Malcolm X, ISIS, and the Good
When I use to have students read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, I would ask them to distinguish between what led Malcolm, then Malcolm Little, to be a small time criminal and what led some of them, the students, to want to go to law school and become lawyers. Always, the first response was, usually expressed only in looking at me like I was insane, “Are you kidding, Schultz?”
But, eventually, after some discussion, they came to see that what led Malcolm to be a small time criminal and what led them to desire a law degree and what comes with it were exactly the same things, viz., social status, [some] wealth, and a respectable career. Malcolm Little had acquired all three as the result of being a small time hood, selling some drugs, burgling some homes, and strutting his stuff, with his conked hair and zoot suit. He even had a nickname, “Big Red,” which confirmed that he was a known quantity among his “peers.” He might even have been called the “F. Lee Bailey” of his hood.
Eventually, of course, Malcolm was arrested, charged, tried, convicted and sent to prison, not just for his crimes but also, he was convinced, because he had crossed the color line by having a white girl friend. Anyway, in prison, Malcolm “got religion,” and became a Black Muslim. As a result of this conversion, Malcolm cleaned up his act, gave up crime, drugs, and alcohol, and became eventually a leading member of the Nation of Islam. He also became what he hadn’t been as a petty crook: A subversive who was viewed as a threat to American society.
So, what had changed? Why was Malcolm Little no threat to our society, but Malcolm X was? You could say it was his conversion to Islam but you would be wrong, at least for the most part. Malcolm X was concerned with actualizing what I will call here “the Good,” whereas Malcolm Little was only concerned with being “a success.” Yes, X’s concern for “the Good” took the form of one version of the Islamic faith and then another. But that might be called tangential insofar as those who become concerned with and actively strive to actualize “the Good” in society are, almost always, seen as subversives. Think of Martin Luther King, Jr.; think of Frederick Douglass; think of the suffragettes; think of the famous socialist, Eugene V. Debs; or think of the Elizabeth Cady Stanton. You could even think of those rappers who were “Straight Outta Compton,” along with the Beatles, Elvis, or Bruce, or way back when, Beethoven or Mozart [yes, they were viewed as subversives too].
Those concerned with success present no threat to society, even if they pursue that success by “breaking the law.” It is not the criminal but the outlaw who is a threat to society. What’s this to do with ISIS? Not much but it does have a lot to do with how we think of those who are drawn to ISIS. They are, in their minds, “doing good,” or committing what might be labeled “righteous slaughter.” If we don’t see this, if we continue to think and react to these people as “delusional,” “evil” in some simplistic or Mary Poppins way, “lost sheep,” or “mindless terrorists,” we will not grasp who they are or what they are doing. And without that knowledge, we will spin our wheels as we revolve around in one of those “vicious circles” reserved for those who don’t know what they or their enemies are doing.
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