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 Jackson's conversion first surfaced in November 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 Jackson had joined the organization. He added that NOL's leader, Louis Farrakhan, "sees a lot of spirituality in Michael." But the Nation of Islam denied the connection and the topic quickly faded.
It resurfaced only after 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. Jackson's lawyer described him as "living permanently" in Bahrain, a tiny Persian Gulf island state with just 363,000 Bahraini subjects and half again as many foreigners.
In November came the news of 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."
In January, a Bahraini business, AAJ Holdings, announced it had hired Jackson as an entertainment consultant. In addition, Jackson was spotted leaving a Bahraini shopping mall wearing a black veil, black gloves, and a black robe (called an abaya). To avoid publicity, in other words, he dressed like an Islamist woman.
GIVEN 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:
â€¢ Malcolm X: The future Nation of Islam leader converted while serving time in prison in 1948.
â€¢ Tawana Brawley: The much-publicized hoaxer converted after the exposure of her claim of being gang-raped by white men.
â€¢ Benjamin Chavis: The head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People converted after his scandal-ridden eviction.
â€¢ John Allen Muhammad: The Beltway Sniper converted after a bruising divorce.
â€¢ Henry Tillman: The Olympic gold-medal heavyweight boxing medalist converted while in prison on charges of murder.
â€¢ Mike Tyson: The heavyweight boxing champion converted while in prison, serving time for rape.
â€¢ James Ujaama: The celebrated community activist who had battled drugs and prostitution converted to Islam at a time of career problems; he later pleaded guilty of conspiring to help the Taliban.
Also, O.J. Simpson, the football star accused of murdering his wife, recalls, "When I was incarcerated I read the Koran," but he apparently did not go on to convert.
LOUIS 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:
â€¢ Marion Barry, the mayor of Washington, convicted for illegal drug consumption.
â€¢ Alcee Hastings, an impeached Federal judge in Florida.
â€¢ Gus Savage, a US congressman from Illinois, charged with sexual harassment.
â€¢ 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 some 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.
The writer, based in Philadelphia, is director of the Middle East Forum and author of Miniatures.