February 27, 2020 Abdul Haqq

Part 1, Malcolm: X=mc² Recalibrating a strategy for success

The 55th anniversary of Malcolm X’s death witnessed a plethora of articles, discussion and interviews regarding his legacy. The most revealing to date was the 6-part Netflix docuseries, ‘Who Killed Malcolm X?’[1] due to it unearthing new information considered significant enough for the Manhattan district attorney’s office to review the case.[2] Malcolm’s life continues to inspire countless people from a variety of cultures and faiths around the world.

The emphasis of this article is on particular stages of Malcolm X’s life and whether they resonate within a 21st century British context. This is necessary due to an absence of similar examples available to young people – particularly disenfranchised urban youth – facing myriad challenges among a toxic, unrelenting environment in which criminality and violence have become almost everyday features:

In Britain today, serious youth violence is a hydra – when the state attempts to kill it using brute force, two heads grow where one is cut off… This cannot be allowed to become the new normal… Almost one-third of UK children live in poverty.[3]

Until relatively recently, Malcolm’s life has been examined and critiqued through prisms of racial discrimination and social injustice. However, discourse regarding what would be his final socio-religious transformation to Sunni Islam – and the implications of this – has seldom been discussed on a transnational level insofar as its effects on Black British youth. Some consider this a deliberate oversight and obfuscation of Malcolm’s gravitation toward a more universally encompassing strategy, in an attempt to dilute the impact of Sunni religious orthodoxy on his ultimate psyche.[4] Even less has been explored regarding the relevance of his experiences within a UK context. It is therefore necessary to examine particular instances of his life to determine whether they are transferable and can be recalibrated as a template for the socio-political empowerment of today’s youth. In an effort to facilitate this process, I will utilise the 4-phase Cognitive Development Framework developed during my PhD study. This theoretical perspective examines developmental stages of British Muslim converts and is consistent with aspects of Conversion Theory.[5] By referencing the framework, aspects of Malcolm’s life can be juxtaposed with similar experiences of Black British youth. This will enable a unique overview of the type of trajectories available to such youth, identify particular milestones and provide (if necessary,) specific interventions in order to facilitate their empowerment. In the event, lessons can be derived from the above-mentioned approach with a view to providing further discourse regarding the practical implementation or adaptation of existing youth development models.

The end of the beginning…

Malcolm’s spiral into criminality occurred during early adulthood and is vividly described in his autobiography. It should suffice to recount specific incidents that could be considered synonymous with youth delinquency today. Drug dealing was the principal predilection for Malcolm to the extent he became involved in smuggling them across particular states. The premise upon which county lines flourishes across parts of 21st century Britain is  not, by any means, a new phenomenon:

Then Sammy gave me an idea. ‘Red, you still got your old railroad identification?’…They hadn’t taken it back. ‘Well, why don’t you use it to make a few runs…’ The idea came to me that, this way, I could travel all over the East Coast selling reefers [drugs] among my friends who were on tour with their bands…When I ran out of supplies, I’d return to New York, and load up, then hit the road again.[6]

While county lines is arguably more sophisticated and on a larger scale compared to Malcolm’s experience, similarities remain evident when considering factors, like the transportation of drugs for specific clientele across regional borders. Some may assert no other similarities exist beyond this, and that the absence of any exploited or vulnerable party separates the two examples proffered in this instance. However, the counterargument would be to highlight Malcolm’s fate since early childhood: the disintegration of his family and subsequent disenfranchisement from mainstream society. The ensuing trauma caused by both undoubtedly influenced his outlook and perceptions. In fact, the socio-economic and racial climate during his era was inarguably a contributory factor behind his sense of victimhood. Indeed, more than 50 years on, this sagacity continues to be prevalent among many facing similar circumstances.

’County Lines’ is a term used when drug gangs from big cities expand their operations to smaller towns, often using violence to drive out local dealers and exploiting children and vulnerable people to sell drugs.” [7]

Another area of criminality, also luridly detailed in the autobiography, was prostitution; Malcolm’s residence, familiarity and subsequent involvement with prostitution was a source of supplementary revenue alongside various minor hustles he was involved in:

It was in this house that I learned more about women than I did in any other single place. It was these prostitutes who schooled me to things that every wife and every husband should know.” [8]

Prostitution, within the UK today, is seldom equated to black youth; however, instead, there is disproportionate representation of another minority as it relates to sexual grooming gangs and the abuse of minors – predominantly, young white females. That said, the number of South Asians arrested and imprisoned for these types of offences remain a cause for serious concern, particularly considering the traditional – and occasionally religious – upbringing and backgrounds of these convicted parties.[9] In any event, a minority of young people from African-Caribbean backgrounds may have been either marginally involved or witnessed elements of prostitution in and around a few environments. This was certainly the case during part of my childhood – between the ages of 9 and 11 years old to be specific. Some friends and I became acquainted with a few prostitutes who frequented and touted business on Bedford Hill, once part of a notorious red light district in south London. Our estate was situated at the bottom of the Hill and we would occasionally accompany particular workers, acting as lookouts or pretending to be younger siblings in order to remove suspicion surrounding their presence in that locality. No remuneration was ever exchanged due to a tacit code of conduct, acknowledging the existence of a type of solidarity between members coming from similar strata of society. Malcolm and his associates would have also recognised this unspoken unanimity during that era.

It is important to recall Malcolm’s age during this level of delinquency and compare it to those in similar circumstances within a UK context today because very little has changed. In the absence of suitable intervention strategies or support networks to tackle these self-destructive pathways, many young people will have few options except to continue along trajectories that invariably result in criminality, imprisonment and even death. The drastic effects of austerity upon youth provision have contributed towards the current knife crime pandemic witnessed among young people:

Rising knife crime could be linked to budget cuts that have decimated youth services in parts of England, according to a parliamentary report. The average council has reduced spending on services such as social clubs and youth workers by 40 per cent, and some places have seen funding plummet by 91 per cent in three years.”[10]

  1. Cognitive Openings: the ‘founding’ phase

This phase of conversion addresses the formative stages and the influences/drivers that caused individuals to convert to Islam. This stage also relates to individuals who are becoming more aware and familiarized with their religion.[11]

Malcolm was 21 years old when he entered prison. When comparing his relatively young age of imprisonment, more than 50 years ago, with black youth incarcerated in UK prisons today we witness some startling facts:

More than half of the inmates held in prisons for young people in England and Wales are from a black and minority ethnic (BME) background, the highest proportion on record… About 51% of boys in young offender institutions (YOIs) – prisons for boys aged 15 to 17 and young adult men aged 18 to 21 – identified as being from a BME background, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) found.” [12]

Ten years ago, the situation was also dismal:

“…the proportion of black people in jail in the UK was almost seven times their share of the population…”[13]

Labour MP, Diane Abbot observed during this period:

There was never a serious examination of the consequences of locking up a generation of young black men. The result is there are some prisons in the south-east which are now virtually all black. Many are converting to Islam.”[14]

Compare this to Malcolm’s observations regarding US prisons over half a century earlier:

This is probably as big a single worry as the American prison system has today-the way the Muslim teachings, circulated among all Negroes in the country, are converting new Muslims among black men in prison, and black men are in prison in far greater numbers than their proportion in the population.[15]

Abbot’s Labour colleague, David Lammy MP, published a more recent review examining the treatment and outcomes for BME individuals in the criminal justice system, warning that youth jails had reached US levels of disproportionality.[16] Abbott referred to the increase in conversions among black inmates; however, this is nothing new. As far back as 1999, 37% of black inmates were converts – disproportionally so when considering they constituted a mere 7% of the wider populace.[17] In fact, later research highlighted that overall, 30% of all Muslim inmates comprised largely of black rather than Asian ethnic groups.[18] Malcolm’s reflection on the cause and effects of his imprisonment are likely to resonate with converts who have encountered similar experiences:

“…I had sunk to the very bottom of the American white man’s society…in prison I found Allah and the religion of Islam and it completely transformed my life.[19]

He was to later acknowledge what he understood to be Islam as being antithetical to the monotheistic and religious orthodoxy of mainstream Sunni practices. Nevertheless, the discipline, ethical code and structure of the Nation Of Islam (NOI) provided him with the required impetus for spiritual and educational self-development at that crucial time. Upon his release from prison, this Black Nationalist movement afforded him a comprehensive socio-religious, economic and familial infrastructure that offered the essential rehabilitative network. Unfortunately – and to reiterate a previous point – there is a dearth of similar rehabilitative and immersive initiatives to address the needs of former inmates, especially converts, in Britain today. Indeed, one only has to look at the perpetrators behind the recent London Bridge[20] and Streatham High Road[21] terrorist attacks to acknowledge the woefully inadequate government programmes presently in place.

Referring again to Malcolm’s cognitive opening, we witness his continuing emphasis around introspection, realisation and a firm resolve for self-improvement.  These traits continue to be distinctive features that accentuate many imprisoned converts’ stimulus for change. Rambo’s theoretical model succinctly encapsulates most, if not all, of the stages Malcolm underwent during imprisonment.  The Sequential Stage Model for Pre-conversion comprises 7 stages:

  1. Context,
  2. Crisis,
  3. Quest,
  4. Encounter,
  5. Interaction,
  6. Commitment, and
  7. Consequence [22]

The overarching founding phase of my theoretical framework is underscored by an idealism and vulnerability that can result in overdependence on charismatic personalities and abstract understandings, or both. Malcolm confirms being influenced by the former in relation to his mentor, NOI leader, Elijah Mohammed:

My adoration of Mr Mohammed grew in the sense of the Latin word adorare. It means much more than our “adoration” or “adore.” It means that my worship of him was so awesome that he was the first man whom I had ever feared – not the fear such a man with a gun, but the fear such as the one of the power of the sun.” [23]

The importance of effective and holistic engagement with new converts during this critical phase of development cannot be understated, as sufficient evidence exists to highlight the disastrous consequences behind failures to address this substantial assertion. The next stage of development is also one underscored by elements of susceptibility and it is where examples of Malcolm’s increased activism will be examined.



[1] Netflix: ‘Who Killed Malcolm X,’: https://www.netflix.com/title/80217478

[2] Zdanowicz, C: ‘The assassination of Malcolm X is being reinvestigated after questions raised in Netflix series,’ CNN, 12th February 2020:  https://edition.cnn.com/2020/02/10/us/malcolm-x-assassination-investigation-trnd/index.html

[3] Abdullah, A: ‘The UK cannot tackle youth violence with brute force,’ Financial Times, 19th September 2019: https://www.ft.com/content/4fb366b4-da21-11e9-9c26-419d783e10e8

[4] Edward, D: ’The conversion to Islam of Malcolm X is the wrong model for young black men,’ The Telegraph, 20th February, 2015: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/11425643/The-conversion-to-Islam-of-Malcolm-X-is-the-wrong-model-for-young-black-men.html

[5] Baker, A: ‘Countering Terrorism in the UK” A Convert Community Perspective,’ University of Exeter, 2009.

[6] Excerpt From: Malcolm X. “The autobiography of Malcolm X.” iBooks, pp. 371-2

[7] National Crime Agency: ‘County Lines,’ NCA (accessed 25th February 2020): https://www.nationalcrimeagency.gov.uk/what-we-do/crime-threats/drug-trafficking/county-lines

[8] Excerpt From: Malcolm X. “The autobiography of Malcolm X.” iBooks, pp. 412 – 414

[9] Malik, K: ‘We’re told 84% of grooming gangs are Asian. But where’s the evidence?’ The Guardian, 11th November 2018: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/11/84-per-cent-of-grooming-gangs-are-asians-we-dont-know-if-that-figure-is-right

[10] Dearden, L: ‘Knife crime rise ‘linked to youth service cuts’, parliamentary report finds,’ The Independent, 7th May 2019: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/knife-crime-uk-stabbings-youth-service-cuts-government-austerity-a8901856.html

[11] Baker, A: ‘Countering Terrorism in the UK” A Convert Community Perspective,’ University of Exeter, 2009.

[12] Grierson, J: ‘More than half of young people in jail are of BME backgrounds’, The Guardian, 29th January 2019: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/jan/29/more-than-half-young-people-jail-are-of-bme-background

[13] Ramesh, R: ‘More black people jailed in England and Wales proportionally than the US,’ The Guardian, 11th October 2010: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2010/oct/11/black-prison-population-increase-england

[14] Ibid

[15] Excerpt From: Malcolm X. “The autobiography of Malcolm X.” iBooks, p.687

[16] Grierson, J: ‘More than half of young people in jail are of BME backgrounds’, The Guardian, 29th January 2019: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/jan/29/more-than-half-young-people-jail-are-of-bme-background

[17] Easton, M: ‘Islam prison conversions,’ BBC, 8th June 2010: https://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/markeaston/2010/06/islam_prison_1.html

[18] Ibid

[19] Excerpt From: Malcolm X. “The autobiography of Malcolm X” iBooks, p.572

[20] BBC: London Bridge: Usman Khan completed untested rehabilitation scheme,’ BBC News, 4th December 2019: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-50653191

[21] Mercer, D: ‘Streatham terror attack: What we know about Sudesh Amman,’ Sky News, 7th February 2020: https://news.sky.com/story/streatham-terror-attack-what-we-know-about-attacker-sudesh-amman-11925200

[22] Rambo, L W ‘Understanding Religious Conversion’ Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1993, Figure 1, ‘A sequential stage model’ p. 17

[23] Excerpt From: Malcolm X. “The autobiography of Malcolm X” iBooks, p.786