The legacy of the American black power movement’s Malcolm X and his relationship to Islam was invoked this week by prominent New York-based African-American imam, Siraj Wahhaj, as part of a ten-city fundraising tour.
Hosted at Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre by Muslim charity organisations, Human Appeal and Sa’adah, the Welsh leg of the tour drew a predominantly Muslim audience who pledged almost £60,000 toward building a centre for orphans in East Jerusalem.
The imam’s tour will run until 4 March and will contribute aid to Human Appeal projects assisting Muslims in Syria, Burma and East Jerusalem.
Wahhaj, raised a Christian, converted to Islam in his late teen years after being exposed to the work of the controversial Nation of Islam, the same group that Malcolm X encountered in 1952 during the time he spent in prison, and was a strong supporter of until his assassination in 1965.
Confusion over his identity among African-Americans is what drew Wahhaj to the Nation of Islam, in a similar way to how Malcolm X celebrated his own Islamic beliefs.
“I wasn’t born with the name Siraj Wahhaj,” Wahhaj said. “Even Malcolm X wasn’t born with that name. He was born Malcolm Little”
“Black people were brought over as slaves from Africa. In the West, when a person wants to show ownership, they gave their name. So when I became Muslim I tell my slave master, ‘Take back your name’,” he added.
Wahhaj said Malcolm X’s legacy extended beyond Islam.
“You gotta remember, a lot of people claim Malcolm, it wasn’t just the Muslims. The Muslims were one of the last to claim him. He was claimed by the nationalists, revolutionaries, socialists even. Even some communists wanted him. So they loved Malcolm, some for different reasons; his boldness, his talk against oppression, talk against commercialisation and all of those kinds of things.”
The imam was accompanied by African-American Muslim spoken-word poet, Basheer Jones, who before welcoming Wahhaj to stage, foreshadowed the topics of identity and culture. Jones said: “Just like Malcolm X, I didn’t have a culture, and so Islam became our culture.”
Director of Sa’adah, Waseem Mahmood, said the money raised would offer services to 6000 Palestinian orphans.
According to Human Appeal Regional Fundraiser Sadia Sajid, funds pledged during the tour, which concludes with a charity dinner in Dublin on 4 March, would also go toward building a school in Burma for 1000 children, and another three schools in Syria.
Sajid said the charity worked with local aid and construction groups in each region to develop the projects, but remained closely involved to ensure that money was spent appropriately.
Other legs on the imam’s ten-city Britain-tour included London, Manchester, Birmingham, Bradford and Glasglow. Each city would see either a charity dinner or guest lecture.
By Benjamin Katz