' he says, noting that the Nation's writings still crackle with racial rhetoric.
Yet Farrakhan need not soften his words to win over blacks, because he generally does not have the same image problem among blacks as he does among whites, Lincoln says.
Farrakhan took control of the Nation in 1978, three years after the death of longtime Nation leader Elijah Muhammad. He staged the push partly because Muhammad's successor and son, Wallace, decided to sell most of the Nation's businesses and embrace orthodox Islam.
The new businesses demonstrate the determination of Farrakhan to revive Muhammad's dream of a vast entrepreneurial empire. Indeed, the 1,600 acres of Georgia farmland were once one of Elijah Muhammad's holdings, James Muhammad says.