Thursday, November 20, 2008

From Malcolm X to Barack Obama

Many of us expected some kind of statement or action by Al Qaeda after the election of Barack Obama. But I don't know whether anyone expected anything quite like the statement that appeared yesterday [Al-Qaeda vows to hurt Obama's US, BBC News 19 November 2008].

Malcolm X contrasted "field negroes" who hated their white masters with "house negroes" who, he said, were loyal to them [Message to the grassroots]. Referring explicitly to this speech, Ayman al-Zawahri described President-elect Obama as a "house negro". (Mr al-Zawahri actually used the arabic expression "abeed al-beit, which means "house slave", but this was rendered as "house negro" in the message's English subtitles.) What possible effect is this message supposed to have, in America or in the rest of the world? Or has AlQaeda lost the plot?
What effects is it likely to have? Firstly, it has prompted several bloggers to refer sarcastically to the crazy rightwing myth that Obama is actually Malcolm X's love-child. Sounds like Star Wars to me - Obama as a Jedi knight, overcoming the black ideology of his symbolic father. I guess AlQaeda would read the symbolism the other way around - Amerika as Sith. In any case, AlQaeda and the American Right are both attached to the kind of simplistic mythological worldview promoted in films like Star Wars, and perhaps Mr al-Zawahri will be happy to see anything that reinforces this worldview.

The second potential effect is reflexive. People often inadvertently reveal their own weaknesses and shame when criticizing others. Perhaps this is because they focus on those characteristics they are most uncomfortable or ashamed about in themselves. As a result of contrasting President-elect Obama with "honourable Black Americans", Mr al-Zawahri is inevitably going to find himself and his terrorist pals contrasted with "honourable Arab Moslems". And perhaps at some level he thinks this too.

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