Malcolm X, who was assassinated in New York on 21 February 1965, was a unique figure in the history of Islam in America, and a leader who has inspired generations of Muslim everywhere, particularly those living in non-Muslim countries. On the 51st anniversary of his assassiation, Fahad Ansari considers his legacy.
The Prophet Muhammad (sallAllāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) said in an authentic hadīth that the best jihād is to speak a word of truth before an unjust ruler.
When one considers the prevailing political climate in many parts of the Muslim world, where the slightest suspicion of dissent can lead to imprisonment, torture and execution, the reasoning behind this statement becomes self-apparent. To speak a word of truth in such circumstances requires the utmost courage and conviction and the most powerful īmān.
For Muslims living in Britain, it is relatively easy to participate in this jihād. The consequences here are not yet as grave, although this pattern is steadily changing as Western democracies take on the characteristics of the despotic regimes they pretend to deplore. Yet, even without the fear of torture or death (or both), Muslims in the West remain terrified to speak out against the numerous injustices being committed against our ummah. However, what is more distressing is that those that do decide to make a stand make it on such shaky grounds that it almost worsens our plight. Refusing to condemn evil as evil, with the best of intentions these brothers and sisters ultimately compromise the rights of Muslims in the West. They believe that they are using hikma (wisdom) in their approach, and often condemn the more direct approach taken by other Muslims as “extremist”, “confrontational” or “misguided”.
They believe that it is wisdom to compromise about truth, and to negotiate with those who oppress us. They are of the opinion that to be weak is to be wise. Consequently, we have seen Muslim leader after Muslim leader use ‘hikma’ in their consultations and meetings on our behalf with governmental bodies and institutions in this country. For decades, British Muslims have been exercising this ‘hikma’ while our rights continue to be trampled by those very same institutions.
Why has the word hikma today become synonymous with submission and surrender? Why is it wiser to show weakness and compromise rather than to portray strength and wield influence? Nobody in this world can have any doubt that one of the greatest and most influential Muslim leaders of the twentieth century was Al-Hajj Malik el-Shabbaz or (as he was more popularly known) Malcolm X, the celebrated American Black civil-rights activist. Furthermore, nobody can doubt that Brother Malcolm possessed incredible hikma. But Malcolm was not one of these Muslim leaders who adopted the ‘hikma’ of compromises and concessions. No, when it came to human rights and human wrongs, Malcolm’s hikma was of a different type. He never minced his words nor compromised his beliefs. Where justice was at stake, he refused even to consider the possibility of compromise. This attitude achieved much more for the Black community in America in the sixties than the feeble approach of contemporary Muslim leaders has achieved for Muslims anywhere in the West today.
In an age when Muslims in the West find themselves as a minority, and while numerous theories of integration and assimilation are being discussed and debated in masājid and conference centres around the country, it is time for us to examine the life of Malcolm X and adopt his attitudes and beliefs as a template for our own attitudes and behaviour. It is primarily because of our own pathetic and pitiable mindset and our correspondingly weak behaviour that Muslims in the West are becoming lambs ready for slaughter. Apologetic and weak, we have become defenseless and ineffective in our struggle to be treated as equals. Our human rights and civil liberties continue to be ignored and violated. On the 51st anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X, it is high time for us to study his life, and his death, and understand what it was that he did that brought a semblance of respect to the Blacks in America.
Many parallels can be drawn between the lives of Muslims in the West today and those of the Blacks in America in the past. Both peoples constitute minorities that are oppressed and deprived of many civil liberties readily available to the majority. Both communities have been demonised and slandered by the majority as uneducated, anti-democratic and irrationally violent extremists. And, just as many members of the Black community lost their traditional names, religion and language in the process of ‘integration’, so today we see many Muhammads being called ‘Mo’ and encouraged to abandon their people’s religious, cultural and linguistic values in the name of integration. Just as many Blacks in America regarded their colour as a prison holding them back from progress and success, so many Muslims today look upon their religion as an obstacle to advancement.
Objective: Recognition as Human Beings
“We have to keep in mind at all times that we are not fighting for integration, nor are we fighting for separation. We are fighting for recognition … for the right to live as free humans in this society.”
The first thing to recognise is that Malcolm never fought for either segregation or integration. He believed that the use of these words actually clouded the real picture. Similarly today, Muslims must rise out of the complex jargon of sociology and realise the root of the problem. We must stand up and demand our basic right to be recognised and respected as equal human beings, with all that entails. Not to do so is to attempt to find a solution to our problems on other people’s terms.
Methodology: Direct Action
“Early in life, I had learned that if you want something, you had better make some noise.”
Malcolm was not the type of person to sit quietly and humbly accept his fate. He was not one to sit back and wait patiently for the oppressor to hand him his rights. He knew that freedom and human rights were values which had to be fought for. This meant upsetting the status quo, causing commotion and disturbance. For his struggle, he was often labelled as “the angriest Black man in America”. But it was this “anger” that brought about reform. As Malcolm put it, “Usually when people are sad, they don’t do anything. They just cry over their condition. But when they get angry, they bring about a change.”
Like Muslim activists today, Malcolm was also called an “extremist”. His reply was characteristic of his bluntly honest attitude: “Yes, I’m an extremist. The black race here in North America is in extremely bad condition. You show me a black man who isn’t an extremist and I’ll show you one who needs psychiatric attention!” By not hiding from their label, and by demonstrating the justification for this extremism as a natural reaction to the oppression of the Black community, Malcolm turned the tables on his enemies and deprived them of their ammunition. He refused to be sidelined and isolated by such labels. Contrast this with some contemporary Muslim leaders and self-appointed spokespeople, who fall over themselves to avoid being identified as “extremist”. The word “extremist” has become a gun at our heads; we will do anything to avoid the trigger being pulled. Muslims in Britain today unfortunately now regularly label one another “extremist” in order to give themselves an air of moderateness.
“If I’m following a general, and he’s leading me into a battle, and the enemy tends to give him rewards, or awards, I get suspicious of him. Especially if he gets a peace award before the war is over.”
Malcolm also taught us to be wary of any form of compromising engagement with the oppressors. Where justice and freedom were at stake, the ideas of compromise and conciliation would never even enter Malcolm’s mind. The importance he placed on these values could be seen by his willingness to do anything to obtain them. Nothing was too radical or too extreme in order to secure one’s freedom. “When a person places a proper value on freedom, there is nothing under the sun that he will not do to acquire that freedom. Whenever you hear a man saying that he wants freedom, but in the next breath he is going to tell you what he won’t do to get it, or what he doesn’t believe in doing in order to get it, he doesn’t believe in freedom.”
“I say, you’ve been misled; you’ve been had; you’ve been took …”
Malcolm was fervently dedicated to educating the Black community about politics and the political system. He believed that it was crucial for the Black community to understand what politics was supposed to produce and what part it played in their lives. He reasoned that unless and until the Black community became politically mature, Blacks would always be misled or deceived into supporting someone politically who didn’t have the interests of the community at heart. He was very critical of Black leaders who continued to follow parties which had repeatedly let down the Black community. His comment that “anytime you throw your weight behind a political party that controls two thirds of the government and that party can’t keep the promises that it made to you during election time, and you are dumb enough to walk around continuing to identify yourself with that party, you’re not only a chump but you’re a traitor to your race” is one which most Muslim leaders in Britain today would do well to ponder deeply.
Nevertheless, Malcolm did not discourage voting, as long as it was strategic, with an achievable meaningful purpose. “A ballot is like a bullet. You don’t throw your ballots until you see a target, and if that target is not in reach, keep your ballot in your pocket.”
With the upcoming general election, it is very important that the Muslim community does not fall into the trap of accepting tokenistic gestures in exchange for their votes. In a previous election, the government promised to outlaw discrimination against Muslims and Muslim leaders began rallying the masses to thank them for this, in the form of our support. But as Malcolm said, “How can you thank a man for giving you what’s already yours? How then can you thank him for giving you only part of what is yours?” Muslims should not simply vote for individuals or parties over red herring issues such as the banning of halal food but should engage with politicians over far more sinister deprivation of liberties like the Counter Terrorism and Security Act.
Although it may speak the language of equality regardless of religion, the British government (both past and present) has hypocritically created a two-tier system of justice: one for Muslims and one for everyone else. Over the past decade, it has only been Muslims who have been detained without charge in maximum security prisons. Only Muslims were deprived of their basic liberties under control-order regimes. Only Muslims are treated like terrorists for simply travelling. It is Muslims who have become the primary victims of police harassment, anti-terror raids and wholesale institutional Islamophobia. Although this is currently happening under the watch of a Conservative led government, its foundations are rooted in laws and policies introduced the reign of a Labour government.
“It is a time for martyrs now, and if I am to be one, it will be for the cause of brotherhood. That’s the only thing that can save this country.”
Because of his bold and courageous stances and statements, Malcolm created many enemies for himself, both in government and within the Black community. History has shown us that people of justice are often demonised during their lives, and it is only death that brings their message to the hearts of the masses. Malcolm knew this and was ready for it. His whole struggle had prepared him for it. He knew the value of freedom and the price of freedom. “If you’re not ready to die for it, put the word ‘freedom’ out of your vocabulary.”
Malcolm’s assassination itself is a great lesson for the entire Muslim community in the West. Too many Muslims sit idly by while injustices are being committed against us. Very often, these armchair-mujāhids claim that they are waiting for the opportunity to go and fight jihād against oppressors on battlefields around the world and become martyrs for Allāh. The vast majority of them never go anywhere and die ordinary deaths; their whole lives are wasted in waiting. The assassination of Malcolm X is a sign that the best jihād can be conducted right here in the West with our minds and our actions; if it pleases Allāh, He will bless us, as he did Malcolm. But this takes courage and sacrifice, principles and qualities we have today forgotten.
Throughout his life following his imprisonment, Malcolm publicly exposed the false leaders of the Black American community, and in the process demonstrated the real traits of leadership – honesty, intelligence, a respect for logic, uncompromising morality, brotherhood, self-sacrifice and total submission to Allāh and Islām.