08 Jul My Thoughts on Malcolm X
My Thoughts on Malcolm X
My Thoughts on Malcolm X
I have been asked by several people, over the course of this last month, about Malcolm X, many of them requesting my personal opinion of the man.
It is difficult to put into words what Malcolm meant to me. His teachings were brilliant, his arguments forceful yet nuanced, but it was his life and his perception of himself and the importance of pride in one’s self that had the deepest impact on me.
Muslims today make Malcolm part of their identity, generally they understand this through the cultural structures found in the African-American imagination, combining Malcolm X with hip-hop, Mos Def and Lupe, beards, radical political maxims from the developing world, and other various cultural associations which are designed to create a cultural imagination that is distinctly non-white, which makes Malcolm a logical pillar for the modern Muslim identity. The fact that African-American Muslims make such a sizable portion of the American Muslim population simply crystallizes this aspect of American Muslim youth culture.
This created a particular problem for myself. I do not look Arab, although I am, I am not a rev/convert, either, so I did not have people who had a stake in including me within the Muslim community. By looking the way I do, and by occupying an odd societal position, in my mind, I could not take on the trappings of this cultural process. I was lost.
When I was asked this question, what Malcolm means to me, a year ago, an African-American professor interrupted me before I could answer, asking “what could Malcolm mean to him? He’s white.”
It was Malcolm who helped me find my way out. To define myself. To define my path. To act with purpose and towards a goal. It was Malcolm, the center piece of a cultural imagination that I was supposed to be explicitly absent from, who presented Islam in a way that allowed me to return to Islam, to embrace Islam, to want to be a champion for Islam and for Muslims.
Islam, for Malcolm, was discipline, it was purpose, it was what allowed him to transform from criminal to preacher. It was not a “religion,” in that it exhorted him to simply ritualize acts, it was a religion which exhorted him to act. It was not belief in the imaginary, magical stories within the scripture; it was the means towards changing his reality, by learning from the past in order to understand our future. It was Islam that changed Malcolm, and it was re-examining Islam through Malcolm’s eyes that changed me.
We consistently emphasize inner peace with our Islam. The last khutbah I listened to, talked extensively about how little this world meant, and how grand heaven and hell were, and this khutba would go into extensive detail of what perils hell had in store for us. Malcolm seldom spoke of the hereafter, he was concerned with justice for people in this society, on this earth, in his day; and that aspect of Islam, its overwhelming inclination towards social justice, that was the proof of Islam’s power to Malcolm, and later on, myself.
By reading Malcolm and about Malcolm, I saw my reflection, and I saw a level of complexity that few would be willing to give him. To contain him as simply a man concerned with “civil rights,” would be making him too small, because he illustrated something that shook me to my core: how to defeat the adversary of oppression.
Oppression was not just a physical process, that was the easy part, to segregate and to jail and kill, those are simplistic acts. The greater oppression is one of perception, how do you destroy a people’s self-perception. If you can do that, you’ve won. Convince them that they do not have anything of value, nothing that is beautiful, nothing that is universal. Malcolm challenged these perceptions, and gave people a pride in themselves that did not depend on the cultural oppressors’ approval.
Yet, today, we interpret these acts of Malcolm by simply attempting to create a counter-discourse; to do the opposite of your oppressor. Undeniably, there are many things that one must do in order to remove themselves from the shackles of their oppressor, but what made Malcolm so powerful and fearsome was how he was able to, not just function, but excel, within the arena of his oppressor. He would consciously denigrate the traits he possessed which were praised by his society because they resembled those (traits) of his oppressor.
Malcolm’s maternal grandfather was white, and his light skin was praised, the reddish tint to his hair was seen as an exceptional characteristic. He found no value in these things, and extended this thought towards things that were put forward by his oppressor. Malcolm was sharp, both in his speech and his dress, he spoke from positions of knowledge, from strength, and would challenge his opponents with a ferocious mixture of intelligence and charm.
He spoke from a position of strength, not a feigned humility, while consciously rejecting the notion that he should celebrate passivity and non-violence in the face of those who were both deliberate and violent.
Thus, in order to become a better Muslim, and to be able to make the impact on the world (insha Allah, ya Rabb) I saw the path of Malcolm as one that I could learn from. Malcolm saw in Islam a religion which challenged you to the limits of your ability, to improve yourself so that you could maximize your strengths, while using discipline to limit your weaknesses. Malcolm’s life helped illustrate this aspect of Islam for me.
It is little secret to those who know me that I have found tremendous comfort in Malcolm’s approaches, especially when learning of his experience to Hajj. It was through his writings that we see his understanding of race, and through that, the power of Islam. For Malcolm, Hajj meant that he saw Muslims who were white, blond, and blue-eyed; but he writes that they didn’t act white. For Malcolm, this enabled him to realize that race was a social construction, and that, in his words, “white is not a color, it is a state of mind.”
Islam was the cure to the disease of racism, and indeed, the cure to all social problems. Islam’s perfection is illustrated in its pursuit of simultaneous improvement of both the group and the individual; Malcolm’s faith in Islam was not founded in “belief” but in evidence, which was Islam’s strength as a mechanism for social justice.
Thus, I could only conclude, that as Muslims, our identity as Muslims and our dedication to Islam, in its practical form, is what will allow us to not only ensure we can live a happy and fulfilled life, but that, as both individuals and as a society, that should we face tough times, we have the fortitude to maintain our values through adversity. So our identity as Muslims, our Muslim practices, our belief in Islam, these were the tools through which we could weather any disaster, defend ourselves from any attack, and hold firm through any uncertainty.
It is our identity, our conscious constructed identity that defines us. Islam should be something that we consciously adhere to and that we consciously practice.
Malcolm saw that everything that was given to his people was designed and constructed to pacify them. Drugs, alcohol, even the Christianity given to them, all were designed to pacify his people, to ensure they did not have a semblance of consciousness to resist and recognize the injustice of their plight. For Malcolm, the foundational question was identity, because it was the lack of a identity that allowed a blond haired, blue-eyed, white Jesus to be acceptable in his community, a Christianity which did not condemn games of chance nor a drink of alcohol, things that destroyed his community.
It all begins with one’s identity.
That is why Malcolm asked his audience: “Who are you? Who taught you to hate the color of your skin? Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips? Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet? Who taught you to hate your own kind? Who taught you to hate the race that you belong to so much so that you don’t want to be around each other? No… Before you come asking Mr. Muhammad does he teach hate, you should ask yourself who taught you to hate being what God made you.”
Malcolm was so impressive because he did not simply view racism as something that hurt African-Americans, but as something that hurt white Americans as well. It was a process of identification that formulated the world for both oppressor and oppressed, the idea that they were separate was ridiculous to Malcolm, and more importantly, it was Islam that could heal that rift.
Malcolm was one of the forces in my life that helped find value in myself, and to find the place in which to put my desire to help others. He spoke to a Muslim experience that was in its infantile stages, yet, is still relevant to our world today. I’m not sure Malcolm would see that as a good thing, rather, that we have yet to improve ourselves as he would have hoped.
Insha Allah, may God please make us among those who will change this world for the better; by any means necessary.