Home Political science Encounters with Islam: On Religion, Politics and Modernity
Made in the USA
There may be as many as 8 million Muslims in the United States, and if the numbers continue to rise at the present rate Islam will soon surpass Judaism as the largest non-Christian religion, dwarfing such mainstream denominations as the Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ. The majority of the Muslims are immigrants and guest students from more than 60 countries. However, a sizeable and growing presence - about 3 million - are African-Americans. Of several black Muslim groups, the most prominent is the Nation Of Islam (NOI), an organisation described by the FBI as ‘violently anti-white, antiChristian, anti-integration and anti-United States’. Founded by Elijah Muhammad in the 1930s, the NOI split under the leadership of Elijah’s son Wallace Muhammad (who has now Islamicised his name to Warith-ud -Din Muhammad). Following the example of Malcolm X, who broke with Elijah Muhammad and joined the Islamic mainstream before his assassination in 1965, Wallace took the Nation in the direction of Sunni orthodoxy, converting its temples into mosques, liquidating its businesses and eventually dissolving its organisation, urging members to worship at their local mosques. In 1992, having supported the US-led coalition in the Gulf, Muhammad became the first Muslim imam to be invited to offer prayers in the US Senate.
The reborn NOI, which has stuck with Elijah Muhammad’s separatist principles, claims that Elijah Muhammad - like the Twelfth Imam of the Shi‘a - is still alive and is guiding the movement spiritually. Its current leader is a former musician, Louis Farrakhan. Notorious for his anti-Semitism and the racist language he uses against whites, Farrakhan is one of the most hated men in (white) America. He is duly idolised by the black underclass, especially the youth of the ghettoes and hip-hop rap groups such as Public Enemy and NWA (Niggaz With Attitude).
In the no-go areas of Washington, Detroit, Los Angeles and other cities, it is the Nation Of Islam, not the police, that gets results. The NOI has brokered peace agreements between rival gangs, Farrakhan being the only national leader for whom the young gangsters have any respect. In many inner city areas the NOI’s ‘Islamic patrols’, manned by unarmed vigilantes wearing business suits and bow ties, are now a familiar and increasingly popular sight, and having driven away the dealers and pimps have brought calm and safety to the streets. The NOI Security Agency has ‘dope-busting’ contracts in several cities, while its guards provide security for respectable corporations such as Federal Express. Such contracts have created consternation among Jewish groups concerned about virulently anti-Semitic statements made by Farrakhan and his henchmen.
Of the two books under review, Gardell’s masterful study provides by far the most detail, being the first comprehensive scholarly treatment of Farrakhan and the NOI. Gardell’s research is meticulous and thorough. Not only has he trawled through hundreds of FBI files made available through the Public Information Act; he has also had the advantage of extensive interviews with Mr Farrakhan and other NOI leaders. Kepel only deals with the NOI in the first third of his book, which looks at Islamic communities in Britain and France as well as the United States. Nevertheless, his overall view of the NOI is broadly consistent with Gardell’s much more detailed analysis.
The broad contours of the story of the Nation Of Islam are widely known through the immensely popular The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Spike Lee’s film version of the book. Less well known is the bizarre and eclectic theology from which Malcom X eventually distanced himself, and which Farrakhan has revived and enriched. God is a man, not a spirit, and of a condition to which humans may aspire by recognising and realising the black god within themselves. He has given the devil embodied in the white man a temporary dispensation to rule the world, allowing all the evils that afflict his chosen people - colonialism, slavery, racial oppression and poverty - to flourish. That period is about to end with the approach of Armageddon, when the black Nation will be redeemed, and Babylon utterly destroyed:
The extermination will be absolutely complete, destroying all stock markets, skyscrapers, transportation nets, harbors, cities and hamlets. Every trace and deed, including the languages, knowledge, and thoughts of the devil, will be eradicated in the global atomic-chemical fire, as described in 2 Peter 3:10. The heavens shall pass away with great noise and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.
God is supervising these events from an artificial planet known as the ‘Mother Ship’ or ‘Mother Wheel’. UFOs or ‘baby planes’ from this planet are regularly sent to earth with Divine instructions. In one such encounter, Farrakhan meets the Honourable Elijah Muhammad, the occulted Messiah, who confirms his authority as Leader. A scroll containing the sacred scriptures has been placed in the back of Farrakhan’s brain to be revealed in its entirety in the fullness of time. While awaiting deliverance, the faithful must purify themselves, eschewing meat, junk food, alcohol, drugs and sexual promiscuity - all of them devil’s weapons aimed specifically at enslaving African-Americans. The mid-term objective, the Nation’s ‘interim programme’, is an independent black state on American or African soil, acquired through reparations paid by American and African governments for the crimes of slavery. The state will be ruled in accordance with strict ‘Islamic’ law: the death penalty will be mandatory for adultery, rape, incest and inter-racial sex.
Similar ingredients, mixed and cooked somewhat differently, can be found in other American religions, including Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science and especially Mormonism. A small criticism to be made of Gardell’s book is that he could have devoted more attention to the way the NOI recycles themes already widely present in American religious culture. While placing the NOI well outside the boundaries of mainstream Islam, the NOI’s doctrine combines elements of the pre-millenial dispensationalist eschatology common to most Baptist churches, black and white, gnosticism, kabbalism, Zionism, identity Christianity, Scientology, Arminianism, the deification of man as taught by the Mormons, the positive thinking of Norman Vincent Peale and the science fantasy theology of L. Ron Hubbard - all of them packaged in colourful mythological wrappings adapted from Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions. Gardell speculates interestingly that Elijah Muhammad’s original mentor (the movement’s Jesus to his Paul), a street pedlar from Detroit named W. D. Fard or Ford who disappeared in 1924 leaving Elijah in charge, may have been a Druze from Syria. Detroit had many street pedlars of Syrian origin at that time. Gardell finds traces of the Ismaili neo-platonist system (also adopted by the Druzes) in the NOI’s gnostic teachings, along with echoes of the Native American Smohalla religion. The whole package, however, bears one unambiguous label: ‘Made in the USA.’
As with Mormonism and other bizarre belief-systems, the sceptical outsider will always have difficulty in accepting that intelligent people can take such beliefs seriously while operating successfully in the ‘real’ world. However, the parallels with Mormonism, one of the world’s most rapidly growing religions, reveals how successfully religious heterodoxy can sustain group identity while buttressing a style of ‘this-worldly asceticism’ conducive to capitalism along classic Weberian lines. Gardell’s study shows how the Nation Of Islam, like the nineteenth-century Mormons, prepares for the end of the world, breaking with the majoritarian society it considers doomed by flaunting its transgressive beliefs.
The Mormons defied the world by practising polygamy in the midVictorian American West. The NOI challenges liberal values by turning them on their head, preaching anti-white racism and anti-Semitism. The latter, while reflecting the real experiences of some African-Americans in inner city areas, whose encounters with Jewish landlords or shopkeepers have often been less than happy, also addresses what the NOI sees as a scandalous anomaly. The 6 million white victims of the Holocaust (for which America bears, if anything, only the most vestigial responsibility) attract far more public attention than the notorious ‘middle passage’ across the Atlantic, when, according to Farrakhan, 100 million Africans died. ‘America you owe us something,’ Farrakhan shouts, ‘and we don’t want you to dole it out in welfare checks.’ Just as Germany paid Israel compensation, so the US government should now pay its debt to its black citizens: ‘Now, let’s add up what they owe us. If a hundred million of us lost our lives in the middle passage, add it up! Three hundred years working millions of slaves for nothing. Add it up!’
Reparations or no, there are plenty of indications that the NOI is already moving along the path from marginality to respectability previously trodden by Mormons, Adventists and others. In addition to the dope-busting contracts, the theology is being spiritualised, with demonic whiteness explained as an attitude of mind (and hence changeable) rather than an unalterable attribute of persons. The Million Man March on Washington organised by Farrakhan in 1995 may not have produced very much in terms of concrete results: but it certainly proved the NOI’s capacity for organisation and its ability to work within the system.
In Allah in the West, Gilles Kepel identifies several common threads linking the activities of Farrakhan and the NOI in America, the Muslim agitation in Britain against Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses and the ‘affairs of the scarf’ in France, when the refusal by head teachers to allow Muslim pupils to wear the Islamic hijab or ‘veil’ in school opened up divisions in society not seen ‘since the Dreyfus affair’. His perceptive analysis grapples with a central paradox: the assertion of Islam within Western societies that are generally moving in the opposite direction, towards greater individual choice, in which inherited identities are fading away. Why, he asks, do the Muslim activists in all three countries
choose to identify with Islam in open societies where individuals have much more freedom in their allegiance than in the ‘traditional’ societies of the Muslim world, where the predominance of the inherited culture remains a determining influence on social identity?
In the United States, Kepel sees the NOI project as an exercise in community building by creating a positive identity for African-Americans. Much of the theology is a straight inversion of white cultural prejudices against blacks. The anti-Semitism has a similar purpose: Jews must be denied the high moral ground of victimhood. In the NOI’s pseudo-scholarly study, The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews, published in 1991, Jewish participation in the slave trade is stressed obsessively, by repetition, while Muslim participation is consistently ignored. Slavery replaces the Holocaust as ‘the ultimate genocide in the history of humanity’; Jewish victimhood is contaminated, as it were, by Jewish participation in the slave trade and therefore in the perpetration of genocide, with the tacit conviction that culpability is heritable. As Gardel warns us, the demonisation of Jews must not be taken in isolation from the larger demonisation of whites. A new reconstructed Muslim identity, decontextualised and ‘pure’, helps to build community:
Communalism is based on strong personal attachment to a reconstructed identity and necessarily resists the reflexive process of comparison between diverse human experiences. Outside the community of the self-proclaimed ‘pure’ there can only be barbarism. No other communities can claim ethical justification for their status.
In similar fashion, British Muslims defended the honour of their Prophet against the perceived assaults in Salman Rushdie’s novel. At stake here, however, was not a reconstructed or reinvented Muslim identity but rather the inherited Islamic identity the British-Muslim majority brought with them from the Indian subcontinent - an identity already forged by the communalist policies fostered by the Raj.
Rushdie’s work was bound to upset the religious leaders who had managed to establish control over the populations of Muslim origin in Britain. By undermining the very basis of an Islamic community identity, it threatened their cultural, social and political domination of their flock. But the language used by Rushdie in relation to Islam and the Prophet aroused the anger of a much wider Muslim population:
By using ironic names for figures held in reverence by pious Muslims, especially the Prophet ... and his entourage, and placing these characters in obscene or morally degrading circumstances, Rushdie alienated a great number of ordinary Muslims outside the inner circle of mullahs and Islamic association leaders. Paradoxically the controversy surrounding the book brought together those who felt that their closest beliefs had been attacked, reinforcing many Muslims’ sense of community and making them even more receptive to the mullahs and Islamic leaders.
The ‘affair of the scarf’ in France played a similar role to the Rushdie affair in Britain. If the occasion seems more trivial to Anglo-Saxons, this is because France’s centralising traditions offer much less scope for commu- nalism than the United States or Britain: ‘Unlike the US and Britain, the state in France exerts strong pressure on society to prevent the formation of religion-based communities which would weaken the link between the Republic and its citizens.’
The demand in 1989 by three Muslim pupils in the Paris suburb of Creil to wear the hijab in school was seen as a challenge to the jealously guarded principle of laicite or secularity. Though the Council of State eventually upheld the girls’ right to ‘display their religious beliefs within educational establishments’ the debate engendered by the affair was used by numerous Muslim associations to outbid the Muslim ‘establishment’ represented by the Paris Mosque, which has close connections with the Algerian government. The concessions won by the three girls in Creil, far from satisfying Muslim communalists, led to further demands, with the rights of pupils in their capacities as French citizens gaining ground over the rights of their immigrant Muslim parents. The veil itself became wrapped in paradox: donning what was seen by most French people as a symbol of female submission became an act of auto-emancipation. Scherazade of Grenoble, who escalated Muslim demands on the system by refusing to remove her head-covering even for physical education, became both heroine and pariah: ‘France is my freedom, so is my veil!’ In conclusion, Kepel sees France adopting a position closer to that of Britain with regard to its Muslim population, with notions of citizenship losing their meaning for increasing numbers of young people from immigrant families, ‘victims of social disintegration and labour-market exclusion, yet officially citizens of a country where most of them were born’. The policy of ‘assimilation’ by individuals having manifestly failed is giving way before demands for ‘integration’ as communities. Whilst communalism in France is unlikely to go so far as it has in Britain or the
United States, Kepel concludes that the whole question of citizenship needs to be re-examined in its light.
The merit of Kepel’s essay is that it asks the right questions, all of them difficult. Its cardinal weakness is that it concentrates exclusively on the flashpoints and militancies that catch the headlines, and neglecting the countervailing trends that point in the opposite direction. Many Muslims in the West are voting for assimilation with their feet, in bars or hairdressing salons, or just in private homes, eschewing militancy, and avoiding social visibility. Communalism depends on the perception of an external threat. Without the flames of prejudice, perceived or actual, it must wither.
Published in The Times Literary Supplement, 30 May 1997.
The books reviewed were:_
Mattias Gardell (1996) Countdown to Armageddon: Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. London: Hurst. Gilles Kepel (1997) Allah in the West: Islamic Movements in America and Europe, translated by Susan Milner. Oxford, UK: Polity Press. (Originally published as A l'Ouest d'Allah. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1994.)
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