Malcolm X and the Afro-Arab Political Legacy
By Grace Friar/Arab America Contributing Writer
Malcolm X remains at the forefront of African-American leaders, and his ideals continue to inspire political movements around the world. He is accredited with laying the foundations of the Black Power Movement, and is widely known for his advocacy of African-American independence and self-sufficiency, rather than integration into a segregated society. Malcolm X sought to unify black people across the United States and the world against any institution that have created injustices, and this legacy continues to live today in the spirit of revolution across the globe.
The growth of Islam in the United States can be traced back to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, all the way to the rise of Black-Nationalism in the mid-1800’s. This led to the creation of black urban sects of Islam like the Noble Drew Ali’s Moorish Science Temple of America. Eventually, the Lost Found Nation of Islam was formed in the early 20th century as a result of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA)—the largest black-led movement which was raided and shut down by the federal government. The Nation of Islam was led by Elijah Poole, who eventually became Elijah Muhammad, and drew their membership from the urban black working class, poor, prisoners, and semi-employed. The founder, Wallace Fard, declared that Christianity was the “white man’s religion,” and it was forced upon African-American slaves. He believed that Islam was more closely related to African roots, which prompted the mixture of Islam with Black Nationalism and gave rise to Black Muslims. Theologically, Nation of Islam taught that black people are the “chosen people” to be delivered from the evils of white supremacy and Jim Crow and to form a global connection with people of color all around the world.
Eventually the Nation of Islam recruited Malcolm X, who converted to Islam while incarcerated from 1946 to 1952. After his release, Malcolm X was appointed leading spokesperson for the Nation of Islam, and continued to promote their ideals of independence in the form of reliance on other African-Americans.
Malcolm X and Islam
Malcolm X remained a public speaker from 1955 to 1965, the major phase of the Civil Rights Movement. Unlike other leaders accredited with non-violent resistance, like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X stated, “I am for violence if non-violence means we continue postponing a solution to the American black man’s problem.” He encouraged self-determination and freedom “by any means necessary” which rang true in an era of revolution as it laid the foundations for the Black Panther Party and Black Power activists. Malcolm X amassed a widespread following and politicized the theological teachings of the Nation of Islam, to the dismay and anger of its leadership.
On March 8, 1964, Malcolm X split from the Nation of Islam due to deep tensions between he and Elijah Muhammed over the organization’s political direction. Malcolm X then travelled to Africa and the Middle East, where he completed the Muslim pilgrimage of Hajj and adopted the name el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. These trips led Malcolm to formally accept Sunni Islam, as he saw spiritual and political Islam could play a role in the liberation struggle against racism and white supremacy. Malcolm sought to use theological and organizational aspects of Islam in order to bring the struggle of African-Americans to a world stage, and express the dangers of imperialist and capitalist sentiments.
Political Teachings Today
Today, Malcolm X has become a powerful lens through which to understand the sense of besiegement felt by the ummah, or global Muslim community. Civil wars in Iraq and Syria; drone strikes in Pakistan and Somalia; the wave of revolts that swept North Africa and the Middle East in 2011 and have been suppressed by a massive counterrevolution launched by Saudi Arabia and its allies; and the Western-sponsored subjugation of Palestine, now entering its second century. These situations have created a dismal outlook of progressive politics in the Middle East and leaves many Muslim youth yearning for belonging and identity.
Since many young Muslims are searching for much of the same freedom from oppression, Malcolm X also offers an opportunity to understand how geopolitical shifts affect the wretched. In 2003, after the United States invaded Iraq, many young Muslim activists argued that Shia Islam, with its traditions of protest and minority consciousness, was better suited for Muslims in the West than the Sunni variety. The grandson of Malcolm X, Malcolm Lateef Shabazz, makes this argument and embraces Shia Islam. Within the United States and Europe, he became a popular figure among Muslim youth as he lectured and starred in political hip-hop videos. Malcolm eventually became a tool for diplomacy for all parties involved, which was ironic considering his distaste for American diplomacy and Intelligence Agencies’ use of black culture for propaganda.
Malcolm X’s teachings still inspire and inform today. Racism, mass incarceration, police brutality, and poverty are all by-products of the capitalist system that Malcolm X sought to exploit. Many policy makers in the west recognize the connection between 1960’s America with racialized militancy and today’s Islamic militancy. Malcolm X serves as the bridge between these eras and communities as his legacy, and the history of black protests, transfers to urban areas in Europe, where Islamophobia is rampant. Methods to contain black militancy that started within the FBI as the Ghetto Informant Program have been utilized in Europe in the form of “broken window” policing, racial classification, and even stripping of citizenship. Much of the public discourse regarding young Muslims attributes cultural pathology and bad behavior as major setbacks, rather than centuries of government policy—similar to African-American discourse in the United States. While American government continues to employ policies from the 1960’s, youth holds onto the legacy of Malcolm X. As people protest around the world, with Syrian activists holding signs that say “I Can’t Breathe,” or Palestinians showing support for the African-American community, young Americans continue to breed solidarity in the spirit of Malcolm X’s legacy.
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