When the NS met Malcolm X

12 June 1964.

At the recent New Statesman debate on the motion "Did the Left Win the 20th Century", one of the strongest arguments in favour was the improvement in global race relations. 50 years ago Brian Glanville interviewed Malcolm X shortly before his assassination in 1965. The article was written three months after his exclusion from the Nation of Islam and his founding of the Muslim Mosque Inc. Malcolm had recently returned from Mecca and was rethinking many of his views and the direction of his racial relations campaigns. Having become a Sunni Muslim and distanced himself from many of his earlier standpoints, Malcolm toned down his aggression, but not his passion.

He focused less on racism and black supremacy and more on equal rights from a Pan-African standpoint. He also became more willing to give interviews and work with other civil rights movements and leaders. In april 1964, two months before the article below was published, Malcolm gave his famous “Ballot or the Bullet” speech, in which he urged all African-Americans to exercise their right to vote. They should tone down the violence, but not forget it was an option should their rights be ignored in the future.

Along with Martin Luther King Jr, whom Malcolm met briefly only once, their speeches in the early 60s became one of the turning points in global race relations. Half a year after this article was published, Malcolm X was assassinated by members of the Nation of Islam.

Introduction by Christian Jensen

Malcolm X

"I don't think we’re outnumbered. We’re part of the Afro-Asian world, and that means that we're in the majority. White America is in the minority." The speaker was Malcolm X, the most powerful and eloquent figure in the American 'Black Muslim' movement. The origins of the movement are a little obscure. Probably it began in Detroit some 30 years ago, founded by a man called Wallace Fard about whom very little is known. His followers were poor, humble and largely illiterate. Not long ago, a Hearst newspaper carried the story that Fard was actually a white man, an allegation strongly denied by Elijah Muhammad, the sanctioned leader of the Muslims, who offered a large reward to anybody who could prove that Fard was white.

The question, "Why Muslims?" is one which Malcolm X-brushes quickly aside. "Our people are from Nigeria and Ghana. They tell us we're from West Africa, and I think historically that's sound doctrine. The Mali empire stretched through Ghana, Guinea, Senegal." When the Negroes were imported as slaves, he believes, they "had to be cut off from Islam; Islam does not say turn the other cheek; it says fight those who fight you. If you turn the other cheek, you can be enslaved for 1,000 years."

One can quarrel with his analysis here; white American motives for weaning their Negroes from Islam — if they did — were probably less devious and more evangelic. What the embracing of Islam does represent is a deliberate taking of position against Christianity as a white religion, which has been used to seduce and exploit the Negro. Malcolm X talks of Christianity with hatred. "I went to prison" (he served a seven-year term, during which he was converted to Islam) "as a Christian. and while I was a Christian, I did what most Christians in this country do. Which means I engaged in many vices. That's the Christian way. Christians are drunk. Christians are dope addicts. Christians rob banks. In fact you ask any drunk, 'What are you?' 'I'm a Christian?' When you find him robbing a bank, 'What are you?' 'I'm a Christian.' But when I became a Muslim, I put that life behind me."

Elijah Muhammad, the father of the movement, with whom Malcolm X has now effectively split, was born Elijah Poole in Georgia, 67 years ago. The story goes that the 'prophet' who appeared in Detroit — presumably Fard — appointed Elijah his Messenger. At the time he was without formal education, the son of a Baptist minister, who had little to recommend him but his dynamism.

It was not until the Fifties, and the national growth of the civil rights movement for Negroes, that the Muslim religion began to flourish. Muhammad ran it in authoritarian manner with his sons and his son-in-law as his deputies. The doctrine preached was one of absolute separation between the races. If white wanted nothing to do with black, here was black saying it wanted nothing to do with white; merely the right to set up its own autonomous state within America.

Given the structure of the movement, it was perhaps inevitable that the rise of a forceful young leader outside the family circle of the Muhammads would lead to tension. Malcolm Little, otherwise Malcolm X, a tall, dignified, handsome Negro, born 38 years ago in Omaha, Nebraska, grew quickly in power and popularity. He might profess the doctrine of separatism, but there was no doubt that he could meet the white man on his own ground, and, with his lucid eloquence, fascinate him as well as frighten him. After the murder of Kennedy, a tactless statement about chickens having come home to roost gave Muhammad the opportunity to ban Malcolm from public speaking. Malcolm proceeded to form, in New York, his splinter group, the Muslim Mosque Incorporated, and to trot around with him his own particular trump card and convert, the heavyweight champion, Cassius Clay.

"When we say South," says Malcolm X, "we mean south of the Canadian border. America in its entirety is segregationist and is racist. It's more camouflaged in the north, but it's the same thing." His bitterness is not difficult to understand. When he was a child, his father died in ambiguous circumstances. "They found him one night underneath a street car, dying. They called it an accident, but he was run over by the rear wheels of a street car, which means he was thrown under after the front wheels went by. This wasn't in the South. This was in Michigan."

Malcolm X has taken up his headquarters in Harlem's Theresa Hotel, where Joe Louis used to stay after his fights and where Cassius Clay stays now, making periodic excursions to the street, to be acclaimed by his joyful admirers. The heavy, painted glass doors of the Muslims' offices are inscribed Eve Nelson Cosmetics. Inside, several Negroes work diligently at a table in a long, light room, with green and white checked linoleum. Their courtesy, in a country where courtesy is so often the thin shell over violence, is immense. On a green, slatted blackboard, words are chalked up, as if in some strange free association: Fuzzy Wuzzy . . . Office schedule . . . Physical fit. . . There is a tide . . . Cowards die many . . . Red letter.. Eyes of the world on you.

The question of violence, how far the movement's aims make it inevitable, is one which increasingly perturbs white Americans. "All I've said," explains Malcolm, "is that if the government is unable or unwilling to defend Negroes, Negroes should defend themselves by whatever means are necessary. If it's lawful to have a rifle club to kill pheasants, it should be just as lawful to have one to kill wolves or dogs that are being sicked on little black babies. In fact it's constitutional. Article Number Two of the constitution" — he takes a handbook out of his inside pocket — "guarantees the right of every citizen to own a rifle or a shot gun."

'We're not opposed to violence, we're opposed to brutality. We're opposed to being the victims of violence. Non-violence didn't even work in India. The Indians are still subservient to the West, whereas the Chinese aren't. I think India and China are the two best examples we can look to, to see the result of these so-called negotiated freedoms. The people of India have gone from physical colonialism to economic colonialism."

As for the American Negro, "we're just as thoroughly colonialised as Angola, Mozambique. This is not a democracy. I don't think any man has exploited, has oppressed and degraded, just based on the colour of another man's skin, as western man has done. And the American segment of western man has done it more evilly than any other man, because they've done it hypocritically. They've condemned the colonial practices of the western European nations, while they're practising colonialism here. Texas is the same as Mississippi, and that's the state from which the present President comes. Now, how can he straighten out the national mess when he can't even straighten out what's going on in his own state?"

When he speaks, the pain is evident, almost palpable, the analysis hard to refute. But the solution, the all-Negro state, seems chimerical, mere pie in the sky. Malcolm X won't have it; when Washington began, he says — a little ingenuously — his task seemed harder still, and he accomplished it. One asks him how long he thinks it will take, a decade? And he answers : "There's not a black man in this country will wait a decade to get this problem solved. This generation wants a solution now." But it will clearly take a long time for the Black Muslims to organise; even those sympathetic to them feel that their cohorts are at best disciplined, rather than trained. Nor is their fundamentalism, their aggressive brand of Islam, carrying the intellectuals; the Baldwins and the Ellisons, men too sophisticated for such easy dichotomies. This is not to say that they are not sympathetic.

When I spoke to James Baldwin — that tiny, endearing figure, now as hotly besieged as any film star, he showed this clearly. "It's impossible to argue with facts. Facts are facts. But obviously I'm not going to teach my children or anybody I know that they're better because they're black; it seems to me it's a repetition, let's say, of the whole doctrine of white supremacy." He feels, though, that "this is the first time in the history of this country where people . . . are forced to recognise some of the facts of Negro life. It's no longer possible for them to contain it and pretend it isn't true. A man like Malcolm X has this utility, that he frightens people so much that finally they'd rather talk even to me than to him." As for the labelling of the Black Muslims as extremists, "there's no great hue and cry as far as I know, calling some of the Senator Eastlands extremists. What they mean is that Malcolm is an extremist because he makes them uncomfortable and because he argues that not all Negroes are non-violent, which happens to be true."

Indeed, a point which has been widely made is that the rousing of the Negro masses must inevitably lead to violence, precisely because protest action so far has been largely in the hands of those diligently trained in nonviolence. "There's another point which is very important," Baldwin continued. "We are one tenth, and it is true that we couldn't hope to win let's call it a shooting war, but it is also true that we're very well placed to bring this economy to its knees."

Where Baldwin and the Muslims differ most profoundly is in the concept of difference through race. "As long as you think people are white or black," said Baldwin, "you fall into the same traps. I'm not a Negro, I'm a man." To which Malcolm X replies, "I don't have to say I'm a man; my actions will speak for me; and if my behaviour doesn't reflect masculinity, then I shouldn't seek to be referred to as a man. And in America the Negro has been robbed of his masculinity and he doesn't get it back by saying 'I'm a man'; he gets it back by deeds. To say 'I'm a man' is not sufficient."

Malcolm X in Oxford before addressing university students on the subject of extremism and liberty. Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
OLI SCARFF/GETTY IMAGES
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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era