Islam, Malcolm X and the right to self-determination

By Larry Hales

Hezbollah and Hamas, both Islamic organizations, play leading roles in the Lebanese and Palestinian resistance movements, respectively. The Israeli settler government has tried to break both organizations, as they have increasingly taken up the mantle of the resistance to U.S. imperialism.

In the face of mounting aggression to attempt to stamp out the will and determination of the Lebanese and Palestinian peoples, Hezbollah and Hamas have increasingly come under fire, including being labeled as “terrorists.”

Unfortunately, the role of Islam in the struggle against imperialism confuses some in the progressive movement, but it shouldn’t. The struggle of oppressed peoples for self-determination can and has emerged in different forms, including religious ones, and is best judged by the oppressed, not by ideologues from the oppressor nation.

If one would take, for example, the contributions of Malcolm X to the struggle of Black people in the U.S. for sovereignty and dignity, it would be difficult, perhaps contemptible and disingenuous, to leave out the fact that he was a Muslim and emerged from an Islamic movement.

Malcolm X did split from the Nation of Islam after being silenced by Elijah Muhammad. His main reason for leaving the NOI was because he was moving in another political direction. Malcolm began to develop a broader, internationalist view of seeing the worldwide struggle as one involving the oppressor against the oppressed.

This development does not negate the fact that he first became politicized through the Nation of Islam, which helped him and many others turn their lives around. The existence of the NOI cannot be divorced historically from the overall Black freedom struggle.

Nation of Islam, then and now

The Nation of Islam grew substantially in size and influence after Malcolm became a minister and a national spokesperson. His brother recruited him while Malcolm was in prison. The Nation of Islam provided hope for many in the Black community, through providing assistance to people in prison, addicts and alcoholics and many who had been beaten down by the ravages of racism and capitalism. It also developed schools, provided jobs and defended its communities from racist attacks from the police and the government.

The Nation, before and during the height of the Black liberation movement, explicitly argued for a separate Black nation. Today, this demand has manifested itself with, for instance, Minister Louis Farakkhan stating at the Millions More March last October that Black people have the right to govern themselves and have their own secretaries of education, defense, health, etc.

The fact that the Nation of Islam has raised separatism shows that, ever since the compromise after the Civil War between the Nor th ern capitalists and the Southern aristocratic former slave owners to end Reconstruction—thereby killing what had been the beginning of a bourgeois democratic revolution in the South after the Civil War—there is serious concern that Black people in the U.S. are still treated as second-class citizens.

One need only look at what happened during and after Hurricane Katrina to Black people on the Gulf Coast to understand that concern.

If an oppressed nation decides to separate itself from its oppressor, then Marxists/Leninists must support in every way that form of self-determination. The era of Malcolm X when he was in the Nation, followed after his death by that of the Black Panthers, was second in this respect only to the time of Marcus Garvey, who advocated for the right to return to Africa.

The great Russian revolutionary, V.I. Lenin, said of self-determination, “Con sequently, if we want to grasp the meaning of self-determination of nations, not by juggling with legal definitions, or ‘inventing’ abstract definitions, but by examining the historico-economic conditions of the national movements, we must inevitably reach the conclusion that the self-determination of nations means the political separation of these nations from alien national bodies, and the formation of an independent national state.”

No matter how self-determination is expressed by an oppressed nation—be it separation, federation, autonomy or integration—this is a right that should be supported by progressives and revolutionaries within the oppressor nations. To show this kind of concrete solidarity would be a qualitative leap forward in forging class unity.

To bring up Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam is important in relation to the situation developing in the Arab world because a sector of the Islamic movement is increasingly militant and anti-imperialist.


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