I’m posting a footnote from the book I’m doing on conversion, as I think it (the note) might be of interest for discussion:
One of the more interesting instances of such a progressive narrative is presented by James H. Cone, in Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare (Orbis, 1992): “As one seeks to understand Malcolm, it is important to keep in mind that his perspective was undergoing a radical process of change and development during the last year of his life. He gradually discarded his Black Muslim beliefs about race and religion and moved toward a universal perspective on humanity that was centered on his commitment to the black liberation struggle in America” (211). I find Cone’s account particularly interesting because, even as he gives way to a narrative of secularization (moving from religion, i.e. “Black Muslim beliefs,” toward a broadenened political orientation), he elsewhere insists on the importance of religion in any attempt to understand Malcolm X. For instance, he calls attention to that fact that even “sympathetic interpreters often miss the central role of religion Malcolm’s thinking,” and that this is because “religion is commonly separated from struggles for justice” (164). Cone here indicates that such separation is unfortunate, that against such separation we should attend to the link between religion and the political. But if this is the case, then why is he apparently so content to present Malcolm X’s life in terms of an overcoming of religion’s narrowness in favor of the “universal perspective on humanity” that a secular, or at least developmentally secularizing, tendency offers?
A blunt answer is that Cone, speaking as he does from a Christian orientation, is already comfortable with conversion narratives, particularly conversion narratives that—following the exemplar of Paul with regard to Jewish particularity—frame themselves as overcoming the divergence of racial difference in favor of universalization. To say the same thing, though from a slightly altered vantage, we could answer that the Christian and the secular, whatever their disagreements, share the logic of conversion. This means that a Christian is going to be more comfortable with the secular—given their common conversion narrative—than with Islam. Indeed, whatever the differences may be between the Christian and the secular, the historical record confirms that they agree in their opposition to Islam.
To make this answer a little less blunt, or to insert some nuances that serve as premises for this blunt answer, we can note a few assumptions that frame Cone’s account of Malcolm X. First, let us note that Cone, when he observes that too many readers “do not see Malcolm’s religious statements as an important exploration into the meaning and purpose of human existence,” and calls instead for us to appreciate the importance of religion to Malcolm X’s thought, still defines him as “a deeply religious person” (152). What is of interest here is that religion is already figured as a property of the “person,” which is to imply agreement with the secular understanding of religion as a private matter, one that primarily concerns the intellectual, and the political and collective only derivatively. (Note, along these lines, that Cone speaks of Malcolm X’s relation to the Nation of Islam not as a matter of constituting a political, collective body but as a matter of adherence to “Black Muslim beliefs.”) Thus, even when the import of Malcolm X’s religion is foregrounded, it is already translated into secular terms. Furthermore, Cone seems to tip his hand a bit when he notes that readers who fail to recognize the import of religion for Malcolm X may do so because “they find it narrowly sectarian and thus alien to their religious and cultural sensibilities” (152). The implication is that the resistance to the role of religion in Malcolm X’s thought may have to do not with religion as such, but with the fact that his religion is narrow, i.e. not universal enough. In short, then, the strange way in which Cone is able to affirm the role of religion and politics while narrating Malcolm X in secularizing terms becomes a lot less strange when we attend to three points: the analogy between Christianity and the secular regarding the value of universalizing conversion; the secular understanding of religion as private; and the assumption—shared by both Christianity and the secular—that Islam is too narrow.
Along the same lines, we should note that Cone maintains two of the dualisms that Malcolm X refused: race and religion; mind and body. Ironically, while Malcolm X refused Christianity precisely because of its dualistic divisiveness, Cone defuses Malcolm X’s antagonism by interpreting him through the lens of this dualism. Take, for instance, the division between mind and body, here understood as the division between theory and practice. Cone seems to understand that Malcolm X refused to divide these, that his opposition to Christianity had to do with his refusal to separate an ideal Christianity of theory from the material, historical Christianity of practice. “Malcolm’s oppostion to Christianity,” he tells us, “was not based upon his examination of its creeds and doctrines or the scholarly writings of its theologians. Rather, it was defined by the practices of people who called themselves Christians” (167). Yet Cone delimits the force of this opposition by making it merely practical, and by turning Malcolm X into an activist concerned with the material world rather than a proper theologian or philosopher concerned with ideas. Cone thus affirms “the central insight of his race critique of Christianity,” but delimits it as a race critique, with the implication that it is not a theological critique (168). This implication becomes more explicit when he reminds us that “Malcolm did not speak as an academic theologian but rather as a grass-roots activist” (169).
We can see here how the divide between mind and body—as the divide between theory and practice, or theologian and activist—enables the divide between race and religion. On Cone’s reading, Malcolm X, because he is concerned with the material rather than the theoretical aspect of Christianity, can extend opposition only at the level of race but not at the level of religion. In other words, Christianity remains intact as religion, as theory, in the same moment that race, as material, gets divided from religion. Christianity is thus wrong on race, but this wrongness is more the application than the essence of Christianity. Now, as I have argued throughout this chapter, much of the value of Islam, for Malcolm X, was its refusal of dualism, meaning that it refused to divide what Christianity divided. This is to say, once again, that for Malcolm X the problem with Christianity was not just its material racism, but also its dualistic theoretical orientation. This is also to say that what made Islam different from Christianity was not just its material practice but also its theory, which was not divided from practice. Therefore Islam is different from Christianity not because it is another religion, but because it is asymmetrical to Christianity, where this asymmetry stems from the refusal to divide religion and politics, or religion as race, in the manner of Christianity.
This asymmetry is precisely what Cone fails to see. When Cone speaks of Malcolm X’s religion, he is speaking of religion in the universal, or—to say the same thing—religion as standardized via Christianity and the secular. As a result, the religiously articulated opposition of Malcolm X (between Christianity and Islam), which is simultaneously a political opposition, cannot be glimpsed. If religion, for MX, is what articulates political antagonism, it is, on Cone’s reading, that which deflates and delimits this antagonism. It is no surprise, then, that Cone is able to say that what brings together King and Malcolm X is more important that what divides them. After all, they are both religious, which is to say similar, and hence they use religion to speak in different yet ultimately resonant ways about race: “Martin’s and Malcolm’s movement toward each other is a clue that neither one can be fully understood or appreciated without serious attention to the other. They complemented and corrected each other; each spoke a truth about America that cannot be fully comprehended without the insights of the other. Indeed, if Americans of all races intend to create a just and peaceful future, then they must listen to both Martin and Malcolm” (246). The religious antagonism of Malcolm X is thus set aside in favor of a commonality articulated in terms of race. Yet this articulation requires the separation of race and religion, which is what Malcolm X refused, and what he accused Christianity of performing. In fact, he opposed America as politically determinate terrain because it performs the same division, and shift toward human rights, which Cone incorrectly reads in terms of secularization, was motivated by this refusal of America. Yet Cone ends us claiming that Malcolm X, like King, should be framed in terms of the concerns of “Americans.” He can do so only because he does not attend to the religious difference of Christianity and Islam.