Alex Lubin: Malcolm X’s Afro-Arab Political Imaginary

Geographies of Liberation: The Making of an Afro-Arab Political Imaginary, by Alex LubinWe welcome a guest post today from Alex Lubin, author of Geographies of Liberation: The Making of an Afro-Arab Political Imaginary. In the book, Lubin reveals the vital connections between African American political thought and the people and nations of the Middle East. Spanning the 1850s through the present, and set against a backdrop of major political and cultural shifts around the world, the book demonstrates how international geopolitics, including the ascendance of liberal internationalism, established the conditions within which blacks imagined their freedom and, conversely, the ways in which various Middle Eastern groups have understood and used the African American freedom struggle to shape their own political movements.

Today, on the 49th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X, Lubin explores Malcolm’s travels to the Arab world and the development of his international political imaginary.

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On April 3, 1964, in Cleveland, Ohio, Nation of Islam (NOI) Minister Malcolm X delivered his iconic speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet,” in which, among other things, he marked his transition from the Black nationalist politics of the Nation of Islam to an internationalist Black freedom movement that recognized Blacks’ common interests in fighting racism and imperialism globally. Key to this transition was Malcolm’s redefinition of the relationship of faith to politics, as well as of Blacks to the United States.

In “The Ballot or the Bullet” Malcolm argued that the combined forces of economic exploitation and white racial violence constituted forms of exclusion so powerful that Blacks were not American in any meaningful way. “I’m not an American,” Malcolm argued, “I’m one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So, I’m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver—no, not I. I’m speaking as a victim of this American system.”

Malcolm argued that because of their powerful exclusion from the United States, Black Americans needed to look for new allies beyond the horizon of the United States and to articulate a politics that was different than the civil rights movement. Where the civil rights movement was based on the demands of citizens within a nation, Malcolm believed Black freedom could only be guaranteed by the politics of human rights. “Whenever you are in a civil-rights struggle, whether you know it or not,” Malcolm argued, “you are confining yourself to the jurisdiction of Uncle Sam. No one from the outside world can speak out in your behalf as long as your struggle is a civil-rights struggle.”

Malcolm was assassinated on February 21, 1965, only eighteen months after the “Ballot or the Bullet” speech. But during the final year and a half of his life Malcolm redefined the struggle of Black liberation as an international struggle that was at once pan-Islamist, based on his conversion from the Nation of Islam to Sunni Islam, and internationalist, drawing on his encounters with African anticolonial leaders and, importantly, with Arab nationalist leaders he encountered in Cairo, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Gaza, and Lebanon. This transition should not be understood in terms of a series of breaks with U.S. social and religious movements, but instead as Malcolm’s entry into a long history of African American engagement with the Arab world and Islam, or what I call an Afro-Arab political imaginary.

Malcolm’s transition would include rejecting the homegrown and Ahmadiyya-based, heterodox Islam practiced by the Nation of Islam and embracing the intellectual, moral, and political currents of orthodox Sunni Islam, African decolonization, and Arab nationalism. In this way, Malcolm’s political and moral commitments combined sometimes-contradictory political ideologies, including those of Muslim Brothers, secular pan-Africanists, and Nasserist pan-Arabists.

Even in the months prior to his life-changing tours through Africa and the Middle East, Malcolm began to expand his political and religious sensibilities by establishing Muslim Mosque Inc. (MMI) in order to preach what he was learning as the “true” religion of Sunni Islam. Following Malcolm’s second visit to Egypt, Al-Azhar University would establish a scholarship for twenty MMI students to study at that institution. Moreover, following Malcolm’s fist visit to Cairo, he would found the Organization of African American Unity (OAAU), a political body that he hoped would operate like the Organization of African States and the United Arab Republic as a diasporic and transnational political entity that could make demands and lobby international bodies like the United Nations on behalf of the African diaspora. In order to begin to understand the complex flows of political and religious currents that informed the final year and a half of Malcolm X’s life, we need to look to his travels throughout the Afro-Arab world.

Although Malcolm had traveled to North Africa in 1957, it was the two 1964 visits to the Middle East and North Africa that radically transformed his sense of belonging and his political and religious sensibilities. The purpose of Malcolm’s first trip to the region, from April 13 to May 21, was to participate in the Hajj. During his second trip, from July 11 to November 24, Malcolm’s goals were to develop his understanding of Sunni Islam, to become a certified Sunni Imam, and to interact with various political movements, including the newly formed Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), whose leaders he met in Cairo and in Gaza.

While in Saudi Arabia for the Hajj, Malcolm was treated as a foreign dignitary and was housed and cared for by Prince Faisal, who made him a formal guest of the State. During the Hajj, Malcolm encountered many regional dignitaries of the Sunni world, including the “blue-eyed, blond-haired Hussein Amini, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem,” and his interpreter, Muhammad Abdul Aziz Maged, an “Egyptian-born Arab who looked like a Harlem Negro.” It was during the Hajj that Malcolm realized that Islam was a multiracial faith and that white Muslims were not his enemy.

Although he visited Lebanon only for a short time, Malcolm’s experience in Beirut played a brief, yet important role in the Autobiography. Malcolm’s first visit to Beirut, immediately following the Hajj, was unplanned and came together at the very last minute. He had met a group of Sudanese pilgrims in Mecca who encouraged him to visit Dr. Malik Badri, a Sudanese psychology professor who worked at the American University of Beirut (AUB). Malcolm had been a guest of Dr. Badri’s in 1957, when he visited Sudan. As Malcolm’s host, Dr. Badri showed him Omdurman and Khartoum, where Malcolm filmed videos. Although Dr. Badri was critical of Malcolm’s NOI-inspired brand of Islam, he “did not attack his deviant belief but . . . simply spoke to him about Islam in its pure tawhidic nature.”

In his autobiography, Malcolm describes delivering a lecture at the American University of Beirut. Yet, according to Dr. Badri and other sources, the AUB administration refused to allow Malcolm to speak on campus, and arrangements were hastily made to host him elsewhere. According to Dr. Badri, several levels of administrators at the AUB prevented Malcolm from speaking at the University because they feared that Malcolm was too un-American. Dr. Badri also suspected that the administration’s Christian leanings might have swayed their decision to not allow Malcolm to visit campus as a lecturer.

I first spoke to the head of the my Department. . . . He advised me to speak to the Dean of Faculty of Arts and Science. . . . The Dean said that Malcolm X was a controversial celebrity and I must seek permission from the Vice President. . . . The Vice President said he would speak to the American President of the University [Norman Burns]. The answer came quickly from the President. It was related to me that the campus of the University is an American ground and that Malcolm was an enemy of America and so he cannot speak in campus.

Dr. Badri contacted the Sudanese Cultural Attaché in Beirut, who, though he did not know much about Malcolm X, quickly organized a talk at the Sudanese Cultural Center, just a few blocks from campus. According to Badri, “organizers had to put loud speakers in Abdul Aziz Street for the audience outside the building and the police had to send officers to deal with the traffic congestion on that busy street.”

Coming to Beirut following the Hajj, however, was somewhat unsettling to Malcolm, especially as he encountered Beirut’s cosmopolitan and multisectarian realities. Malcolm’s experience in the Nation of Islam and his recent interest in orthodox Sunni Islam convinced him that pious women always covered themselves in public. Yet during his brief stay in Beirut, while strolling Beirut’s waterfront corniche in front of the Palm Beach Hotel, he encountered a very different system of gender and piety than he had anticipated. “Immediately my attention was struck by the mannerisms and the attire of Lebanese women. In the Holy Land, there had been the very modest, very feminine Arabian women—and there was this sudden contrast of the half-French, half-Arab Lebanese women who projected in their dress and street manners more liberty, more boldness.” Malcolm responded negatively to Lebanese women’s attire, writing in his autobiography, “It showed me how any country’s moral strength, or its moral weakness, is quickly measurable by the street attire and attitude of its women—especially its young women.” Malcolm would clarify his views on women in Islamic societies following his second visit to the region.

Following his short visit to Beirut, Malcolm visited Lagos, Nigeria; Accra, Ghana; Monrovia, Liberia; Dakar, Senegal; Casablanca, Morocco; and Algiers, Algeria, before heading back to JFK airport. In Accra, Malcolm reunited with several visiting and expat African Americans intellectuals, including Julian Mayfield, Maya Angelou, Vicki Garvin, Alice Windom, Shirley Graham Du Bois, and Leslie Lacy. In addition, Malcolm met Ghana’s leader, Kwame Nkrumah, who just seven years earlier led the anticolonial struggle for Ghana’s independence.

Following his return to New York, Malcolm confronted several personal and political problems. His relationships with Nation of Islam members were deteriorating and Muslim Mosque Inc. was facing financial hardships and low enrollment. Undeterred, Malcolm founded the Organization of African American Unity in 1964.

In September 1964 Malcolm returned to the Middle East and North Africa, this time with a different set of political and spiritual agendas. If the first trip to the region was to participate in the Hajj, the second was in the interest of engaging the OAAU with pan-Arabism, as well as completing his transition to orthodox Sunni Islam. In April 1964, Malcolm addressed a meeting of the Organization of African States, hosted in Cairo by Gamal Abdel Nasser. Malcolm also visited Al Azhar University, where he was granted a certificate to teach Islam. And he also met with the founding members of the PLO at the Shepheard Hotel in Cairo.

Malcolm returned to Lebanon during his second visit to the region, but this time to meet with members of the newly formed Lebanese Muslim Brotherhood. Some records indicate that Malcolm gave a lecture, this time on the campus of the AUB, but I have yet to find evidence for this.

Malcolm’s experience meeting the founders of the PLO and his meetings with Palestinians in Gaza led him to publish, in the Egyptian Gazette (which was edited by Shirley Graham Du Bois’s son, David), his essay “Zionist Logic” (Egyptian Gazette, September 17, 1964). The Nation of Islam had admired the Zionist movement and shared many pan-Africanists’ admiration for the Jewish State. Yet following his interactions with the newly formed PLO and his admiration of Nasserism, Malcolm became critical of the Zionist movement and especially of its relationship to new independent African nations. Malcolm believed that Israeli investment in African States was merely another form of European colonialism. But more important, Malcolm criticized the Zionist movement for its colonization of Arab Palestine.

In his final interview, given to an Arabic-language monthly magazine published by the Islamic Center in Geneva, Switzerland, Malcolm reflected on his transition from the Nation of Islam to orthodox Sunni Islam. While he was writing his responses to the interview questions, his New York home was firebombed and he moved into a Manhattan hotel, where he spent the final two nights of his life. Malcolm had clarified his views, expressed in the Autobiography, about the role of women in Islamic societies; he now believed, “in areas where the women have been pushed into the background and kept without education, the whole area or country is just as backward, uneducated, and ‘underdeveloped.’ Where the women are encouraged to get education and play a more active role in the allaround [sic] affairs of the community and the country, the entire people are more active, more enlightened, and more progressive.”

Malcolm’s tours throughout the Arab world and North Africa profoundly shaped his evolving political commitments and faith. Although Malcolm’s political trajectory is often related as a story of successive “breaks” from American religious and political movements, in actuality Malcolm’s final eighteen months allowed him to serve as a bridge linking a transnational past of Afro-Arab connections that included Dusé Mohamed Ali helping to bring Ahmadiyya Islam to Detroit and inspiring the formation of the Nation of Islam, and continuing into the future with David Graham Du Bois’s move from Egypt to the United States, where he became the editor of the Black Panther Intercommunal News Agency.

Malcolm’s assassins ended a life, but they didn’t kill a political imaginary.

Alex Lubin is associate professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico and director of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for American Studies and Research at the American University of Beirut. His book Geographies of Liberation: The Making of an Afro-Arab Political Imaginary is now available. Read Lubin’s previous guest post, “Exhuming Yasser Arafat.”

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