Let’s be absolutely honest, if Malcom X were alive today, he would be on the “terror watch” list of most Western and Muslim majority countries, writes Tamim Mobayed.
Any of Malcolm X’s anniversaries sees a range of individuals trying to appropriate his message for their own cause, which is somewhat expected, considering he is an icon loved and respected by millions of Muslims and non-Muslims around the world.
Malcolm – also known as ‘Malik el-Shabazz’ – is a figure who is claimed by many, from the former US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and poet Dr Maya Angelou, to the co-founder of the Black Panther Party Huey P. Newton, and all the way to Al Qaeda Chief Dr Ayman Al Zawahari. Some might argue that this broad appeal is due to the individual’s conscious decision to fashion a non-distinct persona that allows people to see in them what they want to see. While that might be true of other icons, a short time spent reading or listening to Malcolm would dispel that possibility; Malcolm knew which side his bread was buttered on, and was explicit about stating it. Make no mistake about it, Malcolm X would be vilified by many centres of power in the West, the Muslim majority world, and beyond, were he alive today. His rigorous anti-Zionism would have earned him much hate in the West, while his embodiment of a comprehensive and radical political Islam would have seen him derided by the dictators of the Muslim majority world; he would likely have been on many despotic “terror blacklists”.
While the Nation of Islam (NOI) opened Malcolm’s eyes during his time in prison, as his consciousness continued to grow, the NOI’s strict apoliticalism became a significant restriction to his thought and activism. The NOI maintained a strict policy of not allowing members to vote, participate in civil rights marches, or form alliances with other Black groups. It is quite easy to make comparisons between the NOI’s apolitical approach, with similar state-sanctioned versions of Islam that are perpetuated by some countries today. Members of the NOI who disobeyed this faced the risk of excommunication, and one of Malcolm’s most prominent biographers, the late Professor Manning Marable, cites Malcolm’s political dalliances as being one of the causes of his removal from the group. Malcolm was eventually expelled from the NOI.
The bitterness of losing his place within the NOI that he helped build (some crediting him significantly with the boom in their membership between the early 50s and 60s, from 1,200 to 75,000), was remedied by Malcolm’s embrace into mainstream Sunni Islam; whenever Malcolm travelled to Muslim majority lands, he was greeted like an emissary. As well as his initiation into the worldwide siblinghood of Sunni Islam, Malcolm’s new found political freedom allowed him to forge alliances formed with previously off-limits strands of activism, namely amongst Black nationalists and socialist groups in the US, and Pan-Africanists and Anti-colonialists across Africa.
Malcolm made two trips to Africa and the Middle East, meeting revolutionary leaders, heads of states and monarchs. These trips greatly impacted his philosophy and approach to bringing about social change.
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He admired the Muslim Brotherhood of Lebanon, travelling to Beirut to learn from them in April of 1964, while he also forged links with the son-in-law of Hassan al Banna, one of the cofounders of the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt, Dr Said Ramadan in Switzerland.
Malcolm did not limit himself to the Muslim Brotherhood, as he worked with the Salafi movement in Saudi Arabia and the Nasserites of Egypt.
His interactions with different breeds of thinkers broadened his ideas, and he began shedding the remnants of the dogmatism within the NOI. The immature position of all whites being devils gave way to more dynamic and developed political thought, as Malcolm adopted the cause first of Black Nationalism, and then eventually evolving to that of Pan-Africanism and anti-Colonialism.
“You’re living at a time of extremism, a time of revolution a time where there’s got to be a change. People in power have misused it and now there has to be a change and a better world has to be built and the only way is going to be built is with extreme methods and I for one will join with anyone, don’t care what colour, as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on this earth.”
Malcolm called for direct engagement with society, arguing for political representation, while also calling for protective self-armament in face of a brutalising racist state. This dual position is encapsulated in his famous “Ballot or the Bullet” speech. While he doubted the ability of the US political system to reform itself, he called for active engagement with it. In the aforementioned speech, he called for Black Americans to be granted their voting rights, free of gerrymandering and other underhanded delegitimising means.
The Black Panther Party would famously apply his calls to self-armament; he was the movement’s spiritual Godfather. He recognised the power of Islam to transform people and societies, while also seeing the value of building bridges with allies outside of the fold of Islam.
His active form of Islam is precisely the variation of Islam that terrifies dictators and despotic regimes. His associations with the Muslim Brotherhood alone would have deemed him persona non-grata in many Arab countries today, while his political advocacy would also have evoked fear throughout MENA and the West.
Take note of the amount of rancour directed towards Muslim democrats such as Ilhan Omar from the Middle East, while any sprouts of democracy within the region are often smashed, be they in Egypt, Palestine, Algeria or Tunisia.
Malcolm’s position on Israel and Zionism were also unwavering, seeing Israel as a “neo-colonial proxy for US Imperialism”, breaking from the NOI’s admiration of Zionist ideology. He visited Gaza in the second half of 1964, and attended a press conference featuring the first president of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). On the Israeli occupation of Palestine, he said that there existed “no intelligent or legal basis in history – not even in their own religion”. And in particular relevance to the new relationships being formed between Israel and Africa, Malcolm would likely have rallied against them as he did in the 1960’s, when he denounced Israel’s “Zionist Dollarism” in the continent.
Keep the realities of Malcolm’s explicitly stated positions and actions when you hear individual, organisations and governments paying lip service to him. Likely, many of those who praise Malcolm would have rallied against him during his time, smearing him as an extremist and a hatemonger. Indeed, this is how most mainstream media outlets eulogised him at the time. In fact, it was not until some decades after his death that Malcolm began receiving mainstream favour. It is also worth being mindful of Muslim scholars who praise Malcolm while also supporting brutal regimes that would surely have put him on their terror lists; if Islamic Relief UK and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) are on it, you can bet Malcolm would have been blacklisted too.
Malcolm had morphed into the embodiment of an energised and engaged political Islam that terrifies so many power structures today. Those who use underhanded means to silence dissent would surely have deployed any means necessary to silence Malcolm today – may Allah have mercy on him.