June 15, 2008

Karen Salazar: Fired for teaching Malcolm X

If you are in the Los Angelese area, make sure you call the numbers in the video to protest against the censorship of critical thinking. My commentary is available here. More information about the campaign to defend Karen Salazar is available here: http://savesalazar.pbwiki.com/

- noaman

October 3, 2007

In 2000, I created this web site, which has since become one of the major Malcolm X web sites on the Internet. It reflects a good deal on the ideology I adhered to and the way I approached things at that time, when I was 15 and completing grade 9 in Scarborough as a proto-Islamist. The site has remained stagnant, particularly ideologically -- indeed, I put a disclaimer that the site is meant to present Malcolm within "an Islamic context" -- although I've changed considerably, religiously and politically. It's also remained stagnant in terms of content, the last substantive update being in 2005.

Academically, there was a surge of sustained interest in Malcolm X in the late 1980s and early 90s, in the midst of which Spike Lee produced the film in 1992. This interest reflected the growing relevance of Black nationalism as a response to the conditions of most Black people in the United States -- Public Enemy was on point. Academics were commenting on Malcolm X leading up to and following the film. At some point in the 90s this interest seems to have tapered off. Another surge of interest surfaced in February 2005, around the fortieth anniversary of Malcolm's assassination -- commemorated by a special release of the Malcolm X DVD and mainstream media interest, but not (as far as I can tell) any substantial academic interest. That is, with the exception of Manning Marable at Columbia University who is now writing a biography of Malcolm.

I keep finding myself coming back to the question of Malcolm X, as well as the question of this web site. While I haven't read anything relating to Malcolm substantially in a while, the myriad videos posted on the Internet have allowed me to instead watch him speak. Recently, I've bought several books containing his words and containing words about him. As I've developed politically and academically, however, the site has lagged behind.

Additionally, many people don't know, exactly, what Malcolm X stood for (he himself had a hard time with that) or what his significance is to radical politics -- he's been reduced to a symbol and a phrase, "by any means necessary".

The web sites that are available on Malcolm X do not provide a comprehensive view or assessment of Malcolm: The "official" web site lists one of his major achievements as converting Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, but has little to say about the OAAU. Manning Marable's site, the Malcolm X research site, as well as my own, present information such as speeches and varied articles on Malcolm X with little or scattered analysis, commentary and context. Mine, particularly, is not reliable, in the sense that many things are not cited for sources (which is why I remind students who e-mail me that it's not a proper academic resource).

The challenge is to take Malcolm X, all of him, and present this information in an accessible manner. My site, for instance, has no analysis of the Nation of Islam and Malcolm's role in it (save three speeches from that period), but seeks only to vilify the Black Muslim movement and Louis Farrakhan -- a result of my own Islamic orthodoxy when I made it. I still have no respect for Farrakhan, and I think the NOI is reactionary (and more than a little messed up), but to focus on these aspects without focusing on its positive aspects is unfair and uncritical -- and perhaps more importantly, ignoring something significant in Malcolm's life, after all, Malcolm was a part of the NOI for 17 years. However, the greatest challenge is to present the 'final' Malcolm X and how he got there -- after his split from the Nation of Islam, and even before it, his views were in rapid flux. He had several obstacles toward articulating a comprehensive political strategy or Weltanschauung, not least of which was the constant barrage of threats to his life and his family. The Autobiography is not adequate for this because it excludes many aspects of his final thought processes (and, according to Manning Marable, three chapters are missing and Alex Haley may have been collaborating with the FBI at the time) -- these thought processes have been taken up by publications by Pathfinder Press which collect his final speeches and bits and pieces from interviews. However, there is still a considerable degree of interpretation involved; to the extent that Malcolm X is, quite literally, everything to everyone.

To Black nationalists, he is a Black nationalist. To the Nation of Islam, he is a great leader (in public), and a dangerous hell-bound hypocrite (in private). To Muslims, he is a Muslim par excellence, a martyr in the cause of Allah. To socialists, he was a socialist with a piercing critique of international capitalism and imperialism. To liberals who want to appropriate him, he was an integrationist and thus appears on a postage stamp. To other liberals (or conservatives) and certain extremists, he was a segregationist, a separatist. To misogynists, he was a misogynist, and to feminists, he was a borderline misogynist. To some psychoanalysts, he was just a troubled child with an unfulfilled oedipal complex.

Not all of these views are correct, some are off the wall, many of them ignore available evidence or deny its validity -- some if it is not falsifiable (I don't know if Malcolm is a hell-bound hypocrite, but I do know that the NOI's doctrine is messed up). Perhaps the one thing that everyone can agree on is his uncompromising stance on the use of armed force in the defense of oneself -- but this gets swept up under the carpet, or under the postage stamps.

What's the problem with simply presenting a list of Malcolm's speeches and videos and letting readers sort them out? Nothing, really. But how you categorize these and contextualize these is very important. On my site, for instance, there's a rather simplistic "before true Islam", "after true Islam" dichotomy that makes little room for nuance, complexity and the process of changes Malcolm underwent. Presenting no such contextualization means it's difficult to grasp the man's life. (Additionally, most students are reduced to wondering "What were Malcolm's achievements?", looking for a laundry list they can compare to Martin Luther King, Jr. -- Malcolm did nothing, and MLK organized a bus boycott and gave a speech and got some legislation passed and got a day named after him! -- so why is Malcolm important again?)

Is Malcolm important? I think he is. There's considerable interpretation involved, and there is no way to get rid of that. The site, or a person's work on Malcolm, necessarily reflects certain biases. The key is to recognize these biases and approach the subject, the man, critically. Critical hagiography, by definition, is impossible, but that doesn't mean it's not worth trying.

What I want to do is to analyze his life as he describes it, as a "chronology of changes" -- but emphasizing his critiques of capitalism, imperialism, neo-colonialism, particularly because these things are so important today and especially today when there is a surfeit of neoliberal orthodoxy and capitalist fervour. Malcolm's uncompromising radicalism is something utterly relevant -- it certainly lent itself to inspiring the Black Power movements in the wake of his assassination, but there are lessons to learn about the role of radicalism in the present globalized state of affairs -- an international perspective Malcolm presciently brought to bear to his own analysis. Malcolm was never an Islamist in the sense that Islam becomes a source of political organization and strategy, so to present him as such would be dishonest, yet most people do not recognize how he became a Muslim, or, indeed, that he did. For a major American public figure to become a Muslim in 1964, twenty-odd years before the jihad all-stars came to prominence by fighting the godless Soviets is no small matter, I don't think -- after all, how do you reconcile Malcolm's support for the godless communists Castro and Che with his faith in Islam? There are lessons here for the strict dichotomy that people like Irshad Manji, Tarek Fatah, or Christopher Hitchens present between an inherently progressive West that must be defended at all costs and an intrinsically regressive Islam that must be exterminated at all costs.

In looking at these things, the site would become a kind of mix of various things: presenting a set of analyses about Malcolm's life and the changes he underwent, a set of analyses about the relevance of his social and political, and even spiritual thought (if such things can be distilled to any static form -- or perhaps, the key is to present them as dynamic), more basic information like a coherent biography, as well as primary materials such as speeches, audio, video, etc. -- and, of course, the various articles written about him that are available online.

Over the next little while I'm going to try to sketch out in more detail what I mean by all of this and how I may approach it. While I may (may) sketch it out, translating this into actual execution is going to be the most difficult part, chiefly because I have little time and access to sources is difficult. A good start would be to update the site from a static one to a dynamic one via a content-management system.

I'm more than welcome to any suggestions. Please e-mail me at noaman.ali [at] gmail.com.

- noaman