By Hannibal Abdul-Shakur, Tanzeen R. Doha, and Isra Ibrahim
Hamza Yusuf’s decision to join secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s new human rights commission has created a significant uproar within the Muslim community, particularly in the West. While there is a constituency of stubborn Hamza Yusuf supporters willing to use ahistorical and selective readings of the Islamic corpus to provide a theological defense of Yusuf’s decision to join as advisor to the fascist administration, for the most part the decision appears to be seen negatively by an overwhelming number of Muslims. Dr. Usaama al-Azami’s remarks to Middle East Eye highlight the core of the criticism: “In the years since 9/11, the Republican Party has gradually transformed into an Islamophobic party par excellence, culminating in the presidency of Donald Trump who won the Republican nomination on the basis of Islamophobic race-baiting and unconstitutional demands for a Muslim registry and a Muslim travel ban.” In the same article, Muslim scholar Dr. Walaa Quisay also explains how it is unsurprising that Hamza Yusuf joined the commission because of his historical alignment with the “political right inside America.”
Both al-Azami and Quisay’s points are significant, but such criticisms are inadequate in identifying the crux of the problem, which is America itself. In other words, a disproportionate focus on the political right may actually cloud better judgment and understanding, and knowingly or unknowingly force the question of Islam within a Western political spectrum. If Hamza Yusuf had joined the Obama administration, would it be qualitatively better in any way? If America were to experience a so called democratic-socialist shift, would Muslim involvement in such a government negate the killing fields of the Islamic South, where imperialist interventions (through both soft and hard power) have bloodied those societies with millions of injured and dead Muslim bodies?
The right, the left, and the center of the political regime and civil society all cohere to form the American project. While mainstream political American-Muslim discourse increasingly provides leftist responses to right-wing policies, it is imperative to note that such a discourse ultimately validates America as a settler colonial empire and is indicative of the exact problematic reproductions of the initial contradiction of America itself. The American project is a settler colonial project of Europe and as such, domestic leftist discourse that co-opts revolutionary discourse not only strategically pacifies grassroots uprisings, but also ensures the validity of the American project. In a bid to equalize themselves to white European settlers in America, American-Muslims are attempting a domestic transformation from the ontological “other” to contribute to a more diverse settler economy. What occurs to the ontological function of the American-Muslim during this transformation as American empire expands on imperialist genocides of Black people and Muslims, both here and abroad?
It has become increasingly clear since 9/11 that there is a fundamental tension between America—both as project and form—and Islam, insofar as the latter is taken to mean a codified system of law and comprehensive mode of ethical life. The other essential antagonism is between America and blackness. Note here that the invention of blackness itself through modern chattel slavery required a rigorous religious genocide of kidnapped Africans, for whom Islam was the largest monotheistic tradition. In this sense, the two antagonisms are interrelated to begin with. What then is the relationship or intimacy between de-Islamization and anti-blackness? How has this intimacy been re-articulated in a new historical plane since the 60s? What is the tradition of radical anti-plantation politics culminating in the figure of Malcolm X? And is a politicized Islam part of such a tradition’s DNA? Or, to invert the question: When resisters from the Islamic South struggle against the American empire, is that mode of action in spectral synchroneity with slave uprisings?
Instead of assuming categorial and essential differences a priori, the state and civil society mobilize resources, institutions, and technologies of power to forcibly make Islam compatible with and subservient to American interests. There are epistemic, material, and ontological consequences of this violence that is essential for the construction of American-Islam as a category and American-Muslim as an identity. We must ask: What kinds of American-Muslim leaders are necessary for these constructions?
The erudite political typologies provided to the struggle by Malcolm X allow us to extract a broad understanding of the characters in leadership that sustain the American project. He condemned the liberals as much as he condemned the centrists and the right, recognizing how the appearance of tension and difference between these formations ultimately render America as a whole more effective. In his incisive political analysis, Malcolm explains the difference between conservatives and liberals through the famous analogy of the wolf and fox. He explains: “The white conservatives aren't friends of the Negro either, but they at least don't try to hide it. They are like wolves; they show their teeth in a snarl that keeps the Negro always aware of where he stands with them. But the white liberals are foxes, who also show their teeth to the Negro but pretend that they are smiling. The white liberals are more dangerous than the conservatives; they lure the Negro, and as the Negro runs from the growling wolf, he flees into the open jaws of the ‘smiling’ fox.” While Malcolm describes two “types” of racists and their functions within whiteness, the analogy of the wolf and fox serves as an instructive lens through which to evaluate Muslim engagement with the American state and civil society.
Hamza Yusuf, whose engagement with the fascist American regime has been broadly critiqued by Muslims as politically unethical and theologically suspect, functions as “the wolf” of American-Muslim leadership. He is unambiguous about his enthusiasm for the American project, and openly expresses white nativist positions on occasion. In 2001, he infamously asserted, “If you hate the West, emigrate to a Muslim country.” Wolves are easy to identify, because they are direct and clear about their ideological and political orientation. Malcolm X had suggested that in comparison, “the fox” is not as easy to identify because of his doublespeak and ambiguous politics.
While Malcolm’s speeches and interviews identified the contradictions inherent in the so called allies produced by liberal ideology, his analysis exceeded individuals and points towards American society itself and its inherent contradictions. This paradigmatic approach is clear in his1964 Oxford Union speech, when he explains the difference between South African and American racism: “The only difference between it and South Africa—South Africa preaches separation and practices separation. America preaches integration and practices segregation. This is the only difference.” And he added: “I have more respect for a man who lets me know where he stands, even if he is wrong, than the one who comes up like an angel and is nothing but a devil.”
Just as there are many figures in American-Muslim leadership (not just Hamza Yusuf) who may be identified as “the wolf,” there are many others who fit the criteria of “the fox.” In fact, the utterances and actions of one of the most celebrated American-Muslim imams within so-called social justice and activist circles, Omar Suleiman, demonstrate how he runs the risk of fitting such a criteria. In an interview with The Guardian, Omar Suleiman speaks about the significance of social justice, the ongoing protest movement against Trump, and his willingness to challenge the status quo as “clergy of the street.” He appears to fashion himself a leader, remarking “We’re the clergy who will lead the protests, the clergy who will not shy away from challenging the status quo.” In the next few sentences, Suleiman also mentions that he considers himself “a student of Malcolm X.” This is then followed up by Suleiman’s conceptualization and understanding of America. He explains, “I’m from New Orleans, Louisiana. I feel fully American. I love my country. At the same time, we often conflate patriotism with nationalism. A demand for loyalty is not the same as a demand to live up to your ideals [...] It is not un-American to critique America. It makes you patriotic when you want to make it better. I want America to be better because I love what this country is supposed to stand for. We’re a work in progress.”
How can someone claim to be a student of Malcolm X and conceptualize America as a work-in-progress? How can someone claim to be a student of Malcolm X and simultaneously claim to be a patriot? How can someone claim to be a student of Malcolm X and support America’s ideals—ideals of slave-owners, genocidal settlers and war-mongering commanders in chief? How can someone claim to be a student of Malcolm X and say that they “feel fully American”? How can Omar Suleiman claim to be a student of Malcolm X when we already have students of Malcolm X as our teachers, our sheikhs and our sheikhas? Malcolm X—in his political realism—explained that in order for a leader to be legitimate he would have to be willing to go to the grave, hospital, or prison. The students of Malcolm who engaged in actual struggle—Sekou Odinga, Saladin Shakur, Yuri Kochiyama, Imam Jamil Al-Amin, and many others—found themselves at those sites of hardship. They are our teachers. We seek them out, and we learn from them with humility, so that we can make ourselves adequate to our historical responsibility.
El Hajj Malik El Shabazz paid the ultimate price. He was martyred. If he thought America was a “work-in-progress” then he would not have been martyred. Malcolm denounced America, condemned America, and organized to take her to court for being the greatest murderer and rapist on this earth. Unlike King, Malcolm did not think of America as an immature racist who needed to work on her soul, grow up, and improve her behaviors. Malcolm’s ethical grounding is in practical slave uprisings, uprisings in which African Muslims provided guidance for retaliation against plantation owners. Abolitionist Muslims found inspiration in Islam’s founding texts as they gave their lives for jihad against the American project. Dutty Boukman—one of the early leaders of the Haitian revolution—whose nickname “Boukman” derives its meaning from the English “Book man” (“man of the book”) as he was reading the Quran purposefully to find justification for action against the slave regime. In fact, in 1522 the first slave revolt in the New World was organized by Muslims. Renowned historian Sylvianne Diouf writes about the threat of Islam to slave plantations:
After the first slave uprising in the New World, led by the Wolof in 1522, a royal decree of May 11, 1526, specifically forbade the introduction of “Gelofes” (Wolof), negros (blacks) from the Levant (or Middle East), those who had been raised with the Moors, and people from Guinea without a special license from the Casa de Contratación, which regulated the slave trade and put levies on the slaves. All the groups that the decree prohibited were either completely or mostly Muslim. Within fifty years, five decrees were passed to forbid the introduction of African Muslims to the Spanish colonies. This insistent reissuing of the prohibition shows that Muslims nevertheless continued to arrive and to cause concerns and problems in the New World. The colonists claimed that the Muslims incited the other nations to rebellion, and it was feared that they would take Islam to the Indians.
This was Malcolm’s tradition, and the tradition of his students. He called himself a “field Negro” who “hated his master,” and who prayed for a strong wind if the master’s house caught on fire. Omar Suleiman, on the other hand, prays in and for the House of Representatives, for the preservation of the master’s house. In this sense, Omar Suleiman’s position on the police as an institution is not consistent with Malcolm X’s. Malcolm referred to the police as “two-legged dogs” and as Klansmen who traded in their sheets for the police badge. It is a historical fact that the police as an institution finds its origin in the institution and practice of slavery. Today that is still the case, and we know this because when the 13th amendment was passed it did not make slavery illegal, but confined it to the jurisdiction of criminal law, making the police and the courts the chief custodians of slavery in America.
Omar Suleiman not only attended and led prayers at the memorial service for the dead police officers in Dallas in 2016—killed by a black nationalist—he went as far as praising and thanking the police during demonstrations against police brutality. Suleiman emphasized: “[The police officers’] hearts were with us for that demonstration. They get it.” He added that while he was against police brutality, he was not against police officers. This is directly in opposition to Malcolm who viewed the police as an institution essential for the preservation of a white-supremacist state and economy.
The points above highlight some of Omar Suleiman’s misadventures in the name of social justice. They indicate how he is in close proximity to being “the fox” given his self-declared patriotic position. We encourage Omar Suleiman, and others like him, to re-examine history, and to publicly apologize for misappropriating Malcolm X’s legacy. It is theologically criminal to misrepresent a shaheed. Malcolm X had said: “I’m going to tell it like it is. I hope you can take it like it is.” We also would like to tell it like it is to American-Muslims and their celebrity imams, that If you cannot take Malcolm for who he was, then leave Malcolm to his real students.
The Significance of Malcolm to the Captive
The first time I engaged with Malcolm, I was a sixteen year old sent to juvenile hall for crimes I did not commit. I was faced with five years in prison. All the other boys in my unit were black, Mexican or Pacific Islander. They told us that alameda county max unit had one way traffic to CYA, a large youth prison euphemistically called “gladiator school”. We were all preparing ourselves for the worst things we could imagine. I felt my fate was as sealed as the door on my cell. I spent most of my time reading, searching for answers or hope. And my life felt like the stories I had heard of black men being captured and subjected to all the sick and grotesque realities of social death. Prison is indeed the ghost of slavery in this country, embodying the traditions of coercion whiteness has always depended on to sustain itself. When the guards would make jokes about us teenage boys getting raped once we'd been convicted, sentenced and transferred, it was part of this mechanism and tradition of coercion and domination. We were not afforded decent treatment as human beings, let alone as young boys lost in a hostile system, in a hostile nation.
Reading Malcolm felt like the only lifeline I had. My big sister gave me a copy of his autobiography. She had already read it and felt he could provide the answers I was searching for. Malcolm wasn't some slick figure with middle class sensibilities. Every word he spoke was an instant inflammatory controversy. It was a knife cutting away the psychological bonds of white hegemony. Every word he spoke frustrated and infuriated the modern slave masters, but more importantly, his words indicted and cornered them. He used his words to strip away the facade which empowers white hegemony and inhibits our ability to take them to task. “You don't take your case to the criminal, you take the criminal to court!” He used simple and direct analogies to convey his message to an audience that was being primed for action. Even for me, sitting in my cell, I felt I was being primed for action in some important purpose. Something more important than the white man’s jailhouse rape fantasies. When he talked about his experiences with school and teachers, the parallels couldn't be more obvious. That's when I began to wonder if I wasn't just reliving the same painful cycle. But things evolve. When he talked about the lynching of his father, I couldn’t help but think about my grandfather who was subjected to electroshock “therapy” in Louisiana, as an attempt to make him more docile after standing up to several white men who wanted to humiliate or hurt him. Malcolm was intimately aware of the experiences of black people in America. His acceptance of the Islamic brotherhood of Bosnians, Chechens, Iranians, and Arabs of the Levant cannot be used as some sort of counter-example to Malcolm’s fundamental position against whiteness as a category and its hegemony in America. Some people make unintelligent inferences on bits and pieces of Malcolm’s words, which is a vulgar insult against him. When Malcolm talked about how Islam could improve America and the white man, we cannot be lazy in our understanding. Malcolm was talking about the whole practice of Islam, including its laws and consequences which would inherently check and curb the ability of white supremacists to function at the level that they do. Let's take our heads out of these philosophical clouds of smoke. Malcolm understood Islam as a system against the system, not merely a philosophy.
Our condemnation of American-Muslim leadership is incomplete unless we also critique the social base of Americanism that sustain the “wolves” and the “foxes.” We do not understand the affect, and the bodily and emotive dispositions of American-Muslims. We do not understand the affect of white (-passing) Muslims who do not sacrifice half a day in the struggle but attempt to get with the most militant sisters in the struggle through white stability and white civility lazily veiled in “sufi” aesthetics and pseudo-jihadi polemics. We do not understand the affect of the immigrants who, in order to become assimilated American-Muslims, shamelessly praise their sons’ acts of kufr in service of the police and the U.S. military. We do not understand the affect of the black Muslims who act like Muslim Huxtables as they embrace American patriotism without any regard for contemporary neo-slavery. We do not understand the affect of American-Muslim men who engage in American culture wars where paradigmatic concerns are reduced to problems of “values.” We do not understand the affect of Western-Muslim women who react to their experience of isolation and alienation by promoting an embarrassingly unintelligent second wave feminism. We don’t understand, because we understand too much.
In the next wave of social upheaval—which is imminent according to our readings of libidinal and political economy—we want to have a new orientation for new sets of friendships, concepts of brotherhood and sisterhood, and experiences of ethical intimacy. Struggle gives social and political life to our discursive tradition. Without a struggle that addresses the real antagonism of history, the practice of our tradition can become empty rituals of a legal positivism. The dynamism of Islam, is in its spirit of struggle, in jihad of the soul and of the arms. America is rushing from a financial crisis toward a full-on catastrophe. The master’s house is on fire. Malcolm’s prayers for a strong wind are coming true. We are adequately fanatic in our trust in Allah to know that the prayers of the oppressed are answered. We also know that prayers are most sincere, when followed by action—one verse at a time.
We dedicate this short essay to Yuri Kochiyama. May Allah grant her a place in jannah.
Hannibal Abdul-Shakur and Tanzeen R. Doha (“The Trayvon 2”) were arrested in connection with a July 15, 2013 protest of George Zimmerman's not guilty verdict in the murder of Trayvon Martin. The Alameda County District Attorney's office charged both defendants with felony vandalism despite no evidence they engaged in such conduct. The District Attorney finally dropped the charges against them for lack of evidence. The Trayvon 2, along with their legal team, received the Black Lives Matter Award from the NLG in 2015.
Isra Ibrahim is a Muslim Sudanese organizer based in South Florida and pre-medical student at Florida International University. She is interested in Black liberation, pan-Africanism, Islam and Muslim resistance.