While the legacy of Malcolm X is commemorated by the mainstream Muslim community, his apparently uncomfortable radical political tradition is overlooked
“We live in a world, we live in a world on two different axles
You live in a world, you living behind the mirror…” – Kendrick Lamar
It has now become something of a ritual, that every year, approaching the 21st of February, many university Islamic societies and Muslim organisations around the UK and beyond commemorate the life and legacy of Malcolm X. Malcolm was assassinated on that date 50 years ago, and what we have seen over the last decade and a half, particularly among many young Muslims in the west, is an effort to make him, and represent him, as one of “ours”: a practicing Muslim in a hostile environment; an unyielding critic of the socio-political status quo; immutable in his pronouncements for justice and equality. His speeches are shared, his most powerful quotes reverberated, his image disseminated as a representation of the archetypal Muslim truth-seeker. Considering this, it may seem counter-intuitive to suggest that much of the Muslim community, and the various organisations therein, have in fact quite a difficult and precarious relationship to the radical activist – his radicality, I would argue, being the problem.
As public discourse has evolved and become pluralised, and historical documentation has widened, it is, for instance, much more common to hear about the dilution of a figure like Martin Luther King Jr. Criticisms of his popular political appropriation are by now familiar. This year even CNN published a piece exploring some of Dr. King’s less well-known, more confrontational speeches, demonstrating him much more accurately as someone whose hopes for America at one point dwindled into a “nightmare”, far more in line, interestingly, with the Malcolmian characterisation of the country. It could be said, as Mark Lawrence McPhail puts it, that Malcolm X’s “rhetorical vision that challenged the static demarcations of race that defined American institutions and attitudes” makes his acceptance by ruling classes more difficult. Malcolm spoke of “whiteness”, Afrocentricity and “black beauty”. This was and is not a language that western political discourse can easily adopt or manipulate. But the question is, why does so much of western Muslim discussion avoid it as well? Why is Malcolm X championed by many Muslims, but his plain rhetoric of race not?
Muslims in the west are, of course, not a single homogenous group, neither sociologically nor theologically. As such, discussions of race can be hugely varied, as are the different positions different Muslim groups occupy within structures of racism. This is not a claim that all western Muslims have sought to represent Malcolm X in a uniformly incomplete way, but is rather an observation of general depictive and discursive trends within many Islamic organisations and Muslim groups, who claim to be inheritors of his struggle and legacy. More broadly, it is a reflection of how some Muslim communities talk about and deal with the politics of race and systemic racism generally – or, more accurately, fail to do so. In this regard, and at this particular moment, it is essential that the question is put forward as to why the deaths of Deah Barakat and Yusor and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha received so much more passionate reaction from many Muslims (as well as non-Muslims) than the death of Mustafa Mattan just the day before, a Somalian shot dead through his apartment door. Looking at the way Malcolm is approached by some may help to illustrate the roots of this inconsistency, as the discussion shifts from one with an unadorned perspective on racial emancipation to one based on much more vague notions of social justice and integrity.
What illustrates the above process most noticeably is what turns out to be the focal point for many Muslims when reflecting on Malcolm’s life: his pilgrimage to Mecca and his supposed “post-Hajj moment”, when, as many portrayals suggest, he softened his language, moderated his views, and, finally, became an “orthodox Muslim”. Of course, it would not be unreasonable to see his entrance to “mainstream Islam” as a key reason for attracting such attention and admiration from so many Muslims – only at this point can he and his politics be embraced as “ours”, just less than a year before his death. This goes beyond merely classifying his religious outlook under the Nation of Islam as “deviant”, and his claim to be a Muslim during that time as illegitimate, but also centres around the idea that his supposedly unacceptable theology is reason to overlook his political cosmology.
Crucially, however, and beyond the scope of this piece, we should also consider the possibility that some Muslim communities have failed to confront problems of racial subjugation and white supremacy, thus are incapable of reconciling themselves with the language used by Malcolm when it came to such issues. This is why, for example, Malcolm’s description of his experiences “praying to the same God with fellow Muslims, whose eyes were the bluest of the blue, whose hair was the blondest of blonde, and whose skin was the whitest of white” seems to be so beloved by many Muslims: at the point where he embraces the true Islam, expressing sentiments like this, he becomes easy and safe to hold close. Malcolm X became El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, the latter, apparently, being far more inclined towards universality (or at least a particular liberal conception of it).
Not only does the one-dimensional concentration on his pilgrimage overstate the degree to which Malcolm became “de-radicalised”, but, ironically, it is identical to the portrayal of him by the white supremacist narrative that he was, indeed, a violent racist for most of his life. Robert Terrill has dealt with this notion of a “turn” by Malcolm with great clarity – after he shed the limitations of the approach of the Nation of Islam, he did indeed articulate a more complex ideological middle ground, but he never hesitated in insisting that violence was justified in self-defence; he never called for simple assimilation; he never described the political system of the United States as anything less than foundationally unjust; and he never, publically at least, expressed any belief that one day the country could even throw off its cloak of racism and inequality. The metaphors of “dogs” and “devils” may have disappeared, but talk of white supremacy and black pride remained. This is completely ignored in many Muslim imaginations, in favour of the more palatable, “harmonious” El-Hajj.
Of course Malcolm, and the radical black tradition he was a part of, is harsh for many to confront. Mention his name, and you are sure to receive a strong reaction— he is polarising in death as in life. His plain and sincere rhetoric on race makes many uncomfortable – including, I would say, a significant number of Muslims who claim not only him, or rather a particular, incomplete construction of him, but also a selectively produced version of his legacy. But, quite frankly, that is the point. It is meant to be brutal, just as it is to live under racial subjugation. Considering the increasingly aggressive and frequently fatal manifestations of Islamophobia in many western contexts, is it not time to gain inspiration from the disruptive radical tradition Malcolm X was a part of, rather than overlooking it? Many Muslims, who may indeed be sincerely concerned and involved in the key social and political issues of our day, are quick to point out the mis-remembrance of some of modern history’s greatest figures, caricatured into activists acceptable to power. True though this is, perhaps, for our own benefit, it is time to look into the mirror.
Image from: http://bit.ly/1vgVuzZ
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