«Malcolm X Let Us Be Moors Islam, Race, and “Connected Histories”1 Hisham D. Aidi S eamos moros!” wrote the Cuban poet and nationalist Jose ...»
Souls Souls Winter 2005
Let Us Be Moors
Islam, Race, and “Connected Histories”1
Hisham D. Aidi
S eamos moros!” wrote the Cuban poet and nationalist Jose Marti in 1893, in support of
the Berber uprising against Spanish rule in northern Morocco. “Let us be Moors... the
revolt in the Rif... is not an isolated incident, but an outbreak of the change and realign-
ment that have entered the world. Let us be Moors... we [Cubans] who will probably die
by the hand of Spain.”2 Writing at a time when the scramble for Africa and Asia was at full throttle, MartÌ was accentuating connections between those great power forays and Spanish depredations in Cuba, even as the rebellion of 1895 germinated on his island.
Throughout the past century, particularly during the Cold War, Latin American lead- ers from Cuba’s Fidel Castro to Argentina’s Juan Peron would express support for Arab political causes, and call for Arab–Latin solidarity in the face of imperial domination, often highlighting cultural links to the Arab world through Moorish Spain. Castro, in particular, made a philo-Arab pan-Africanism central to his regime’s ideology and policy initiatives. In his famous 1959 speech on race, the jefe maximo underlined Cuba’s Afri- can and Moorish origins. “We all have lighter or darker skin. Lighter skin implies descent from Spaniards who themselves were colonized by the Moors that came from Africa.
Those who are more or less dark-skinned came directly from Africa. Moreover, nobody can consider himself as being of pure, much less superior, race.”3 With the launching of the “war on terror,” and particularly with the invasion of Iraq, political leaders and activists in Latin America have been warning of a new imperial age and again declaring solidarity with the Arab world. Some refer rather quixotically to a Moorish past. Linking the war on Iraq to Plan Colombia and to the Bush administration’s alleged support for a coup against him, the erratic Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez has repeatedly urged his countrymen to “return to their Arab roots,” and attempted to mobilize the country’s mestizo and Black majority against white supremacy. “They call me the monkey or Black,” Chavez says of his domestic and international opponents.
“They can’t stand that someone like me was elected.”4 In less contentious terms, Brazil’s left-leaning President Lula da Silva visited the Middle Souls 7 (1): 36–51, 2005 / Copyright © 2005 The Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York / 1099-9949/02 / DOI:10.1080/10999940590910032 Malcolm X 37 East in early December 2003 to seek “more objective” relations with the Arab world, to call for an “independent, democratic Palestinian state” and to launch a common market with the Arab world as an alternative to the North American market (particularly with many in Arab countries boycotting American products).5 Brazil’s largest trade union federation strongly denounced post–September 11 U.S. intervention in Colombia, Venezuela, and the Middle East, praising the protest movements that have appeared against U.S. and Israeli “militarism” and calling on Brazilian workers to join in the struggle “against Sharon’s Nazi–Zionist aggression against the Palestinian people” and in support of the intifada.6 The Other September 11 Effect In the age of the “war on terror,” such expressions from the Western world of affinity with the Arab world are not confined to statements of political solidarity. In Latin America, Europe, and the U.S., for example, there has been a sharp increase in conversion to Islam.
At the first world congress of Spanish-speaking Muslims held in Seville in April 2003, the scholar Mansur Escudero, citing “globalization,” said that there were 10 to 12 million Spanish speakers among the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims.7 In the U.S., researchers note that usually 25,000 people a year become Muslim, but by several accounts that number has quadrupled since September 11.8 In Europe, an Islamic center in Holland reported a tenfold increase and the New Muslims Project in England reported a “steady stream” of new converts.9 Several analysts have noted that in the United Kingdom, many converts are coming from middle-class and professional backgrounds, not simply through the prison system or ghetto mosques, as is commonly believed.10 The Muslim population in Spain is also growing, due to conversion, as well as immigration and intermarriage.11 Different explanations have been advanced to account for this intriguing phenomenon, known as “the other September 11 effect”—the primary effects being anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant backlash and infringements upon civil liberties. Commenting on how the accused “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla and the shoe bomber Richard Reid converted to Islam, French scholar Olivier Roy observes, “Twenty years ago such individuals would have joined radical leftist movements, which have now disappeared or become ‘bourgeois’.... Now only two Western movements of radical protest claim to be ‘internationalist’: the anti-globalization movement and radical Islamists. To convert to Islam today is a way for a European rebel to find a cause; it has little to do with theology.”12 This portrayal of Islam as an outlet for the West’s political malcontents ignores the powerful allure of certain aspects of Islamic theology, and begs the question of why for at least a century, even when communism was still in vogue, minorities in the West have seen Islam as a particularly attractive alternative. Roy’s formulation also neglects the critical elements of racism and racialization. At least since Malcolm X, internationalist Islam has been seen as a response to Western racism and imperialism.
Though Westerners of different social and ethnic backgrounds are gravitating toward Islam, it is mostly the ethnically marginalized of the West—historically, mostly Black, but nowadays also Latino, Native American, Arab, and South Asian minorities—who, often attracted by the purported universalism and colorblindness of Islamic history and theology, are asserting membership in a transnational umma and thereby challenging or “exiting” the white West. Even for white converts, like John Walker Lindh, becoming Muslim involves a process of racialization—renouncing their whiteness—because while the West stands for racism and white supremacy on a global scale, Islam is seen to represent tolerance and anti-imperialism. This process of racialization is also occurring in diasporic Muslim communities in the West, which are growing increasingly race-conSouls Winter 2005 scious and “Black” as anti-Muslim racism increases. To cope, Muslims in the diaspora are absorbing lessons from the African-American freedom movement, including from strains of African-American Islam.
Over the past two years, Islam has provided an anti-imperial idiom and imaginary community of belonging for many subordinate groups in the West, as Islamic culture and art stream into the West through minority and diaspora communities, and often in fusion with African-American art forms, are slowly seeping into the cultural mainstream. Subsequently, many of the cultural and protest movements—anti-globalization, anti-imperialist, anti-racist—in the West today have Islamic and/or African-American undercurrents.
At a time of military conflict and extreme ideological polarization between the West and the Muslim world, Islamic culture is permeating political and cultural currents, remaking identities and creating cultural linkages between Westerners and the Muslim world.
In sum, this article is about imagination and “culturalism” post-9/11. I consider why certain segments of the West are now choosing to remember their connections to the Muslim world, and how the “remembering” and “imagined solidarity” is being expressed culturally and politically. I look at the conversion trends and the craze for Arab culture that has swept parts of Latin America and the United States in the past two years, but focus on the cultural movements of “Islamic hip-hop” and the Arab European League that use the “frames” and “repertoires” of Islam and the African-American struggle as examples of the political potential of “imagined solidarities,” and as instances of what anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has called “culturalism:” “[the] deliberate, strategic and populist mobilization of cultural material [and] cultural differences in the service of a larger national or transnational politics.”13 I also examine how Islamic culture and motifs are becoming central to the worldwide anti-globalization and anti-war movement, and providing the cultural building blocks for an international “counter-modernity” movement.
Latino Back Channels Recent journalistic accounts have noted the growing rate of conversion to Islam in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, and the often violent clashes between Christian and Spanish Muslim missionaries proselytizing among the indigenous Mayan community.
The Muslim campaign in Chiapas is led by a Spaniard from Granada, Aureliano Perez, member of an international Sufi order called al-Murabitun, though he is contending with a rival missionary, Omar Weston, the Nation of Islam’s local representative. Particularly interesting about the several hundred Mayan Muslims is the view of some of the converts that, though some of the missionaries are Spanish like the conquistadors, their embrace of Islam is a historic remedy for the Spanish conquest and the consequent oppression.
“Five hundred years ago, they came to destroy us,” said Anastasio Gomez Gomez, 21, who now goes by Ibrahim. “Five hundred years later, other Spaniards came to return a knowledge that was taken away from us.”14 The view of 1492 as a tragic date signaling the end of a glorious era, and the related idea that conversion to Islam entails a reclaiming of that past, is common among the Latino Muslim community in the U.S. That community, estimated in 2000 at 30,000 to 40,000 members, has grown in the past two years, with Latino Muslim centers and da‘wa (proselytizing) organizations in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Fresno, and Houston.15 The banner hanging at the Alianza Islamica center in the South Bronx celebrates the African and Islamic roots of Latin America: against a red, white, and blue backdrop stands a sword-wielding Moor, flanked by a Taino Indian and a Black African. The Spanish conquistador is conspicuously absent. Imam (Omar Abduraheem) Ocasio of the Alianza Malcolm X 39 Islamica speaks passionately about the continuity between Moorish Spain and Latin America: “Most of the people who came to Latin America and the Spanish Caribbean were from southern Spain, Andalusia—they were Moriscos, Moors forcefully converted to Christianity. The leaders, army generals, curas [priests] were white men from northern Spain...sangre azul, as they were called. The southerners, who did the menial jobs,...
servants, artisans, foot soldiers,... were of mixed Arab and African descent. They were stripped of their religion, culture, brought to the so-called New World where they were enslaved with African slaves.... But the Moriscos never lost their culture... we are the cultural descendants of the Moors.”16 The Puerto Rican imam writes, “Islamically inspired values were conveyed ever so subtly in the Trojan horse of Spanish heritage throughout the centuries and, after 500 years, Latinos were now ready to return.”17 In the past two years, Islam and the Arab-Muslim world seem to have entered even more poignantly into the Latin American imagination, gaining a presence in political discourse and strongly influencing Hispanic popular culture. This Arab cultural invasion of Latin America, which has reverberated in mainstream American culture, is often attributed to the Brazilian telenovela El Clon and Lebanese-Colombian pop icon Shakira.
El Clon, the highest-rated soap opera ever shown on Telemundo, a U.S. Spanishlanguage channel, reportedly reaches 2.8 million Hispanic households in the U.S., as well as 85 million people in Brazil and tens of millions across Latin America. The series, which began broadcasting shortly after September 11, tells the story of Jade, a young Brazilian Muslim who returns to her mother’s homeland of Morocco after her mother’s death in Brazil. There she falls in love and settles down with Lucas, a Christian Brazilian, and adapts to life in an extended family setting in the old city of Fez. Filmed in Rio de Janeiro and Fez, the telenovela offers a profusion of Orientalist imagery—from veiled belly dancers swaying seductively behind ornate latticework to dazzling shots of Marrakesh and Fez spliced with footage of scantily clad women on Rio’s beaches—and of course, incessant supplications of “Ay, por favor, Allah!” from Jade’s neighbors in the medina.