[This article is part of a six-person roundtable entitled “African American Muslims and the Black Freedom Struggle.” Click here for the introduction by Lindsey Stephenson and links to responses by Zareena Grewal, Abbas Barzegar, Mansa Bilal Mark King, Aminah B. McCloud, and Sohail Daulatzai. The initial question posed to the roundtable participants was: African American Muslims have been involved in the black freedom struggle for over a century, however their participation is often overlooked or generalized. How have they engaged with some of the important questions of the movement such as: the extent to which the black freedom struggle was a national or an international one; whether the struggle is ultimately about civil or human rights; and the means by which freedom was to be achieved? Is religion in fact a relevant cleavage within the black freedom struggle? Have African American Muslims represented a unified block? Finally, what African American Muslim experiences contribute to the ongoing debate about civil rights and human rights in the United States and abroad?]
Clearly the contours, shapes and interpretive forces of Black Islam are diverse, and cannot be spoken or thought of in monolithic or totalizing ways. But as I detail in my book, Malcolm X has in may ways become the paradigmatic figure for thinking through the relationships between Blackness and its relationships to Islam, the US nation-state, and the shaping of radical political practice that centered race as a constituent force in shaping the modern imperial imagination.
Through what I’ve called the “Muslim International,” Malcolm has left an indelible imprint on Black political culture in the post–World War II era. His legacy reveals a rich and compelling history between Blackness, Islam, and the Muslim Third World, a history that has profoundly shaped not only Black radical thought (through his influence on the emergence of the Revolutionary Action Movement and Black Power), but also on Black cultural practices (the Black Arts Movement and hip-hop culture). In many ways, he has become a historical lens and a contemporary frame for understanding US power, the global dimensions of white supremacy, and the relationships between Black freedom struggles in the United States and those in Africa and elsewhere in the Muslim Third World.
Unlike the Civil Rights Movement that presumed that the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the US would be just arbiters of Black redress, Malcolm and others challenged the orthodoxies of a Civil Rights Movement that had also assumed the logic of “anti-communism” and that tied Black fate to that of US empire. As a result, Malcolm made distinctions between “civil rights” and “human rights,” and what he called “the Negro Revolution” and the “Black revolution,” ideological frames and political horizons that imagined Black freedom dreams beyond the nation.
In developing his insurgent Muslim Internationalism and his developing Pan-Africanism, Malcolm’s central concern was to internationalize the suffering of Black peoples in the United States by taking it to formal channels, such as the United Nations, where he felt that the newly independent nations of the Third World would be more just arbiters of Black claims to freedom and justice.
Through both his Organization of Afro-American Unity (modeled after Kwame Nkrumah’s Organization of African Unity) and his Muslim Mosque Incorporated, Malcolm sought the internationalization of the plight of Black peoples in America into the United Nations, which he felt would force the United States to undergo scrutiny and challenge from the Third World. Malcolm felt that the pressure the United States would have to face would tilt the balance of power to Africa, Asia, and Latin America, as it would reveal U.S. hypocrisies, undermine the country’s foreign policy objectives in the Third World, and expose the country’s own brutal extension of European colonial racism.
Despite a narrative that assumes that after he left the Nation of Islam and made his pilgrimage to Mecca, Malcolm became a colorblind universalist who stopped talking and organizing around race, Malcolm continued to center race as a fundamental part of his political project. Traveling extensively throughout the Muslim Third World and the African continent on two separate occasions after his break with the Nation of Islam, Malcolm visited Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Egypt, Sudan, Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco, Ghana, Algeria, Tanzania, Guinea, and several other countries and met with various leaders and heads of state, including Julius Nyere of Tanzania, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Milton Obote of Uganda, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, and Ahmed Sékou Touré of Guinea, as well as several other elected officials and ministers in Africa and the Middle East.
In addition to these trips and meetings that sought to enlarge the scope of his allies and the scale of his struggle, Malcolm continued to make speeches around these issues, including his “Ballot or the Bullet” speech in both Detroit and Cleveland, at the Oxford Union Debate in England, and also at the Organization of African Unity meeting in Cairo in 1964 in front of heads of state throughout the continent in Africa. He also wrote articles, including a 1964 piece in the Egyptian Gazette critiquing Zionism and in support of Palestinian self-determination, a position that not only challenged the positions of Black centrists such as Ralph Bunche and radicals like DuBois who had supported Zionism, but that also anticipated and influenced the positions of SNCC and the Black Panther Party who vocally supported Palestinian self-determination.
Although the bullets finally caught up to him, they couldn’t touch the enduring contributions that Malcolm has made to the future of Black radical thought and the imaginative geography of the Muslim International. By linking the violence of Jim and Jane Crow to the colonial violence taking place in the Third World, Malcolm made the links between Harlem and Algiers, Mississippi and Cairo, and Detroit and Palestine. In many ways, the Muslim Third World became both a literal and ideological backdrop to the narrative of resistance he wove within the Muslim International. For it was on this stage of overlapping diasporas and shared histories of struggle that Malcolm X’s unfolding drama of Black internationalism was narrated, a history of tragedy and triumph that sought to situate for Black and Third World peoples a more dignified and just place in the world.
The responses to the original questions posed only begin to reveal the rich, layered and textured histories of Black peoples and their relationships to Islam and Muslims. I think that Professors Barzegar, McCloud, Grewal and King are all brilliant and insightful in their comments and I’m humbled to be able to engage with them here.
I think that the very call for this roundtable on Black Islam, whether it be in Jadaliyya or elsewhere, only reveals the broader silencing and invisibility of these histories, traditions and modes of being that are vibrant and alive today – visible, yet unseen. But it is this silencing and disavowal to which we must speak and address, for the necessity of speaking underscores its urgency, and points to a larger malaise and even refusal to contend with the force and power of white supremacy, capitalism and patriarchy by non-Black Muslim communities in the U.S., who have for the most part sought to achieve “honorary whiteness,” revel in the narrative of liberal multiculturalism, and support a liberal internationalism that maintains U.S. empire.
Clearly there are many Black liberals and other non-Muslim minorities today who have also embraced the imperial consensus and rejected the histories of radical political engagement. But since we are here discussing histories of Islam and Muslims in the United States, my chief concerns lie with the non-Black Muslims who have for the most part betrayed the legacy of Black Islam and Malcolm X, despite their continued mis-appropriation of these redemptive histories.
Just as Black liberals during the Cold War embraced an anti-communist foreign policy that justified U.S. expansion in Africa, Asia and Latin America in exchange for reform and inclusion into American society (instead of a radical transformation of it), many non-Black Muslims today have betrayed the legacy of Malcolm X and his principled critique of domestic repression and U.S. empire by assuming the logic of “anti-terrorism” in exchange for a kind of liberal accommodation and acceptance into mainstream America.
Let’s not be prisoners of the present. Just as the “Red Scare” of the Cold War narrowed the scope of dissent and silenced many others on matter of race, capitalism and imperialism, we need to see how today the state-sanctioned logic of “counter-extremism” and “counter-radicalization” are deploying a similar logic towards similar ends. If we are to honor the enduring histories of Black Islam and Malcolm X, then we have to craft a new political imagination of what it means to be radical - embrace it, and all its possibilities, so that we see the connections between Abner Louima and Abu-Ghraib, between Pelican Bay and Guantanamo Bay. If we don’t, then our continued collective failure is yet another example of how we are implicated in maintaining the very silence and erasure around the legacy of Black Islam and Malcolm X that we claim to be upholding.
[This article is part of a six-person roundtable entitled “African American Muslims and the Black Freedom Struggle.” Click here for the introduction by Lindsey Stephenson and links to responses by Zareena Grewal,Abbas Barzegar, Mansa Bilal Mark King, Aminah B. McCloud, and Sohail Daulatzai.]