When will my Asian and Arab brothers and sisters realise that Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X have very little to do with them?
In their early days, both of these icons were black separatists preferring to live alone and wanting to keep their race pure. They would have been no more keen to be among Asians or Arabs than they would to live with the white man! Their messages of defiance and stance can in no way be likened to the struggle that the majority of the Muslim community is going through, in countries like Britain and other European nations or even in the Arab world.
Today Asian, Arab and Muslim communities enjoy good educational opportunities in business and strong families that support each other in the hours of need. Malcolm and Muhammad came from an era where there were dysfunctional families all around them, rooted in the traumatic history of slavery. Discrimination amounting to segregation policies and lynchings of black people were commonplace.
It would be ridiculous and simply factually incorrect to talk about the struggle of Muslims today against oppression and Islamophobia in the same terms or even the same breath, as the experiences of black people from slavery, civil rights movements of the 1960’s to the Black Lives Matter movement of today.
The two men moved away from separatism to orthodox Sunni Islam but they never renounced the notion of Black Nationalism. They identified themselves as black and proud and through this self-affirmation they represented the dispossessed and the oppressed among the black race in America. They were also conscious of their identity and were keen to cement good relations with Africa and brothers and sisters on the continent.
Thus, when I read articles written by Asian or Arab brothers and I see pictures of Malcolm and Muhammad in social media profiles, I wonder whether they are hanging on to these powerful men because they are unable to identify any powerful Asian or Arab figures that stood up for freedom and justice in the same way as Malcolm and Mohammed did.
I wonder whether just being Muslim is enough to identify with these men even though, sadly, within the ranks of my Asian and Arab Muslim brothers and sisters there are those who would still today refuse to offer the hands of their sons or daughters to black African men and women based solely on grounds of race! Even if someone of the pedigree of Muhammed Ali came to the door!
Identification with these heroes comes at a cost! That is the denial that up close Black people, growing numbers of which become Muslims, are still viewed in stereotypical ways, as criminals or sexual predators, and considered by too many to be in inferior to the Asian or Arab man or woman.
It’s one thing to parade Muhammad and Malcolm as symbols of strength when Muslims today need to project courage in the face of oppression, but it is another thing to use these great figures to hide real weakness in the community and the lack of real support for the few Muslims who are vocal and are prepared to stand up for justice and to speak out against oppression.
I find it difficult to take serious, writers who accuse others of distorting the message of Malcolm and Muhammad when they themselves distort that message and see themselves as part of Malcolm and Muhammad’s legacy when little is being done to talk openly about racism in their ranks or to advocate that Asian or Arab Muslim make greater efforts to accept and get along with fellow Muslims from Caribbean or African origin or to stand up for their rights!
Ask anybody involved in the foster and adoption service of Muslims and you will find it is very rare that Asian or Arab couples are prepared to adopt or foster an orphaned Muslim child of African origin. To many, the bond of Islam has no meaning. Many couples expressed concern about inheritance and how they would pass on their wealth to a black child!
Now, at this point if you don’t read any further you are in danger of labelling me as someone who has problems with Asian and Arab brothers and sisters, but you would be far from the truth and missing my central point. Read on and hear me out!
As one of my favourite imams — Imam Siraj Wahaj has said, in the early days Malcolm, and indeed Muhammad, expressed opinions that were clearly contrary to Islam! The message that is quite clearly needed today is not one of separatism, hatred against any group of people or an implied projection of violence in the struggle. I believe that’s totally the wrong direction for us as Muslims to go. These icons are not the right figures to push forward in the struggle against Islamophobia. They did what they had to do to represent Black people and projected their stance on the defence of downtrodden African peoples in diaspora.
My message is not one of hatred and prejudice, it is that we put Allah and his Messenger ahead of any human being no matter how great we think they are in the struggle for the rights of Muslims. Mohammed Ali spoke nothing but the truth when he said that Allah sent his Parkinson Syndrome to demonstrate that He, Allah was the greatest, not Mohammed Ali. Muslims and believers in God across the world should not forget that. In the haste to praise heroes, we should never forget that those heroes were themselves guided and assisted in their courage by Allah. The example of the Messenger drove their determination to succeed and change what they could of the world.
Allah said that He made tribes and nations to get to know one other so there is nothing wrong in being part of a tribe or nation and feeling proud of that fact. There is nothing wrong in recognising the suffering of others; in fact, that’s what all humans should do! But we should remember the people for whom those icons were fighting for, accept the racism against them still exists and do all we can to avoid becoming part of their oppression.
Naturally, Ali’s greatness does transcend the world and he is very much part of the Muslim Ummah, but remembering him should help us to also remember the plight of the millions of Africans, Black American, Caribbean and aboriginal people who continue to suffer injustice just for the colour of their skin. Most of all, remembering Ali should be a reminder that Allah is indeed the Greatest!
Original article appeared in Medium.com on 11thJune 2016: https://medium.com/@khalilcharles/asian-and-arabs-no-friends-of-muhammad-ali-40fb5ca3ee09