Being Black, Being Muslim: Michael Jackson and the Need for Converts
Recently, while reading the essay Things that Make us Muslim, by Kashmiri Canadian writer Rahat Kurd, I was reminded of the hullabaloo in the Muslim World leading up to Michael Jackson’s funeral as so many Muslims believed that Jackson was one of us. Kurd discusses the appeal that the King of Pop had for young Muslims of her generation and even their parents. She writes:
Fortunately, Thriller is released in 1983. It makes music as a cultural phenomenon suddenly intelligible not only to Muslim kids but also, crucially, to our parents, who stop whatever they’re doing to watch the “Billie Jean” video with us every time it comes on. Somehow, when we watch Michael dance, everything about pop that had seemed previously inaccessible becomes ours. To see him at the same time as millions of other people, to react with the same pleasure and awe, is at once to become part of the same culture, and to begin to feel a certain confidence in our own tastes, our own creative potential.
But what about Michael Jackson put Muslim parents at ease? Simple Answer: He was Black. Kurd writes:
This confidence has to do with the fact that Michael Jackson is an African-American. As religious teachers and imams, black American men were unquestioned authorities in our eyes: they were the funniest, the coolest, the most engaging role models we had. We liked their easy, friendly style of talk, so different from our parents. They were highly sought after as public speakers; their sermons and lectures eagerly attended, often tape-recorded and passed around among teenagers. Kids who were reluctant to talk to their own parents could talk to the imams.
Living amongst Muslims in Canada, where only in the last twenty years there has developed a significant Black Muslim population, presents a great deal of frustration. Because although Blacks are definitely looked up to as speakers, particularly African Americans, you will seldom find us in leadership positions in Muslim Canadian organizations. Although many young Muslims are drawn to the radicalism of someone like Malcolm X, the critique is directed entirely at White Western society, not the racial dynamics of the Muslim world. Blacks are liked as long as we are supporting what Muslims already feel about the West. The appeal of African American Muslim preachers in particular is that they are harsh critics of Western racism, something which many Muslim immigrant communities have to face themselves but they are not expected to criticize racism within Muslim spaces.
As a Black convert to Islam you quickly learn that a great deal of your appeal lies in your ability to praise Islam to the detriment of your “former” Christian or “Western” lifestyle. You also learn that White converts are far more popular than you…particularly when it comes to marriage prospects. But I didn’t convert to Islam for popularity or to get married and most of the Muslims I am close to are either Black themselves or aren’t the type of Muslims who need to hear other religions being put down in order to feel good about being Muslim.
To be fair, everyone loves a convert. The popularity of figures like Ayaan Ali Hirsi can only be understood by the Western Conservative need for a conversion story. The way Hirsi talks about Islam and the West is so Black and White that it can only be understood if you realize that she is a true believer…and a fanatic one at that. The problem with many converts is that they are often incapable of seeing the flaws that exist in the way of life they have converted to and seem to only see the flaws in the way of life they have left. But conversion is seldom really about what religion or ideology is being chosen as it is about what these things represent to the person converting.
Unlike many other converts I know, I had really no interest in trying to convert my friends and family to Islam because most of them were quite fine as they were. I don’t see Muslims as being any more at peace than any other people of faith I know. I was the one who needed grounding; I was the one who needed to build a relationship with my creator. Following Islam is about making me a less selfish, greedy, arrogant, spiteful, envious, unkind, gluttonous, dishonest and miserable person. If I were to concentrate my energy in finding fault with other people’s immorality, it would probably be because I’m trying to avoid confronting my own. Being self-righteous is a cop-out and it’s often this self-righteousness that alienates people from religious communities. I would even argue that spending too much energy in analysing just how messed up Western civilization is actually leads to moral bankruptcy within non-Western communities. If our “intellectuals” took up half as much energy scrutinizing our own problems they might be on their way to solving them by now. That’s why so many “revolutionaries” just end up dictators-you need to be self-critical, you need to be humble, you need to realize that even if right now you are among “the oppressed” if you are a selfish, arrogant, unkind person (and being “oppressed” doesn’t stop you from being these things), if the tables were turned, you would be just as vicious as your “oppressors” maybe even more so. But I digress.
Another reason for the popularity of African Americans is, quite simply, they are cool. There is something inherently cool about African Americans. Western Muslim Youth culture often takes cues from African American Hip Hop Culture, even going as far as having Muslim kids of Arab or South Asian descent calling each other “niggas“, as was most dramatically witnessed by convicted Canadian terrorist and fellow Ottawan Momin Khawaja’s e-mail exchanges with his co-conspirators. The sense of being “an underdog” and resisting oppression definitely are key to the appeal.
An important factor of African American coolness is the African American voice. The African American tradition of oratory goes back to our common ancestors in West and Central Africa and has been honed through Black church traditions. Obama definitely picked up his public oration skills and accent from the preaching of Jeremy Wright in Chicago. It is the Black Church that also fostered African American musical traditions as well and many young African American singers, from Sam Cooke to Whitney Houston, got their start in the church choir. Michael Jackson is something of an anomaly in this respect. He wasn’t raised in the Black Church tradition. His musical skills were honed under the strict and violent discipline of his stagefather, Joe Jackson. When it came to religion, MJ was raised in a Jehovah’s Witness household after his mother, Katherine, converted to the religion in the early ’60s.
Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims living in the West have something in common: mainstream society is almost completely ignorant about who we really are and what we really are about and as a consequence we totally WEIRD them out. Founded in the United States in the late 19th Century, Jehovah’s Witnesses have experienced religious persecution in North America and Europe, most notably within Nazi Germany, where Jehovah’s Witnesses were executed for refusing military service and thousands were put in concentration camps. I grew up watching media coverage of Jehovah’s Witnesses that was usually sensationalist, centering around their refusal of blood transfusions, objection to military service, mishandling of allegations of sexual abuse, or their shunning of those who left the religion or seriously broke its rules. (For example, MJ’s notorious sister Latoya Jackson was disfellowshipped (shunned) by the community in 1988.)
I remember growing up with classmates who were Jehovah’s Witnesses. They weren’t allowed to celebrate birthdays or sing the national anthem. One time, one of my classmates and her parents went going door to door in my neighbourhood passing out Watchtower Magazines and trying to get my neighbours to convert to their faith. When she came to my door she was visibly embarrassed and I was embarrassed for her, unlike on other occasions when I would run my juvenile mouth off at these folks for having the audacity to knock on my door on a weekend and try to save my immortal soul by converting me to their religion, I just smiled, took the magazine and said thank you but I wasn’t interested.
I have come to realize that Ottawa’s local Jehovah’s Witness population has many Black members, most originally from the Caribbean but now a growing number from the African refugee and immigrant populations settling in the city. Being Black and really wanting to support the community and “up the race” means having to learn all about the varieties of Christianity that exist because Black people are members of all of them.
As Muslims were eagerly awaiting the announcement that MJ was being buried as a Muslim facing Mecca, Jehovah’s Witnesses were wondering if he was going to be buried as a Jehovah’s Witness, meaning with minimal pomp and circumstance. You can imagine their horror when it got out that he was going to be buried in a 14 karat Gold-Plated coffin!!! Rumours that MJ was a Muslim had begun to spread among Muslims and in the tabloids after his brother Jermaine Jackson, who is a Muslim, said that MJ was expressing interest in learning about Islam. In Canadian Muslim circles, alleged statements by singer-songwriter and convert to Islam Dawud Wharnsby got Muslims’ hopes up (After Jackson’s death, Wharnsby had to go on the record denying that he had even met Jackson; it seems that this rumour was spread by the British Tabloid The Sun and Canadian Muslims ran with it, without consulting Wharnsby himself). These rumours were further fueled when MJ spent a lot of time in Bahrain with its royal family. Of course, this ended badly with MJ getting sued by the King of Bahrain’s son, who fancied himself a pop song writer.
Judging from the final memorial service, all that I could conclude with certainty was that Jackson was buried as a Christian. Celebrities, being sort of like the “popular kids” of the universe, can make something seem more appealing by endorsing it. That’s why they are sought after by companies to advertise their products. But religion should never be a “product”, something that you sell (The film The Big Kahuna, based on a play by Roger Rueff, starring Danny Devito and Kevin Spacey, about three salesmen stuck in a hotel trying to cut a deal has a great monologue about this). Faith isn’t a commodity; it can’t be consumed. Faith should never be something that you need others to buy into so that you can feel more confident about your own choices.
So, I don’t care if Michael Jackson wasn’t a Muslim. His choosing to be Muslim would not make me “prouder” to be Muslim. (Frankly, I’m not proud to be Muslim, that would fly in the face of my attempts to cultivate humility. But I’m certainly not ashamed.) I think it would have been good for MJ to have followed a life path that surrounded him with good, honest people who wouldn’t have taken advantage of him. That’s what I hope for myself. May my brother in Blackness rest in peace.
Things that Make Us Muslim by Rahat Kurd (article available online)
Will Michael Jackson’s Funeral be Jehovah’s Witness or Muslim? by L. Gornstein (article available online)
M. J. You Take My Breath Away by Shelina Merani (article available online)
Jehovah’s Witness Interactive Map of World Wide Work available online
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