Sometime in the early hours of October 18, a computer hacker infiltrated the Nation of Islam's Internet website and electronically altered the homepage with insulting graffiti, triggering an online debate about "cyber hate crime."
The homepage's greeting was modified to: "Welcome to the nation of Murderers Homeb0y pAge,[sic]" and other messages were vandalized to read: time 2 d1e, whytee@#ON-LINE," and "the Million Moron March lameness Center."
The surreptitious event took place only two days after Louis Farrakhan's historic Million Man March, in which hundreds of thousands of African-American men convened in Washington in a show of strength and unity.
But clearly, not everyone in cyberspace was delighted with the march and its message, as evidenced by the electronic vandalism. In all, the hackers changed six welcoming lines on the homepage, leaving only the group's flag, a crescent moon and a star on a field of magenta, untouched.
The electronic vandal, who must have had a sophisticated knowledge of website programming, mostly mocked the Million Man March and insulted the Nation of Islam. The break-in infuriated the Black Muslims enough for them to call for a federal investigation of the matter. But after examining the altered homepage (a screen of interactive text that enables an Internet user to browse certain files in a website), the Justice Department politely refused to investigate the matter, saying no federal laws had been broken.
Nation of Islam officials told Timothy Maloy, editor of Internet Newsroom, an electronic journal of Web affairs, that the cyber-graffiti was the work of a "racist." The nation later backed off of the racist charge.
"The point is that they [the hackers] denied us the opportunity to provide opposition [to their beliefs]," Nation of Islam spokesman Amin Muhammad told the Observer. "Our position is that we would want to see those who do not like us respond with more intelligence."
For his part, Maloy feared the hacking incident pointed to a larger Internet issue. He visited Internet sites frequented by journalists and posted messages asking if others thought the hacking represented yet a new Internet phenomenon: "cyber hate crimes." Most people, he says, responded that the incident was not a hate crime, but simply the work of electronically sophisticated, if not particularly clever, protesters.
Most of the comments accused the Nation of Islam itself of racism, such as the graffiti "the Bigot's of Islam H0meboy pag3," and a response to the Muslim greeting "Peace be unto you": "as if we really believe that."
Still, Maloy, who is white, believes the graffiti was a racist attack against the Nation. "Yes, most of it is lampooning," he says. "But if it had been a billboard set up by the Nation of Islam along the highway and a similar defacing had taken place, it would have been considered a hate crime."
Amin Muhammad says the Muslims' anger over the incident quickly turned to excitement over the communication possibilities the Internet offered. A week after the incident, he says, the Nation had received more than 100 queries from all over the world about the hacking.
Most hackers are avid hobbyists who steal software, access confidential information, or introduce destructive bugs by infiltrating computer systems without permission. Many Internet sites devote substantial time and money building security systems to thwart these electronic invaders, who usually see breaking these security efforts as another challenge. Hacking of the sort the Nation of Islam suffered is a common occurrence on the Internet.
Furthermore, the Nation's homepage was a cinch to get into, Amin acknowledged, because the website that supported the page, Afrinet, had not taken serious precautions against hackers. But when people from as far away as Europe and Mexico began e-mailing the Nation to inquire about the hacking, Amin says, black Muslims started viewing the incident as a positive experience. The homepage has received thousands of "hits" since it opened in the spring, and has given the Nation of Islam an opportunity to share their ideas and philosophies with Internet surfers of various colors, nationalities, and religions, he says.
Most of Internet users who accessed the site (http://www.afrinet.net/~islam/) said they were looking for more information on the Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan, Amin says. "They said they cannot rely on the sound bites of the news shows, and they want to know for themselves what we are about," he says. "There has been a lot of discussion about us, but they [the general public] have not heard much from us."
The nation put together the homepage last year with the help of an engineering student who is a supporter of Farrakhan, Amin says. The homepage, hacking notwithstanding, has been a success, he says.
"The goal was to communicate with those who are surfing the information highway, to provide them with information on the Nation of Islam, forums to discuss religion, political, and social trends," he points out. "And as a result, there is a growing conversation about the honorable Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam and Islam in general, as we represent it.
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"If, after hearing for themselves, they agree with the people who oppose Minister Farrakhan, then let them agree," he says. "But at least the Internet offers them the opportunity to learn."
The current homepage is spartan, offering occasional speeches from Farrakhan and other ministers and articles from the Nation's newspaper, The Final Call.
Amin says the Nation of Islam is putting together a newer, comprehensive website that will allow file transfers, Internet relay chat, and other resources.
And a security system, too. "Precautions have been taken," he says.