Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X are not symbols of global Muslim struggles

Malcolm X

Khalil Charles is the deputy news editor at TRT World. He is a former BBC journalist and TV presenter. You can follow Khalil on Twitter @khalilcharles


Journalist Khalil Charles questions why non-black Muslims use Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X as symbols of global Muslim struggles and Islamophobia. 

In their early days, both Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X were icons of black separatism, preferring to live alone and wanting to keep their race pure. They would have probably been no keener to live among south Asians or Arabs than they would to live with the white man. Therefore, their message of defiance can in no way be likened to the struggles Muslim communities are going through, in the western and Muslim-majority world.

Today, south Asian and Arab Muslim communities enjoy better educational and employment opportunities than their black counterparts, as well as strong family structures that support each other at times of difficulty and hardship. Malcolm and Ali came from an era where there were widespread dysfunctional families within African American communities, rooted in the traumatic history of the transatlantic slavery. Discrimination amounting to segregation policies and lynching of black people were commonplace for decades even after the abolition of slavery.

Muslim struggles

It is simply incorrect to talk about the struggle of Muslims today against global oppression and Islamophobia in the same terms or even the same breath as the experience of black people from slavery, the civil rights movements of the 1960’s to the Black Lives Matter movement of today.

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The two men moved away from black separatism to mainstream Sunni Islam but they never renounced the notion of Black Nationalism. They identified themselves as black and proud, and through this self-affirmation they represented the dispossessed and the oppressed among African Americans. They were also conscious of their identity and were keen to cement good relations with Africa and their brethren from the continent.

Thus, when I read articles written by Asian or Arab Muslim authors, and I see pictures of Malcolm and Ali on social media profiles, I wonder whether they are hanging on to these icons because they are unable to identify with equally influential Asian or Arab figures that stood up for freedom and justice in the same way as Malcolm and Ali did.

I wonder whether just being Muslim is enough to identify with these men, even though sadly within the ranks of my Asian and Arab brethren there are many who would still today refuse to offer the hands of their children to black men and women on the grounds of their race.

Consistency and honesty   

Identification with these heroes comes at a cost. That is the denial that a growing number of black people are becoming Muslim but are still viewed via stereotypical lenses, as criminals or sexual predators, and considered by many to be inferior to their Asian or Arab co-religionists.

It’s one thing to parade Ali and Malcolm as symbols of strength when Muslims today need to project courage in the face of oppression, but it is another thing to use these great figures to hide real weaknesses within the community, and the lack of real support for the few Muslims who are vocal and are prepared to stand up for justice and to speak out against oppression.

I find it difficult to take writers seriously who accuse others of distorting the message of Malcolm and Ali when they themselves distort their message and see themselves as part of Malcolm and Ali’s legacy, when little is being done to talk openly about anti-black racism within their communities or to advocate that Asian or Arab Muslims make greater efforts to accept their black brothers and sisters as equals while standing up for their rights.

It is well known within Muslim foster and adoption services in the West that Asian and Arab couples rarely adopt or foster black orphans of Caribbean or African origin. For many, the bond of Islam sadly has no meaningful manifestation. Many couples have expressed concerns about inheritance and how they would pass their wealth to a black child!

An Islamic perspective

At this point, if you don’t read any further you are in danger of labelling me as someone who has problems with Asian and Arab Muslims, but that would be far from the truth, and you’d have missed my central point. Continue reading and hear me out until the end.

One of my favourite imams, Imam Siraj Wahaj, said that in the early days, both Malcolm and Ali expressed opinions that clearly contradicted Islam.

The message that is quite clearly needed today is not one of separatism, hatred against any group of people or an implied projection of violence in the struggle. I believe that’s the wrong direction for Muslims to head. Therefore, these icons are not the right figures to represent the struggle against global Islamophobia. They did what they had to do to represent Black people, and projected their stance on the defence of downtrodden African peoples in diaspora.

My message is not one of hatred and prejudice, it is that we put Allah and his Messenger ahead of any human being no matter how great we think they are in the struggle for the rights of Muslims.

Ali spoke nothing but the truth when he said that Allah sent the Parkinson Syndrome to demonstrate that Allah was the greatest, not Muhammad Ali. Muslims across the world should never forget that.

In the haste to praise heroes, we should never forget that those heroes were themselves guided and assisted in their courage by Allah. The example of the Prophet Muhammad drove their determination to succeed and change what they could of the world.

Allah says in the Quran that he made different tribes and nations to get to know each other – so there is nothing wrong in being part of a tribe or a nation and feeling proud of that identity, as long as it doesn’t descend into asabiyya (racism, tribalism and nationalism that is forbidden in Islam). There is nothing wrong in recognising the suffering of others, in fact, that is what all humans should do. But we should remember the people to whom those icons were fighting for, accept the widespread and institutional racism that is still being committed against them today, and do all we can to avoid becoming part of their oppression and suffering.

Admittedly, Malcolm and Ali’s greatness does transcend the world and they are very much part of the Muslim Ummah, but remembering them should help us remember the plight of the millions of Africans, Black Americans, Caribbean and aboriginal people who continue to suffer injustice due to the colour of their skin.

In the Islamic tradition of humility and grace, I have said what I have said and ask forgiveness from Allah for myself and you (all).

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