Would Malcolm X have denounced Obama’s imperial adventures in Pakistan and Afghanistan?

Published: February 21, 2015
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Malcolm would have enthusiastically welcomed the dawn of the Arab uprisings but would have denounced the murderous sectarianisms and dictatorships they seem to have morphed into. Photo: Reuters

“The house Negro usually lived close to his master. He dressed like his master. He wore his master’s second-hand clothes. He ate the food that his master left on the table. When the master would be sick, the house Negro identified himself so much with the master, he’d say, ‘What’s the matter, boss, we sick?’ The house Negro was in minority. The field Negroes were the masses. They were in the majority. When the master got sick, they prayed that he’d die. If his house caught on fire, they’d pray for a wind to come along and fan the breeze.”

I have often thought about these prescient words, uttered more than 50 years ago and the man who spoke them, prominent African-American, Muslim activist, Malcolm X, who was assassinated in a public execution, 50 years ago today, orchestrated by the cult he formerly belonged to, the Nation of Islam (NOI).

In an America that Barack Obama has fancifully termed ‘post-racial’, it is now fashionable to talk of Malcolm X as an African-American, but his Muslim identity was equally important to him, especially in the final years of his life, when he was breaking away from the segregationist views undoubtedly instilled within him owing to his long association with the NOI and reaching for a revolutionary new alliance with the whites, locally, and with African revolutionaries, internationally.

Born in 1925 to a preacher father, who is believed to have been murdered by white segregationists and a tough Grenadian mother who later ended up in an asylum, young Malcolm Little was one of the dropouts of the much-vaunted American dream.

After a failed childhood peppered with indifferent schooling, petty crimes and repeated attempts to be the house Negro which he would later denounce as a fiery activist, Malcolm ended up in prison for committing a series of thefts in 1946. His time in prison was to have a decisive impact on him – and African-American politics.

He became a voracious reader of everything from the Quran to Kant, as well as about the origins of his race from Africa. When he was eventually released, he was a changed man, determined to change the face of his people in a virulently racist America. These details are lovingly recounted in Malcolm’s Autobiography, which in addition to CLR James magnum opus on the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins, was a crucial reference point for me in situating the plight of African-Americans and their slave predecessors in colonial Haiti. Spike Lee’s iconic film on the man, and recently the late Manning Marable’s Malcolm X:  A Life of Reinvention fill any remaining gaps about his life and legacy.

The Nation of Islam was one of the fastest-growing cults among African-American in the United States, benefitting from the decline in the previously-dominant one initiated by Marcus Garvey (I had the opportunity to learn more about this fascinating and polarising figure during my studies in the US) on one hand, and the conservatism and gradualism of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) led by Booker T Washington on the other.

Malcolm came in contact with the NOI during his time in jail and became its rising star upon release, quickly cementing his place in the organisation with his wonderful oratorical and organisational skills, and contributing to the immense popularity of the NOI itself.

He emerged as an uncompromising critic of integration with white America, and a champion of segregation and African-American self-determination and self-defence, not unreasonably. It was inevitable that sooner or later, whether through the attempts of jealous detractors within the NOI or due to his own foresight, Malcolm would come to see the utter irreconcilability of the NOI’s absurd founding fictions of the origins of the African-American and the universalism of the Islamic worldview, not to mention the unethical practices of its self-styled Prophet, Elijah Muhammad.

After Malcolm confronted Muhammad over the latter’s immoral sexual practices – impregnating multiple young secretaries – and later describing John F Kennedy’s assassination as ‘chickens coming home to roost’, he was suspended and forbidden to be the public voice of the NOI.

His most important decision came in 1964 when he broke away from the NOI and set up two important organisations, the Muslim Mosque Inc and the Organisation of African-American Unity (OAAU), thus bringing together the two strands in his thought: liberation of the Africa-American as well as solidarity with the liberation movements of Africa.

He embarked on a pan-African tour that same year beginning with the Hajj pilgrimage, which decisively swung his view from militant separatist to a black nationalist not averse to making progressive coalitions with whites who would listen; and his visits to Egypt, Ghana, Tanzania and other countries which were the lodestars of the Non-Aligned movement helped him reach a mature understanding of colonialism and to make connections between institutionalised racism at home and imperialism abroad. This was also the time that he publicly advocated for Chinese and Cuban models and the socialist model which these revolutions adopted.

Even nominally placid Britain benefitted from Malcolm’s wisdom when he came to attend a debate at the Oxford Union, supporting the motion,

“Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue”.

With the progression in his political maturity, his enemies also multiplied and on that afternoon in 1965 he was shot down by three assassins from the NOI while addressing a meeting of the OAAU in Harlem, his eventful life cut-short at just 39 years.

Throughout his life, his detractors had held up his rival for African-American leadership, Martin Luther King as the voice of reason, ‘I Have a Dream’; and Malcolm as the hatemonger forever associated with the misunderstood quote ‘By Any Means Necessary’. Yet King met the same fate: three years after Malcolm’s assassination, King himself was murdered for voicing pretty much the same concerns as the former: opposition to war and abandoning the American political establishment to become an independent voice on his own.

It is a fairy tale of intrigue and assassination that we, in South Asia know only too well; after all, the fiery communist Bhagat Singh was executed by the British while his pacifist rival, Mohandas Gandhi too met a violent end at the hands of a Hindu fundamentalist. Both India and America mourn inconsolably.

What is the legacy of Malcolm X 50 years after his untimely assassination?

There is indeed an African-American in the White House but the plight of the ordinary African-American has never been more miserable: as the recent incidents involving Travyon Martin and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Cleveland and New York amply demonstrate.

If Malcolm had somehow lived to be 95 this year, he would have seen his approach greatly vindicated: violence only begets violence and African-Americans have a right to self-defence. He would have pointed angrily to the field Negroes like Martin and Brown and the house Negro ensconced in the White House and would have questioned Obama’s commitment to ‘post-racialism’ in the wake of the fact that in 2011 the number of African-Americans incarcerated in US prisons was the same as the slave population in 1860.

Not to mention the fine line of executions carried out by state functionaries whether the Black Power or Panther successors, or their more recent incarnations. In keeping with his anti-imperialist convictions, Malcolm would also have denounced Obama’s imperial adventures in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as his attempts at regime change in Latin America. Meanwhile, the African-American leadership is hopelessly divided between the toothlessness of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton on one hand and the charlatan Louis Farrakhan on the other.

And what of the Muslim world?

Malcolm’s Muslim identity was undoubtedly important to him, as was pan-African solidarity. But in the same speech I have quoted above, he shattered the nonsense regarding the alleged Arab origins of African-Americans, something we in Pakistan who love to demonstrate our debt to our Saudi benefactors now and then, could learn from as the basis of a progressive South Asian identity. Malcolm would have enthusiastically welcomed the dawn of the Arab uprisings but would have denounced the murderous sectarianisms and dictatorships they seem to have morphed into, perhaps due to the fact that these momentous upheavals do not seek to build alliances or learn from other struggles.

But perhaps more than any other, the identity that was really Malcolm’s, was perhaps not his much-vaunted journey from a colonial Little to a slave X, rather the successful transition which he embodied more than most, from a house Negro to a field Negro in his unfortunate death perhaps more than in his tumultuous life.

Raza Naeem

Raza Naeem

The author is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and translator. His translations of Saadat Hasan Manto have been re-translated in both Bengali and Tamil, and he received a prestigious Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship in 2014-2015 for his translation and interpretive work on Manto. He is presently working on a book of translations of Manto's progressive writings, tentatively titled Comrade Manto.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Sami

    This article carries one of the most illogical analogies ever made in recent times. Different dots were connected but in the end it all ended up in another fiasco.

    Also the author failed to realize that “Nation of Islam” led by Elijah Muhammad was never considered a Muslim organization by Any Islamic country or a scholar..

    The followers of Nation of Islam were called Kaafirs by almost all Muslim scholars. Because just like Ahmedis consider their group founder as the Mehdi , in a similar manner NOI considered Master W. Fard Muhammad as the Mehdi of the Jews and Muslims.
    So the Faith of MalcolmX and Elijah Muhammad was important to them but atleast Muslims of the Middle east and Pakistan who were at the forefront to call them Kaafirs should refrain from Hijacking NOI , their ideologies or to cash them for their own political agenda.
    Just like Ahmedis are denounced in Pakistan if any member of NOI would be in Pakistan then people would be desecrating their graves, constitutionally declaring them Kaafirs and would be closing their Mosques.

    Also how long as a Pakistani we will keep on blaming America for our own shortcomings?. We cheat, lie, do corruption and whenever possible break the rules. Americans are not telling us to do that. It is our notions that is driving us crazy.
    Unless As a Pakistani we will not realize that infact we are ourselves to blame for our demise, until that time we are not going anywhere. So kindly stop blaming others and introspect. From today look at the world without bias. Start telling the truth, stop corruption, stop breaking the rules and you will see the real change.Recommend

  • Harris

    The Nation of Islam was a racist black supremacist organisation though who considered white people as devils. As such Muslims were right to consider them non-Muslims. Malcom X (realising that the Nation of Islam was racist) was right to distance himself from such an organisation who later assassinated him for leaving. The NOI has since changed its views and become more Orthodox.

    I agree that the blog is illogical though. What does Malcom X have to do with present US foreign policy?Recommend

  • Parvez

    Malcolm X’s place is assured somewhere in the American history books for sure, but your looking at the American racial issue through a magnifying glass, appears a bit dramatic……and you connecting all this to Obama’s ( technically its America’s foreign policy ) foreign policy is beyond me.Recommend

  • Critical

    What an illogical analysis…….
    Malcolm X mainly concentrated on the freedom of Black people…For him,freedom meant carving a new nation for Blacks from America which was totally opposite to MLK who wanted equal rights for all…

    This is so akin to Jinnah’s muslim nation versus Gandhi’s principle…concidentally MLK was a huge fan of Gandhi….

    Had a black American nation been formed,it might have had the same problem which are currently faced by Pakistan and the new nation after 50 yrs would have wondered if they were right in breaking a nation….

    Racism would have still existed in USA and it would have trickled down to the Latino,Indian and Pakistani immigrants……

    Luckily Malcolm X got his senses right just before he died and repented for his actions…Or else we would have had a ‘Black Pakistan’ in AmericaRecommend

  • mustehsan

    Well doneRecommend

  • Malaika Harris

    “Also how long as a Pakistani we will keep on blaming America for our own shortcomings?”

    ^ Nice strawman. The author never said we should blame America for the mistakes we’ve made, but that we should pay attention to the legacy of Malcolm X’s work and oppose U.S. imperialism. I don’t understand why that would make you so angry. The way America had dealt with Pakistan has NOT been good. America supported every single one of our military dictators, and worked with Zia to strengthen the most regressive elements of our society.Recommend

  • Maximus Decimus Meridius

    Most probably he would have protested. Although his activism will have been Luke that of malala.rejected at home and working from afar.Recommend

  • Anon

    What are you talking about?!

    It’s true that NOI was not what was seen as mainstream Islam, but for one thing, Malcolm abandoned those beliefs and became a Sunni Muslim – which is the time the author is referring to. In fact he was very well received when he traveled to Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj.

    Secondly, with regards to the attitude of the Muslim world, Muhammad Ali, the boxing champion was also part of the NOI, and revered as a hero among the muslim world. So that wasnt a problem either.

    Also, I dont understand your problem the assertion that Malcolm would most likely have opposed American imperialism. It is exactly in accordance with what he preached. Pointing this out is not “blaming others”.

    Perhaps it is you who need so “look at the world without bias”.Recommend

  • Anon

    Is there an editorial policy on not publishing comments that have some factual basis?Recommend

  • Anon

    As far as I remember, Malcolm X was a vocal critic of the Vietnam War…. in fact wasnt that the context for the “chickens coming home to roost” quote on Kennedy’s assassination?

    Yes, his chief concern was the african american community, but he was also against US imperialism.Recommend

  • Sami

    Again i will state that we are ourself to blame for our shortcomings. The weak and stupid blame the powerful and that is the rule of the world. When the nation cannot produce able leaders then they should not blame others.
    Also remember every powerful is imperialist in many ways. Muslims were imperialists and attacked India, Iran, Europe and North Africa after getting into power. Modern day examples are America and before the cold War we can include Russian in it as well.Recommend

  • Sami

    The crux of your comment is that if someone is famous then you can include them as a Muslim even tough you know their views are very very different. ?. Muhammad Ali is a good example in this regard.
    Read the above article again. It make many analogies apart from Malcolm X and Elijah was included there as well.Recommend

  • marik

    India, Iran (Persian Empire), Europe and North Africa (Roman Empire) where themselves old Imperial powers, the Muslim empire was an underdog compared to them.Recommend