If Malcolm X Were Alive Today, He’d Tell Muslims to Vote as a Bloc
Last Friday marked the 55th anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination. He was remembered for many things: his remarkable intellect, his spiritually uplifting leadership, his unwavering commitment to truth, his fearlessness in speaking that truth to power. But a side of Malcolm few highlighted is his brilliance as a political strategist. This is the side that Muslims who invoke him as their leader would be wise to draw inspiration from this election season. On Super Tuesday, we should take cues from Malcolm on how we vote.
I became interested in Malcolm’s strategic side shortly after the democratic primary race began last year. It was the month of Ramadan, and I was organizing Muslims in the San Francisco Bay Area for Bernie Sanders. As a social movements researcher who cut her teeth during the Arab Spring, I saw an opening we’ve never had before as a Muslim community: a candidate who was building a movement that spoke to our interests, one who stood a real chance of winning and could transform the conditions we organized under. The time was ripe to galvanize a grassroots Muslim voter bloc movement and to throw our weight behind the Senator.
With the California primary moved up to March 3rd, 2020 Bay Area Muslims were well-positioned to spearhead this effort. To spark a community-wide conversation around a voter bloc, we started a month-long Ramadan campaign called #IftarsWithBernie (video). The idea was to leverage community iftars happening across the Bay Area to see if the diverse members of our community were ready to mobilize.
Our listening sessions yielded some fascinating insights, but one in particular led me to the moving realization that it was actually Malcolm X who conceived the voting bloc strategy. I spoke with two African-American Imams and an African-American student leader at Oakland’s Lighthouse mosque. They had misgivings about the electoral process and voting for Bernie — “You tellin’ me I gotta vote for another old white man?!” the Imam sighed half-jokingly — but they were interested in the strategy I was proposing: voting as a bloc. “It’s like what Brother Malcolm said,” the other Imam suggested.
Towards the end of his life, Malcolm pushed for tactical voter engagement and calculated participation in the electoral process as one means for achieving equality for Blacks. He argued that voting should be done strategically and purposefully for underrepresented people; it should be carried out as part of a voter bloc to build long-term political power for the community. For Malcolm, a ballot should be wielded judiciously; cast outside of a bloc, it’s wasted. “A ballot is like a bullet. You don’t throw your ballots until you see a target, and if that target is not within your reach, keep your ballot in your pocket.” So withholding the vote as a bloc under the wrong conditions is just as powerful a statement as casting it under the right ones.
Malcolm’s philosophy is as relevant today as it was in 1964 when he gave his speech “The Ballot or the Bullet,” especially for Muslims who share his faith. My sense from studying Malcolm is that if he were to look out at the political landscape today, he would judge the conditions right for us to mobilize as a voter bloc. I’m not saying Malcolm would endorse Bernie; I know better than to make such a claim. But the echoes of Malcolm’s positions in Bernie’s movement are clear. His charge against racism and the system that props it, his emphasis on human rights and equality, and his critiques of capitalism and American empire are just a few worth noting. Indeed, this is our chance as his faith community to call attention to the debt the movement owes him as one of the original catalysts behind the fight for systemic change and to honor him by driving it.
Some will see our community diversity as an obstacle for mobilizing as a unified bloc. In fact, the opposite is true: our racial, ethnic, and class diversity makes us uniquely positioned to do so. There’s hardly an issue on the ballot that doesn’t impact us, which means, collectively, we have more at stake this election than any other constituency. This positions us to be a leading faith-based voice in the movement for systemic change. Showcasing the power of our diversity is just one of the strategic benefits of mobilizing as a bloc this election (video). What that’s looked like for us in the Bay is organizing canvasses and phone banks around our diverse ethnic foods with our #FeedTheBern campaign.
Malcolm’s genius was that he saw the “political game” for what it was and knew how to play it smart — it’s what made him a threat to the establishment. He continuously surveyed the national and international political landscapes, looked for allies, calculated how to best position himself and his people among the myriad domestic and global players to precipitate the change they sought. Malcolm built movements. He strategized for the long-game. Going into Super Tuesday, Muslims in the Bay Area — and across the country — should do the same.
Rusha Latif is an independent researcher and organizer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her areas of interest include social movements, youth, race, and Middle East politics. She is the author of the forthcoming book Tahrir’s Youth: Leaders of a Leaderless Revolution.