At the heart of the discussion at Facets’ “What is Islam?” Teach-In was distinguishing the individual from the collective. Laith Al-Saud, a continuing lecturer at De Paul University, discussed some particulars of Islam, along with the film Malcolm X, and his personal growth as a Muslim American.
The Big Bio-Pic
Laith Al-Saud’s conversation with the audience was expansive. He was spirited about the spiritual and open about what’s personal. Topics of discussion ranged from speculating about one man’s decisions, namely the subject of Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic Malcom X, to the under appreciated diversity of the Muslim world. For a thirty minute Q & A after a three hour film, Al-Saud leaned into the complicated conversation.
These themes, the individual and the collective in Islam, has dominated a divisive discourse in America for decades. Al-Saud’s approach in this case is notably compassionate and reasoned. Above all his conversation was effortless since Malcolm X has a strong personal resonance. He opened by talking about how Malcolm X was the first time he had seen acts of Islamic worship depicted in the mainstream, American film world:
I had never seen an American do that. And seen it depicted in an American film with an American actor, and one who’s portraying an American icon [like] Malcolm X.
Along with hip-hop and the influence Islam and Malcolm X had on artists like Tupac, Al-Saud has grown as a communicator about these topics. The full discussion can be seen on Facets’ YouTube channel.
Along the lines of the personal impact of activism, Al-Saud discussed his own protest of the national anthem with the current protests sweeping through American sports. The American flag is an imperial symbol, but personal political battles don’t need to be hereditary.
A principle of Islam, and arguably of most faiths, is submission to a higher goodness. It’s a growing interpretation of what is good that changed Al-Saud’s protest of the Flag, but fosters respect for the American tradition of protesting and activism.
Activism and Belief
Movements today lack the icons who emerged in the past. Social media, consumerism, and particularly the kind of mainstream media attention turned on protests, often serve to obfuscate legitimate problems. These forces have changed what Al-Saud admits might be an idealized view of certain activists. Nevertheless, when asked about some of Malcolm X’s decisions which put him and his family in danger, Al-Saud sees a modern martyrdom that doesn’t exist today.
Activism and Today
The view of martyrdom as a part of activism seems to be dwindling. But what are the mechanisms of this change and where do we see it? Much of Malcolm X surrounds the tension between the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X’s personal values. Looking at the Nation of Islam today illustrates the shift in the world of political activism more broadly since Malcolm X’s time.
Of course what Malcolm X stood for and the world of Islam loom large in a overwhelming and interconnected discourse today. Al-Saud has a paradoxical, but ultimately optimistic view of the perception of Muslims in the current political climate.
Essentially the polarization of the country today has brought into the open a much more positive view of Muslims among Americans generally as a reaction to xenophobic policy talk.
Facets organizes a Teach-In on a monthly basis. These are free events where the discussion of important topics can be led by experts like Laith Al-Saud and are paired with some of the most illuminating films in the cannon. You can see the entirety of this Teach-In, conversations with experts, and more on Facets’ YouTube channel.
Author: Jimmy Haley is a film student at DePaul University in Chicago. He works on productions around Chicago and is currently an Archival Intern at Facets.