February 27, 2020 Abdul Haqq

Part 2, Malcolm: X=mc²? Recalibrating a strategy for success

  1. Overzealous ambitions & Idealism: the ‘youthful’ phase

The youthful phase is more idealistic and formative for individuals who have embraced Islam. This is another phase where converts are considered susceptible to extremist propaganda and teachings. Overzealousness is a common feature of many conversions as, in many instances; new converts possess heightened senses of self-righteousness with a desire to directly address/tackle the perceived ills of society.[1]

Malcolm was no different from many converts embracing a new faith, political ideology or persuasion and possessed an incessant desire to share his enlightenment with former colleagues. This period of exuberant proselytisation is often an alienating experience for unsuspecting recipients and is frequently misinterpreted by them, causing offence in the process. A minority of converts rarely reflect on or indeed, discern the somewhat overbearing nature of their approach during this phase, preferring instead to concentrate on the unyielding remit of their message; namely, to convert others.

“I’ve never been one for inaction. Everything I’ve ever felt strongly about, I’ve done something about…I soon began writing to people I had known in the hustling world, such as Sammy the Pimp, John Hughes, the gambling-house owner, the thief Jumpsteady, and several dope peddlers. I wrote them all about Allah and Islam and Mr. Elijah Muhammad[2]

And;

Every day after work, I walked, “fishing” for potential converts in the Detroit black ghetto.”[3]

Malcolm’s oratory skills and activism at this stage of his cognitive development largely contributed towards the NOI’s rapid increase of new members. Mainstream media recognition also followed as well as the attention of intelligence services, like the FBI. As with most converts during this formative stage, perceptions of the wider environment and relationships therein are redefined.  It is not, therefore, uncommon for converts to withdraw from everyday society, seeking insularity among like-minded coreligionists. A ‘resistance identity’ often forms the basis of the convert’s perceptions and his/her interaction with society or conversely, withdrawal from it and is determined by this new construct. S. Renani suggests resistance identity arises from a type of insecurity experienced by Muslims when facing an alien culture – western culture in this instance. He cites the Black Muslim uprising under the banner of the Nation of Islam in the mid 1960’s as an example of resistance identity that emerged in response to the discrimination and oppression of black communities across the US.[4] The paradigmatic shift towards a new identity provided Malcolm with a type of camaraderie he had never experienced earlier in life, especially among black people:

I had never dreamed of anything like that atmosphere among black people who had learned to be proud they were black, who had learned to love other black people instead of being jealous and suspicious. I was thrilled to see how we Muslim men used both hands to grasp a black brother’s both hands, voicing and smiling our happiness to meet him again.”[5]

This stage of transformation was cemented with the appellation ‘X’ to his name that; “…replaced the white slave master name of “Little”…imposed upon my paternal forebears. The receipt of my “X” meant that forever after…I would be known as Malcolm X.[6] Converts to mainstream Sunni Islam frequently adopt new, often Arabic (and relatively recently, African) names as demarcation of their new faith; however, such changes are not contingent upon abandonment of pre-conversion Anglicised names.

Referring again to Malcolm’s first real experience of black solidarity and extending this within a British context, the absence of any similar sentiment among sections of Black Muslim communities – particularly converts – is palpable. Few institutions or entities that boast Black ownership or indeed, leadership, exist resulting in the dispersion of converts among wider, traditionally lead and culturally based non-black communities, i.e. South Asian and Arab. Unfortunately, Black converts’ presence among such communities often result in subtle discriminatory practices toward them and marginalisation. This is despite an established fact that black Muslims existed in the UK well before the arrival of the now predominantly South Asian diaspora:

Black Muslims were part of the British landscape long before South Asian migrants…arrived in the 1960s, from the Moors of North Africa who came to Elizabethan England to even Shakespeare’s Othello.[7]

The above-mentioned challenges will be revisited when discussion focuses on possible remedies for socio-religious advancement. Continuing with Malcolm’s youthful stage of cognitive progress, it is immediately evident that, although many aspects of his activism were underscored by an idealism based on his devotion to the NOI message, an actualisation of the causes of anti-black racism remained. In other words, Malcolm’s lived experience of ‘white America’ and the latter’s stifling pervasiveness over black communities, informed the degree and intensity of his activism:

So, as a Black man and especially as a Black American, any stand that I formally took, I don’t think I would have to defend it because it is still a reaction to the society, and it is a reaction that was produced by society; and I think it is the society that produced this that should be attacked, not the reaction that develops among the people who are the victims of that negative society.[8]

By contrast, the UK is yet to witness the emergence of consolidated leadership among Black Muslim converts that addresses matters of identity and other socio-political issues affecting this small but growing segment of society. Other religious communities have established caucuses that actively represent their constituencies across the political spectrum. Converts either end up aligning themselves with these entities or completely abstain, resulting in the stagnation of social, educational and political advancement among their own fledgling communities. Malcolm’s initial involvement with the NOI provided a strong platform upon which he could articulate, not only the challenges facing Black Americans, but their requirements also. Throughout his activism, Malcolm’s development continued – as did his awareness of disturbing contradictions within the NOI that would eventually result in his exile. Amidst the ensuing turmoil experienced toward the latter stages of his relationship with the organisation, he would undergo a further cognitive transformation.

  1. Realisation, Review & Adjustment: the adult phase

“This phase looks at more established Muslim converts who have practiced the religion long enough to have perhaps progressed from earlier understandings and practices of the first two stages.  Their respective actualisation of the religion, as opposed to practicing it in abstract, means that individuals at this stage have better understood and experienced the religion as a way of life, i.e. lived or travelled abroad to Muslim countries and engaged/participated in those societies, thereby enhancing his/her understanding and practice of Islam.[9]

Malcolm’s separation from the NOI precipitated among the most transformative stages of his development. His newfound autonomy enabled opportunities for wider participation and engagement with other civil rights movements; his once scathing disregard for their leaders, like Martin Luther King, was transposed to a more inclusive, collaborative approach as he acknowledged the confluence of their respective messages:

As different as Martin’s and Malcolm’s religious communities were, Martin’s faith, nonetheless, was much closer to Malcolm’s than it was to that of white Christians, and Malcolm’s faith was much closer to Martin’s than it was to Muslims in the Middle East or Asia; this was true because both of their faith commitments were derived from the same black experience of suffering and struggle in the United States.

Their theologies, therefore, should be interpreted as different religious and intellectual responses of African-Americans to their environment as they searched for meaning in a nation that they did not make…While each appealed to the practical side of their perspectives, the bottom line for both was faith and not pragmatism.

Malcolm’s faith was defined by the particularity of his blackness and Martin’s by the universality of his humanity.”[10]

In a relatively short period, Malcolm proceeded to establish two entities that would reflect his respective socio-religious and socio-political focuses – Muslim Mosque Inc. (MMI) and Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). He described the first initiative’s primary objective as; “…a religious base, and the spiritual force necessary to rid our people of the vices that destroy the moral fiber of our community…” He elaborated further, declaring to reporters that it would be:

“…the working base for an action program designed to eliminate the political oppression, the economic exploitation, and the social degradation suffered daily by twenty-two million Afro-Americans.” [11]

The parameters for his second entity, OAAU, would be more expansive, engaging on both national and international scales:

So the purpose of the Organization of Afro American Unity is to unite everyone in the Western Hemisphere of African descent into one united force. And then, once we are united among ourselves in the Western Hemisphere, we will unite with our brothers on the motherland, on the continent of Africa.[12]

In addition to establishing these organisations, he had also embarked on arguably the most decisive of spiritual journeys – the pilgrimage to Mecca. It was this experience that forever altered his previously ingrained perception regarding race in America:

…the color blindness of the Muslim world’s religious society and the color blindness of the Muslim world’s human society: these two influences had each day been making a greater impact, and an increasing persuasion against my previous way of thinking… America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem.”[13]

His letters during sojourn in Mecca, together with interviews conducted following his return to the US, provide illustrative insights of his conversion to Sunni Islam and acknowledgement regarding the universality of mankind. Pilgrimage – Hajj – continues to impact Muslims of all persuasions in a similar manner to those described by Malcolm. As shall be discussed shortly, the euphoric levels achieved during the participation of this annual spectacle are, unfortunately, largely restricted to that particular occasion due to xenophobic tendencies plaguing sections of some Muslim societies and their respective communities.

The pilgrimage, while an integral part of the influence on Malcolm, was not the only catalyst for his seismic transformation at this stage. His travels throughout Africa contributed to the profound impact on his socio-cultural and political consciousness. His dissociation from the NOI immediately saw him catapulted into the position as global ambassador for Black America. African, not to mention, Arab leaders were therefore quick to endorse him.

Conclusion: 4. Reflection & Wisdom – the mature phase

In the mature phase the individual’s perceptions may further develop or indeed, change if they have not at earlier stages of post conversion, due to a multiplicity of socio-economic, socio-cultural and/or religious factors.[14]

Malcolm’s self reflection attests his final transformation; “My whole life has been a chronology of changes.”[15] His autobiography has undoubtedly inspired countless others to embark on similar journeys in order to induce individual as well as collective progress. His continuing legacy is a prototype for change but it is essential that, before completely yielding its benefits,  attitudinal adjustments be made. Non-white communities readily embrace Malcolm’s pursuit of justice against western imperialism and systemic racism designed to discriminate against ethnic minorities, particularly the black populous. However – and it is within this context decisive action is required – when a similar, (occasionally, worse) bigotry is witnessed against this same ethnic group by other, more predominant minorities, like South Asians, Arabs and/or Somalis, the significance of Malcolm’s legacy is overshadowed. It should be inconceivable for these communities to exhibit a type of bigotry, synonymous to what Black Americans and indeed, they have experienced, by wider society – especially if, as they claim, Malcolm represents their ideals. It should also be inconceivable, as part of the Muslim diaspora, to acclaim his declarations regarding the unity of mankind under a monotheistic deity while ignoring religious doctrines prohibiting xenophobia. Malcolm’s observations regarding whiteness in this regard should be a clarion call for Muslim communities to commence realisation of the religious ideals he embraced as a Sunni convert:

We were truly the same – because their belief in one God had removed the ‘white’ from their minds, the ‘white’ from their behavior and the ‘white’ from their attitudes.[16]

Replacing the adjective white with South Asian, Arab or any other ethnic descriptor for predominant groups that exhibit anti-black racism is evidence of the profundity of Malcolm’s statement. It is necessary to redefine our focus and redirect efforts to combat racism within these communities. Ongoing wider societal issues, such as structural and institutional racism, will continue to be challenged but should no longer be a distraction from the suffocating effect of xenophobia among coreligionists. Black Muslim communities – converts in particular – also need to reacquaint themselves with Malcolm’s message, observing his metamorphosis into the role model he remains today and using his timeless example as an incentive to accomplish whatever they set out to achieve, by any (legitimate) means necessary.

 

 

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

[2] Excerpt From: Malcolm X. “The autobiography of Malcolm X.” iBooks, p.645

[3] Ibid, p.750

[4] Baker, A: ‘Countering Terrorism in the UK” A Convert Community Perspective,’ University of Exeter, 2009, citing Renani, S. R. A; ‘The Impact of Globalization on British Muslim Identity’, Royal Holloway, University of London, 2001, p.240

[5] Excerpt From: Malcolm X. “The autobiography of Malcolm X.” iBooks, p.728

[6] Ibid, pp.742-3

[7] Khan, A: ‘Britain’s black Muslims: Ignored, discriminated and resisting,’ Aljazeera, 22nd June 2018

[8] Hayley, A: ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X,’ Penguin, p.49

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

[10] Cone, J.H: ‘Martin & Malcolm & America: A dream or a nightmare,’ pp.124 & 131

[11] Excerpt From: Malcolm X. “The autobiography of Malcolm X.” iBooks, p. 1,145

[12] Blackpast: ‘(1964) Malcolm X’s Speech at the founding rally of the Organization of Afro-American Unity’, 15th October, 2007: https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/1964-malcolm-x-s-speech-founding-rally-organization-afro-american-unity/

[13] Hayley, A: ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X,’ Penguin, p.453

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

[15] Hayley, A: ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X,’ Penguin, p.454

 

[16] Hayley, A: ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X,’ Penguin, p.449

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