Michael Jackson, African Americans, and Islam

Daniel Pipes reflects on rumors that Michael Jackson, who has moved to Bahrain, is on the verge of conversion to Islam.

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 Nation of Islam leader converted while serving time in prison in 1948.
  • 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 scandal-ridden eviction.
  • 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 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.

Of course, seven converts and one near-convert “since the late 1940s” is not all that many. Nor are all of these “notable high-profile cases” all that notable or high profile.

From that dubious premise, though, Pipes adds a compelling statistical tidbit:

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).

Even in a nation of 298 million, that’s significant. There’s little doubt that the Nation of Islam, with its message of empowerment and personal responsibility, is appealing to young black men who have grown up without much structure and find themselves behind bars.

That said, the conclusion Pipes draws is more than a bit of a stretch:

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.

Are there really a lot of young black men who are trying to be more like this Mike?

FILED UNDER: Popular Culture, Race and Politics, Religion, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. OK, somebody has to say it: does Mike even qualify as black at this point?

  2. Jonk says:

    Isn’t Mike Tyson exploring options for a career in pornography? Very Islamic…

    How about some stats for people finding Jesus/getting saved in prison or while undergoing some difficult experiences.

    This entire premise is bull…

  3. gssfg says:

    Are there really a lot of young black men who are trying to be more like this Mike?

    Good point James. Most of Jackson’s fans seem to be young, white, German and Australian women! I don’t see these people converting anytime soon.

  4. Roger says:

    Malcolm X converted to Islam while in prison.

  5. Roger says:

    Oops, nevermind. I overlooked the first name in the list. Embarrassing.

  6. Bithead says:

    The point you don’t mention, James, is that the vast majority of people who are converting to Islam are doing so in PRISON.

    That raises a truckload of rather sticky social questions.

    And personally, I don’t give MJ a snowball’s chance of survival, even in a reltively western fredly place like Bahrain. (Which is itself a heckofa statement… you can only call Bahrain a western freindly place in comparison to say, Iran.)
    I mean, all it’s gonna take is one child accuser, and it’ll be firing squad time.

  7. Mark says:

    Dave Chappelle is Muslim, but I am not sure if he converted or not.

  8. G A Phillips says:

    And almost half(give or take a few thousand who voted more than once)of the registered voters voted for John Kerry, witch means almost half of this country has converted to “liberal socialism” or what I like to call “Donkey-ism” which is a far more devastating spread of a religion and has a far greater chance to seduce the minds and spirits of young black men and the minds and spirits of young people of any type of American for that matter, I mean who would not look to convert to Islam or any thing else that is a hundred times more stated in fact and with some kind of purpose then Donkey-ism will ever be, was it not the Idol-worship created by the belief in donkey-ism that got our youth to think being like Michael Jackson was a good thing in the fist place? At least we know what we get with a Muslim, and that it might be, a stay in Prison tends to expose most leader types or just about anybody to a greater chance of conversion of some type, and for leader types a greater chance for street cred to spread such conversions, I think we should look to belief in what religion got them into the position of being in jail and searching for a new way in the fist place?

  9. Brian says:

    The point you don�t mention, James, is that the vast majority of people who are converting to Islam are doing so in PRISON.

    Do you have some citation for this, Bithead?

  10. Herb says:

    It doesn’t make any difference what anyone converts to either in or out of prison, It would make a difference if they started lending themselves to be suicide bombers.