Did Malcolm X have ties to Algerian Jihadists?

Sun, 2017/02/26
Shoaib Khan

Malcolm X is a name that will go down in history. Famous for making a name for himself in the Civil Rights movement, most Americans know about his difficult childhood and brief stint in prison. Many also know that prison is where the young man spent his time reading the works of various writers, particularly Elijah Muhammad. What many may not know, however, is his deeper ideological ties with resistance movements all around the world.  Few, for example, know the impact on him by the Algerian independence activist Frantz Fanon (Figure 1).

Fanon was a black Martinican psychiatrist who lived in Algeria first as a soldier in the French army and later as a hospital director. Having seen the racism of the French towards blacks and Algerians, including those who fought for France in World War II, he concluded that the “civilizing mission” promoted by French colonialists was a hidden attempt to the make the colonized adopt their values. He would eventually join Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN) before being forced to flee to Tunisia. He became the FLN’s  prominent spokesperson, often writing for their newspaper El Moujahid (“The Jihadist”). His experiences led him to write his famous work “The Wretched of the Earth”, which would later inspire X.

It is no surprise then, that after dissociating from the Nation of Islam, X created his own organization in emulation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), a coalition of 53 independent African countries. His group, known as the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), quickly fell apart after his death, but many of its goals still remain relevant to this day. In his speech at the Founding Rally of the OAAU, the erudite reformer emphasized the need for Africans to be able to tell their own narrative free of the tarnishes caused by centuries of racial oppression. He states:

It was your grandfather's hands who forged civilization and it was your grandmother's hands who rocked the cradle of civilization. But the textbooks tell our children nothing about the great contributions of Afro-Americans to the growth and development of this country.”

While progress has been made since then, white-centered thinking still surrounds our academic fields. A quick way to examine this is to just simply think of famous scientists in history and then ask ourselves what part of the world they come from. Why is it so hard to think of any African scientists on-par with European ones like Plato and Copernicus? (Figure 2) Furthermore, why do most people know Aristotle, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and other white political theorists and scholars but not any influential African ones?

The problem lies with the fact that Western academics have inherited a biased tradition of speaking on behalf others and claiming to understand their history better than them. The colonial period was a period when scholars, under the influence of the political zeitgeist of the time, used academia to justify the enforcement of their beliefs on others. It was not until the renowned Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said published his 1978 work "Orientalism" that Western thinkers as a whole began to think critically about their biased presumptions of the world.  (Figure 3). While progress has been made in incorporating African-American thoughts into mainstream scholarship, the historical legacy of colonialism is hard to shake off. The effects are also felt on other formerly colonized groups such as Native Americans, Arabs, etc. It is the reason why Black History Month has become a necessity.

While this month may have been an educational time for many of us to learn about black history, it should also be a reminder about what we go through for the rest of year: a racially biased narrative whose history extends back to the colonial era when various peoples were subjugated to Euro-American standards and ideas. We should attempt to break free of these artificial chains on our minds and seek to understand the world in a more holistic fashion. Once we do this, we can hopefully experience what X described on his Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca:

"…on this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to rearrange much of my thought patterns previously held, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions…I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth."