Respect the architect: Malcolm X, the elections and the politics of empire

To be black in America is enough to be deemed “un-American”, but to be black and Muslim is to be “anti-American”.

Though Obama went to Cairo as an "envoy of empire" who sought to universalise American power, Malcolm X had gone there to "internationalise black freedom struggles with those in the third world who were its victims" [GALLO/GETTY]

With Guantanamo still open, drones still killing and anti-Muslim sentiment forming the rumbling bass line of empire, the upcoming US presidential elections have once again raised the spectre and threat of Islam and the Muslim third world to US national security and its interests. And with Obama as one of the two major candidates, the issue of Blackness is the elephant in the room. 

While many want to further stigmatise Obama as a “closet Muslim” and the “Arabian Candidate” of the 21st century, others see his blackness as rebranding the image of America and helping to further US interests in the Muslim third world through a new “post-racial” and benevolent veneer. 

But as I detail in my recent book, these relationships and histories between blackness, Islam and the Muslim third world are not new in the United States. In fact, it is Malcolm X who has come to define these converging histories, and it is his legacy that is in many ways causing so much national anxiety in a post-9/11 United States with a black president who’s middle name is Hussein.  

For to be black in America is enough to be deemed un-American, but to be black and Muslim is to be anti-American. While the “smearing” of Obama as a Muslim in the post-9/11 climate is informed by the threat posed by that thing called “al-Qaeda”, Obama’s blackness and his “proximity” to Islam is really a deeper seated anxiety around Malcolm X, who challenged American authority over not only the black past but also a black future, demanding that black people view themselves not as a national minority but as part of a global majority. 

For Malcolm X, “Islam was the greatest unifying force of the Dark World”, and the Muslim third world had a defining impact on Malcolm X’s life and political vision, whether it was the spiritual centre Mecca or the anti-colonial struggles in Egypt, Algeria, Palestine, Iraq and elsewhere. But for Malcolm one didn’t have to be a Muslim. What was important was the recognition of a racial reality to one’s secular suffering that would view white supremacy as a global phenomenon and link black struggles with those in the third world. 

But there has been a persistent demand to contain and even erase the possibility of black internationalism in the US. As a fulfillment of the Civil Rights tradition, Obama’s presidency has symbolically suggested that not only do black people have a stake in this country, but that the feeling is mutual – as his status as “leader of the free world” seeks to wed black identification with America, its power and its destiny. 

Obama tried to capture the euphoria around his election during his highly publicised address in Cairo in 2009 entitled “A New Beginning”, which was meant to signal a shift from the polarising militarism of the Bush II regime. But Malcolm X had also spoke in Cairo, and in 1964 he addressed a gathering of the heads of state at the Organisation of African Unity. 

Though Obama went to Cairo as an envoy of empire who sought to universalise American power, Malcolm had gone there to internationalise black freedom struggles with those in the third world who were its victims. 

In Cairo, Malcolm implored the heads of state not to be fooled by the “imperialist wolf” of the US or the State Department’s attempts to use propaganda to convince African nations that the United States was making serious progress toward racial equality through Brown v Board and the passage of Civil Rights legislation. 

As Malcolm said, these measures were a “propaganda manoeuver” and “are nothing but tricks of the century’s leading neo-colonialist power”. Malcolm implored the gathering to heed his warning: “Don’t escape from European colonialism only to become more enslaved by deceitful, ‘friendly’ American dollarism.” 

In highlighting the use of propaganda and the managing of America’s image abroad, Malcolm anticipated not only how after 9/11 the State Department would place Muslims in high profile positions in the arts and political realms to influence Muslim public opinion abroad, but also how the election of Obama and the rhetoric of “diversity” would be used to redefine America as inclusive, “post-racial” and progressive in order to mask the entrenchment of white power domestically and globally.  

And in tying domestic racial politics in the US to America’s role as a “neo-colonial power” and the emergence of “American dollarism”, Malcolm laid bare how race linked European colonialism and the emergence of the US as a global superpower. 

While Obama went to Egypt to co-opt this sacred city and put a benevolent face on American power, Malcolm had been there to strip away the veneer of benevolence and reveal the naked truth about US racial injustice and imperial ambition. This is why the legacy of Malcolm X is so important, as it sheds light on the racial dynamics that shape the global landscape today under US power.  

Red, black and green scares 

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, as the US replaced Europe as the dominant actor on the world’s stage, President Truman declared “communism” public enemy number one, even viewing communism as a bigger threat than colonialism to the decolonising third world. As a result, the US and its allies in Europe believed that a liberated third world was the biggest threat to the post-War order that the US wanted to dominate, as it would create a vacuum of power that could be filled by Communism. 

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The real fear, as Malcolm and others like Lumumba, Fanon and Nkrumah understood, was the liberation and independence of the majority of the world that would have the potential to radically redistribute global power and wealth away from the white world.  

Instead, the US expanded its imperial footprint into the third world and extended the logic of colonial racism by using “anti-communism” as a means to justify intervention, the supporting of dictators, the overthrow of democratically elected leaders, assassinations and destabilisation throughout the third world (witness Mossadegh, Arbenz, Lumumba and so many others). As a result, US foreign policy used “anti-communism” as a proxy for race by undermining the decolonisation of the third world.

Malcolm emerged out of this Cold War crucible where Civil Rights activists embraced an American identity and argued that Jim Crow violence was an Achilles’ heel that would undermine America’s global ambitions to a third world already hostile to white supremacy. Malcolm was deeply critical of the Civil Rights establishment for domesticating black struggle within American frameworks and supporting the logic of “anti-communism”.  

For Malcolm and others, by not understanding the global nature of white supremacy, the Civil Rights establishment was not going to even make domestic gains on race. Instead of tying their fate to the decolonising third world to systemically undo white power, the Civil Rights mandate only masked white power through a reformist posture domestically, while facilitating its entrenchment throughout the world by assuming the flawed logic of “anti-communism”. 

In 1964, Malcolm X made his infamous “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech and challenged the Civil Rights establishment by asserting the futility of black voting as a means toward gaining equality in the United States. Instead, he argued, black people needed to internationalise their struggles and link them to the struggles taking place throughout the third world of Africa, Asia and Latin America. 

As Malcolm said, “you don’t take your case to the criminal, you take the criminal to court”. For Malcolm X, the move from “civil rights” to “human rights” would place the plight of black peoples in America into a broader forum that would force the US to undergo scrutiny and challenge from the third world and that might tilt the balance of power to the dark nations, as it would reveal US hypocrisies, undermine the country’s foreign policy objectives in the third world and expose the country’s own brutal extension of European colonial racism. 

As part of his radical internationalism and in profound contrast to the Civil Rights establishment, Malcolm supported the Palestinians against Zionism, likened the ghettos of Harlem under racist segregation to the Casbah in Algiers under French colonial rule, praised Nasser’s stand against England, France and Israel, celebrated the Bandung Conference and saw it as a model for unifying black political culture during the Cold War, supported the Mau Mau rebellion against British colonialism and the Vietnamese against French rule, met with Fidel Castro, lauded Lumumba as the “greatest Black man who ever walked the African continent”, and like Fanon, gave ethical sanction to the possibility of armed struggle, fundamentally challenging the Cold War consensus. 

The post-9/11 now 

With the hyper-nationalism of the post-9/11 era fuelling America’s war with the Muslim third world, Malcolm’s legacy of resistance that combined black internationalism with the politics of the Muslim third world provides a blueprint to challenge the imperial consensus that has characterised the post-9/11 era. 

 American racism ‘on the rise’

Just as “anti-communism” was a proxy for race during the Cold War, “anti-terrorism” has become the new proxy for race and the re-entrenching of white supremacy by justifying US intervention abroad while also containing dissent domestically, as the logic of “terrorism” is used to determine who is a citizen and who is an enemy, who is human and who is not, and who is to be killed and who is allowed to live. 

Forged out of the Cold War, Malcolm’s legacy can challenge the embrace by minority communities (including Muslims) of the rhetoric of “terrorism” by recognising its racially coded roots and how “anti-terrorism” is used to not only police dissent, but also allows for the violent expansion of US empire. For not only does the logic of “anti-terrorism” play into the racist logic of “moderate” and “radical” Muslims, it also fails to give dignity to challenges to US state power around the world. 

While many activists, artists, scholars and organisations are infusing the ideas of Malcolm within their work, it’s important that black and Muslim communities, as well as other communities of colour, continue to draw the deep internationalist connections that Malcolm did. 

The linking of these struggles isn’t some romantic vision of solidarity. It’s rooted in a deeper understanding of how profoundly connected these violent forces really are. And it is a recognition that the persistence of racism here in the United States is precisely because white supremacy is deeply woven into the very fabric of US statecraft and is perpetually given life through the everyday functioning of how the US conducts its affairs, whether here or abroad.  

It’s the recognition that the logic of mass incarceration in the US that has destroyed black political possibility and contained dissent through local policing and counter-insurgency is also what drives the US military and its imperial imprisonment in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Bagram and other places. It’s the recognition that the plight of migrants across the heavily militarised US-Mexico border resembles the conditions that contain and destroy Palestinian lives and livelihood. And it’s the recognition that the neoliberal economic policies that have destroyed the social wage and witnessed the emergence of the warfare state in the US is deeply rooted in the exploitation of the third world through global finance capital and war. 

To only talk about domestic anti-racism and not see white supremacy as a global problem, or to only make tepid critiques of US foreign policy around tactics and strategies and not its fundamentally racist posture rings hollow and misses the boat entirely. For it fails to recognise that white supremacy is rooted in the very structure of global relations that the US helped bring into being – a set of relationships where diplomacy, trade, political manoeuvering, war and questions of sovereignty are played out on a radically uneven playing field where the US and Europe exert overwhelming diplomatic leverage, political power and brutal military might.  

To ignore this falls into the worst forms of liberal internationalism that presume the US to be a force for good in the world, and it replicates the very problem that Malcolm X heroically struggled against, and was ultimately killed for.  

Though the bullets finally caught up with Malcolm, he left an indelible imprint on generations of artists and activists. But his legacy is under attack, and even erasure, as the Obama presidency and the triumphalist narrative of Civil Rights seeks to make black internationalist impulses irrelevant and outdated. 

While there are those who claim that voting for Obama is the practical thing to do and that to either vote for a third party or to not vote at all is “impractical” and “misguided”, Malcolm might turn the tables and ask how “practical” is it to vote for either major party when the violent forces that define them are so intractable and resistant to change, let alone transformation? 

And when confronting such forces, and recognising the others in the past who have tried so valiantly, how practical is it to continue to invest and commit to this process and expect something different? Isn’t that “impractical” and the path to irrelevance? 

Sohail Daulatzai is the author of Black Star, Crescent Moon: The Muslim International and Black Freedom beyond America (2012) and is the co-editor (with Michael Eric Dyson) of Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas’s Illmatic (2009). He has written liner notes to the upcoming release of the 20th anniversary of Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled debut album, and is an Associate Professor in the Department of Film and Media Studies and the Programme in African American Studies at the University of California, Irvine. He currently lives in Los Angeles and is working on a graphic novel. 

Follow him on Twitter: @SohailDaulatzai