Malcolm X – el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz – is an instantly recognisable figure. As an internationalist revolutionary, his images are as iconic as those of Che Guevara.
Yet the people who seem to know the least about him are the most in need of him. On a superficial level, most Muslims know Malcolm X from T-shirts and slogans.
But in the current climate of the “war on terror”, and its consequent demonisation of Muslims, his struggle and vision could not be more relevant.
Malcolm X fought for the rights of 22 million African-Americans, but he articulated this struggle in a global framework by arguing for universal human rights and an end to imperialism. His statement that “the only way we will get freedom for ourselves is to identify ourselves with every oppressed people in the world” encapsulates this vision. It is a message that Muslims everywhere need to grasp urgently.
Currently the Muslim world consists of a motley array of autocrats, dictators and kings whose only commonality is that they are not representative of the people and are strongly tied to Western interests.
In addition Muslims in Europe number about 15 million and have all the worst social indicators in terms of housing, health and education. We are effectively “economic slaves” in Fortress Europe.
Malcolm was fighting a similar situation at his time and because of his irrepressible nature he was labelled an “extremist” and a “militant”. If he had been alive today he would have been called a “terrorist” and would probably have been incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay or at “her majesty’s pleasure” in Belmarsh or Woodhill.
The current incarceration of Muslims in these prisons is, in a sense, a source of hope for us, since another Malcolm may well be serving his time before his release.
Historically when Muslims strived for social justice and civil societies, their “reward” was imprisonment or death. Yet they persisted. Malcolm’s struggle personified this and is an inspiring example for us all.
His role as a preacher who practised what he preached and did not fear authority stands in stark contrast to the “scholars for dollars” that tend to populate our mosques, who read scripted sermons authorised and cleared by the government.
They focus on the ritualistic aspects of Islam and ignore, or are ignorant of, the real social malaise blighting Muslims in Europe and the open persecution of them elsewhere.
But the tide is turning, and true to Malcolm’s engagement with the grassroots, there are now Muslim organisations and campaigns trying to honour his legacy. Examples include Stop Political Terror and the Muslim Public Affairs Committee in Britain and the Arab European League in Belgium and the Netherlands.
Those of us in these nascent movements need to be aware of two important points in Malcolm’s life which will help us to stay faithful to his struggle.
First, he was a human with human failings – but he was objective enough to be able to see that the Nation of Islam, which he had preached so powerfully for, was not all it seemed.
Malcolm left the Nation of Islam after performing his pilgrimage to Mecca and realising its reality. He was humble enough to accept his error, but brave enough to face the consequences of such a public withdrawal from the Nation.
Second, Malcolm’s relationship with Martin Luther King was not one of animosity, but of sincere advice. Malcolm had said on a number of occasions that we must unite on objectives, though not necessarily on methods, to facilitate unity. This was his guiding principle with Dr King’s movement.
The classic imperialist strategy to control freedom movements has been to “divide and rule”. In this case, Malcolm was cast as the extremist, the militant, the “bad negro”, while Dr King was cast as the moderate, the pacifist, the “good negro”. This is mirrored today with Muslims classifying themselves as “moderate” or “extremist”. These are defensive positions. We must not allow ourselves to buy in to this train of thought and language, which is designed to weaken us.
After Malcolm’s withdrawal from the Nation, he became more inclusive of people and movements. This would have allowed a greater cooperation with Dr King – which would have posed a real danger to the establishment. Within months Malcolm had been assassinated. Analysis of Martin Luther King’s speeches after Malcolm’s death suggest he was becoming more “Malcolm-like”. He ultimately paid the same price as his comrade.
Both understood the struggle and both paid with their lives. This is a sobering lesson for all of us involved in the struggle for justice and freedom, and one we need to internalise and be prepared for.
Dr Adnan Siddiqui is a GP based in south London and a leading activist with Stop Political Terror. For more information go to www.stoppoliticalterror.com
Malcolm X—Socialism and Black Nationalism, £2.95, Kevin Ovenden. The best short introduction to the life and politics of Malcolm X
The Autobiography of Malcolm X, £9.99, Malcolm X with assistance from Alex Haley. The inspiring account of Malcolm X’s life in his own words
Malcolm and Martin and America: A Dream or Nightmare? £14.99 James H Cone
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