Michael Jackson, the king of pop, is "on the verge" of converting to Islam, CBS News reported last week. If that's true, it fits into a recurring and important African-American pattern.
Rumors of Mr. Jackson's conversion first surfaced in December 2003, a month after his arrest on child-molestation charges. Saeed Shabazz, a reporter for the Nation of Islam's publication, The Final Call, announced that Mr. Jackson had joined the organization. He added that NoI's leader, Louis Farrakhan, "sees a lot of spirituality in Michael." But the Nation of Islam denied this connection and the topic quickly faded.
It resurfaced only after Mr. Jackson's acquittal of the molestation charges in June 2005. By October he had moved to Bahrain, living in a spare palace belonging to Crown Prince Salman ibn Hamed Khalifa. Mr. Jackson's lawyer described him as "living permanently" in the tiny Persian Gulf island state with just 363,000 Bahraini subjects and half again as many foreigners.
In November came the news of Mr. Jackson donating "a huge amount of money" to build a mosque near his new residence. The Khaleej Times newspaper explained that the mosque "would be designated for learning the principles and teachings of Islam as well as teaching of English language, for which high-standard teachers would be brought from United States under his personal supervision."
Michael Jackson in Muslim women's clothing
In January, a Bahraini business, AAJ Holdings, announced it had hired Mr. Jackson as an entertainment consultant. In addition, Mr. Jackson was spotted leaving a Bahraini shopping mall wearing a black veil, black gloves, and a black robe (called the abaya). To avoid publicity, in other words, he dressed like an Islamist woman.
Given Mr. Jackson's famous eccentricities, it is unclear what his Bahraini venture amounts to, but if he does convert to Islam, he will be following a path in place since the late 1940s, of African-Americans under stress turning to some form of Islam. Their ranks include some notable high-profile cases:
- Malcolm X: the the original and most important-ever convert in jail, who joined the Nation of Islam in 1948.
- Kenny Gamble: the music producer's life fell apart as he faced a payola investigation in 1975.
- Tawana Brawley: the much-publicized hoaxer converted after the exposure of her claim of being gang raped by white men.
- Benjamin Chavis: the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People converted after his eviction for having paid off a mistress with NAACP funds.
- John Allen Muhammad: the Beltway Sniper converted after a bruising divorce.
- Henry Tillman: the Olympic gold-medal heavyweight boxing medalist converted while in prison on charges of murder.
- Mike Tyson: the heavyweight boxing champion converted while in prison, serving time for rape.
- James Ujaama: the celebrated businessman and community activist in Seattle who battled drugs and prostitution charges converted to Islam in 1997 at a time of career problems; he became a follower of the London-based provide cash, computers and fighters to the Taliban.
Also, O.J. Simpson, the football star accused of murdering his ex-wife and her male friend, recalls, "when I was incarcerated [in 1994-95] I read the Koran," but he apparently did not go on to convert.
Mr. Farrakhan has won himself much attention by ostentatiously backing well-known American blacks who find themselves in trouble, such as he did for Michael Jackson after the 2003 arrest. Other figures include:
- Marion Barry, the mayor of Washington, convicted for illegal drug consumption.
- Alcee Hastings, an impeached Federal judge in Florida.
- Gus Savage, a U.S. congressman from Illinois, charged with sexual harassment.
- George Stallings, a Catholic priest accused of child molestation.
Also, during the high-profile 2004 trial of Lionel Tate, then the youngest-ever American sentenced to life in prison without parole (for killing a little girl when he was 12 years old), the Nation of Islam (according to the Palm Beach Post) stationed about 20 "black men dressed in sleek suits and bow ties" in the courthouse. Their leaders "spoke with the teen's attorneys, offering advice on security."
These and other examples establish Islam – in both its normative and Nation variants – as a leading solace for African-Americans in need. That helps explain why the United States has by far the largest Muslim convert population in the Western world (about 750,000 adherents). Each black public figure who converts to Islam or accepts Nation of Islam support creates an added impetus for other blacks to change religions, a pattern that has also emerged in other Western countries.
Thus do the actions of an erratic celebrity in distant Bahrain have significant consequences.
Mar. 7, 2006 addendum: For background information and updates on Jackson's religious status, see my weblog entry, "Did Michael Jackson Convert to Islam?"
Mar. 2, 2009 update For more on this pattern of becoming Muslim in times of stress, see my weblog entry, "Westerners in Trouble Who Convert to Islam."