In another example of how mass media shape and constrain what constitutes legitimate Islam and religion more generally, the New York Times published a news analysis on April 10, 2011, that explains Minister Louis Farrakhan’s recent support for Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi as an attempt to gain support, or at least attention, for his declining movement.
I was a source for the story, but an exchange of twenty-three emails seems largely to have failed to convince the reporter of my analysis of the phenomenon as an example of pan-African politics. The article is organized instead around the supposition that, because there has been a decline in membership in the Nation of Islam since the mid-1990s, Farrakhan needs to regain the spotlight. Though the Times mentions that Farrakhan “sounded sincere in his efforts to come to the aid of the embattled Libyan leader,” its headline proclaimed: “Farrakhan Using Libyan Crisis to Bolster His Nation of Islam.” Black Americans interested in Islam, it claims, “are likely to join traditional sects led by South Asians and Arabs.”
This statement is most likely incorrect, since most black Muslims seem to follow black Muslim leaders. Mosques, like churches, are divided by race in the United States. Precious few numbers exist on the racial composition of American mosques and other Muslim American institutions, but a 2001 report on American mosques sponsored by the Council of American-Islamic Relations indicated racial division in the mosqueing of America. The reporting of the Times’ own Andrea Elliott has also revealed the importance of black Sunni leaders, such as the late W.D. Mohammed and Siraj Wahhaj, to the growth of “traditional” Sunni Islam among black Americans. To these well-known names, you can add those of African American imams who are Sunni in every major city around the country.
African American Muslim academics, such as Aminah McCloud, have frequently pointed out that the mainstream media largely ignore the presence of African American Muslims in defining what constitutes American Islam in the post-9/11 era, and this recent piece is further evidence that their complaints have a basis in fact. The brown, “foreign” Muslim is the media face of American Islam now, a sharp reversal from the 1960s, when Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X were America’s “Moozlims.”
But perhaps what is most important here are the ways in which the article sets the limits of “true” Islam. Minister Farrakhan, the analysis says, is as much a “nationalist leader as a religious one.” Religion is never defined, but it is constructed as something other than politics by insisting that Minister Farrakhan is really motivated by black liberation. The idea that black liberation could also be religious is never considered, ignoring the claim that black religion, or at least a part of it, has been politically radical.
Instead, the article continues the long and troubling tradition, which began with sociological and FBI explanations of the Nation of Islam in the 1930s, of denying the movement its legitimately religious elements. Such reductionism is a stunning dismissal of the religion right at the surface of the Nation of Islam’s activities. Farrakhan’s comments in the speech about Qaddafi indicate just how much his vision is simultaneously religious and political: In the speech he reiterated his own importance as a prophet meant to warn America about the impending apocalyptic doom due to its hypocritical foreign policies. It doesn’t get more religious than that.
Another example of the article’s delimiting of legitimate American Islam is its claim that the Nation of Islam’s theology “spurns traditional Islam,” whatever that is. Ihsan Bagby, a professor at the University of Kentucky, is quoted as saying that the “theology of the Nation of Islam contradicts the basic tenets of Islam.” No mention is made that Bagby has served as the secretary general of the Muslim Alliance in North America, a rival group to the Nation of Islam. His decades-long career as an African American Sunni leader is omitted in favor of stressing his authority as a “professor of Islam.”
Invoking the myth of a monolithic traditional Islam, this framing of Farrakhan as black nationalist leader erases the memory of indigenous forms of Islam. Minister Farrakhan’s jeremiads are classic expressions of American religion; their roots can be found in a long tradition of American prophecy and particularly the tradition of black messiahs. But Farrakhan is not just another American prophet; he is a Muslim American prophet in the tradition of Noble Drew Ali and Elijah Muhammad.
There is yet another effect of the article’s dismissal of the Islamic dimension of Farrakhan’s politics. The portrayal of the Nation of Islam as an exclusively nationalist movement led by a charismatic leader obscures the historical links between African American Islam and Muslims abroad. The ties of the Nation of Islam to foreign countries and groups have always expressed a larger identification of African Americans with foreign Muslim leaders, Afro-Asian anti-colonialism, and the non-aligned movement. Minister Farrakhan is pro-Qaddafi because he believes that Qaddafi is an ally in the struggle against global racism. Qaddafi has given millions to the Nation of Islam just as he has given significant aid to Sub-Saharan African states. Failing to see Farrakhan’s support for Qaddafi as pan-African Islamic politics seems almost a wish to ignore the questions that American interventionism poses for the continent and those in the African diaspora who associate themselves with it. The U.S. entrance into this fight may affect racial politics at home more than we can currently imagine, especially if African American Muslims come to see U.S. intervention as unjust.
At the same time, Minister Farrakhan’s support for Qaddafi has been criticized on various African and African American blogs, another aspect of the story that the Times missed. Such criticism is an effort to convince other African Americans to reject Farrakhan’s support of Qaddafi. Critics have pointed to Qaddafi’s racist views and his support of fellow African dictators. Libya itself has a long history of racial discrimination, and this current crisis creates possibilities for further abuse of its most vulnerable populations.
Whether Farrakhan is right or wrong about Qaddafi, his questioning of U.S. support for the no-fly zone over Libya raises an important question: what impact will U.S. aid to rebels have on racial politics in Africa and the African diaspora? Though Columbia University Professor Hamid Dabashi has tackled the issue of Middle Eastern and North African racism in a post on Al-Jazeera, the question of racial politics elsewhere has yet to be adequately considered by mainstream media and academic analysts. Maybe we should forget who brought up the question and just try to answer it.