Muslim activist and Imam Omar Suleiman speaks on legacies of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
Imam Omar Suleiman, a Muslim activist and adjunct professor of Islamic Studies at Southern Methodist University, spoke to a crowded Rackham Auditorium Tuesday evening in a talk entitled “Malcolm & Martin: Intersecting Visions of Justice.” His lecture touched on the challenging legacies of the two Civil Rights Movement’s leaders and the ways in which their histories are sometimes distorted to fit a common narrative.
The talk was hosted by the University of Michigan’s Muslim Students’ Association and included a post-lecture panel featuring associate professor of American Culture Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, and associate professor of Afroamerican and African Studies Stephen Ward.
While Suleiman’s lecture remained rooted in the history of the civil rights movement and the dueling philosophies of Malcolm X’s, as well as Martin Luther King Jr.’s, he also discussed topics such as imperialism, the importance of religion and the demands of modern-day activism.
Suleiman urged the audience to challenge themselves by not seeing the men’s legacies simply through the rigid lens of “violence” and “nonviolence,” but instead as complex ideologies that are still being interpreted and studied. He said a photo from Martin Luther King Jr.’s and Malcolm X’s first and only meeting on Capitol Hill in 1964 still “haunts” Americans because it represents a futile hope that compromise between these two leaders would one day prevail, though it never did.
“The movement is greater than those two men, and, at the same time, the movement needed those two men,” Suleiman said. “And we often do ourselves a disservice by trying to create the perfect hero … that rises victorious above the rest and had the perfect diagnosis and the perfect role to play. And so, this is the picture that we come to … This is the picture that deeply haunts America.”
LSA freshman Salik Aslam attended Suleiman’s lecture and told The Daily after the talk that he found it interesting how people often create a singular portrayal of a public figure based on their defining moments when, in fact, their legacies are much more complex.
“I liked the one point that (Suleiman) made about how they froze Malcolm X’s transformative moment … and they froze Martin Luther King at his ‘I have a dream’ speech,” Aslam said. “I realized that, when I thought about Martin Luther King, I had him frozen in that speech, too.”
Suleiman also challenged the common belief Malcolm X promoted violence among his supporters. He argued Malcolm X did not turn to violence because he believed it was convenient or desirable, but because he found it hypocritical that African Americans were urged to remain peaceful even when they were the subjects of continued violence and hatred for much of the nation’s history.
“Malcolm said, ‘I don’t favor violence,’” Suleiman said. “‘If we could bring about recognition and respect for our people by peaceful means, well and good. Everybody would like to reach (Malcolm’s) objectives peacefully. But I’m also a realist. And the only people in this country who are asked to be nonviolent are black people.’ And so, Malcolm’s point was the point that ... if you don’t have an established critique of the oppression, you don’t get to critique the resistance.”
In his lecture, Suleiman also emphasized the need for Americans to become uncomfortable with their history and their previously-held beliefs about racism and the Civil Rights Movement in order to create tangible change. He related this need for discomfort with Executive Order 13769, also known as the 2017 Muslim Ban, arguing many Americans felt they couldn’t live with themselves knowing they tolerated a “blatant violation” of human rights with the Muslim Ban.
“You cannot simply say this is not right, but you had to actually move to action,” Suleiman said. “Martin understood that America … had to be moved to a point where it had to be uncomfortable with itself.”
The post-lecture panel, featuring Abdul Khabeer and Ward, expanded upon some of Suleiman’s previous points and discussed their relation to African Americans and Islam today.
Abdul Khabeer said it is important to know where activists like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. came from and what perspectives they were originally exposed to in order to better understand their ideologies. She highlighted the international aspect of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, where Malcolm X’s parents were active members, to show Malcolm X’s philosophy did not exist in a vacuum and was a product of the environment he was raised in.
“I think what’s always important to think about these people coming out of communities,” Abdul Khabeer said. “And, specifically, I was thinking about his parents … and their relationship to the UNIA as organizers and leaders in that group.”
Ward also touched on the idea of allyship, noting that white people who see themselves as allies should understand the ways racism has hurt society at large.
“Rather than try to help black people or people of color, recognize that you too have been dehumanized by racism,” Ward said. “You too have been dehumanized — not in the same way, not to the same magnitude per se, but that your own humanity is corrupted. Acting against racism, against broader structures of oppression … you can see yourself as co-liberated.”
Suleiman echoed Ward’s point and added that in order to be an effective activist, you have to dedicate yourself to all aspects of a cause rather than support it half-heartedly.
“Activism is not showing up to 20 protests a year, copping a selfie and putting it on your social media with a really cool profile picture and a lot of hashtags,” Suleiman said. “Study one or two issues that you can really have a meaningful impact. Immerse yourself, learn from the issues, be present in other things that speak to your convictions. Be present. Show support. But immerse yourself deeply.”
University alum Mohammad Shaikh, former MSA president, helped organize the event alongside Jumanah Saadeh, school of education alum and other current MSA members. Shaikh said Suleiman’s point that activism must come from a place of conviction spoke deeply to him.
“As a Muslim, everything I do in the realm of activism, I see that as an act of worship,” Shaikh said. “So when I see it as an act of worship, I’m doing it for the sake of God and God alone and thus I’m not motivated by power, by money, by some of these external influences that could corrupt my activism.”
Saadeh said she hoped students, faculty and community members who attended the talk understood that while Malcolm X and MLK Jr. may have had differing ideologies, their philosophies complemented each other in more ways than not.
“Malcolm and Martin did have intersecting visions of justice,” Saadeh said. “They were involved on the international scale, they were very much advocating for justice across the board. They were true allies, they truly had an understanding of how systems of oppression support each other and how justice has to be global justice.”