The success of Louis Farrakhan's 1995 "Million Man March" on Washington posed a puzzle. The scale of the mobilisation had been unanticipated by much mainstream thinking and the event's unnerving mixture of conservative and revolutionary themes was a perplexing stage in the development of the youthful movement that had grown through the iconisation of Malcolm X, the canonisation of athletes like Michael Jordan and the market-driven celebrity of official rebels like the late Tupac Shakur. The age of videology had fostered a new form of black politics but few people knew what to say about it or understood its complex relation to the cultural and religious movements produced during earlier phases of African American struggle. One consequence of this situation was that The Nation of Islam (NOI) which had been marginalised for some years, suddenly re-emerged in the scholarly spotlight.
This curious book is one of a number of recently published studies of the Nation and its leadership that are competing for the status of a definitive account. In this case however, any timeliness is quite misleading. Countdown to Armageddon is the ramshackle result of almost 20 years' labour by a Swedish commentator whose interest in the NOI is primarily theological and religious. It may be Gardell's greatest failing that he manages to make this promising standpoint into a disadvantage. It could also be argued that his speculations over exactly which elements of Druze arcana were transcoded into the NOI theology are a minority pursuit that adds little to our grasp of how and why the movement works for its adherents or troubles their foes.
The overlong, repetitive and ungainly form of Gardell's study is scarred by several changes of academic and political fashion. Traces of each have been preserved inside the book's attempts to reinvent itself as something more serious and more interesting than it really is. His central claim to provide new material on the NOI's role in death of Malcolm X is, for example, substantially overblown.
The strongest suit is comprised by his laborious attempts to explain the workings of the NOI from the logic of its process as a sect. To this end he has produced a tract that sets out the murky origins and oddball development of the NOI, reconstructing its many internal conflicts and doctrinal shifts in some detail. The whole unsteady edifice is held together by two fundamental commitments: the author's consistent and unhesitating loyalty to the organisation and his equally unbending belief that the professional tool kit supplied to analysts of religion contains all that is necessary to make sense of its activities.
These axes combine to make Gardell incapable of offering any substantial criticisms of the NOI. At the end we know nothing of why men and women join the movement, how long they stay in it or what they do as members or how features like its militarism and gender segregation help them in their lives.
Gardell makes a token attempt to situate the movement's "authoritarian collectivism" in the wider context supplied by African American political culture in the 20th century. However, these parts of his book seldom rise above the most banal varieties of journalistic observation. He assigns Reverend Jesse Jackson to "the tradition of Booker T. Washington" and clangers of this sort are compounded by an exposition and critique of African American popular culture that is so shallow and embarrassing that it casts shadows over the quality of Gardell's other observations.
One example is his hair-raising verdict on the blues, something he appears to have apprehended through the unwholesome lens of a postmodern television commercial. "Blues music in general has a somewhat resigned slow, almost fatalistic attitude, expressing patience and acceptance of suffering that is presented as a natural, almost unavoidable part of life: 'I am broke, I lost my job, my landlord kicked me out, my baby left me, but I still got my bourbon and my guitar and I am singing the blues'." It is tempting to wonder how black America's modernist or metaphysically minded musicians and bluesologists might reply to this but Gardell writes as though Ellison, Murray, Baker et al had never picked up their pens. We may say, in mitigation, that Gardell has been drawn into these deep and mysterious waters by a mistaken desire to make his book more contemporary and comprehensive.
When he stays on the paths he knows best, Gardell embraces the role of apologist for the Nation. No matter how absurd, unjust or immoral the group's political and ethical views may be, he is on hand to explain how plausible, reasonable and acceptable they become when seen in their proper theological context. He repeatedly invokes the methods and credentials of a historian of religion to absolve himself from making uncomfortable political judgements.
At the same time he manages to endorse every position the NOI takes up. The sometimes bizarre catalogue of its doctrines and choices becomes painfully comprehensible within an eschatology which it seems, only he can grasp. There are no problems for him when Farrakhan ascends into a spaceship or advocates the death penalty for sex across the race line. The Nation's anti-Jewish rhetoric can be down played and its hateful and cynical analysis of the Aids and drug crises can be excused if we comprehend the greater injustices covertly perpetrated against it by the odious United States government.
Repeated assertions that the NOI is not paranoid are the symptoms of this uncomfortable posture: "The NOI's position is perhaps easy to dismiss as the absurdities of paranoid sectarians, but it is actually not disconnected from reality".
How sad and depressing it is that blacks emerge from Gardell's attempts to do us a favour as innocent, child-like creatures so morally and intellectually stunted by our protracted victimisation that we bear no responsibility for the bad political choices we make or the wrongs we do. The logic of racial difference armoured by theological terms makes us accountable to nobody.
The reductio ad absurdum of all this comes in an abject section where Gardell discusses the contacts between the NOI and fascist and neo-Nazi groups. After almost 300 pages of exposition this is the best he can muster: "While a connection undoubtedly does exist, the nature of the relationship has not been analysed . . . The relationship between the Nation and white extreme nationalism has to be seen in the context of the former's apocalyptic perspective." He offers no clues as to how this analysis should proceed.
His refusal of all the hard questions arising from history of contacts is less surprising than the fact that he is just not prepared to question the good faith of the NOI. Though he considers it momentarily, the idea that he might have ended up taking its ideology more seriously than it does itself, is hastily dismissed even though all his evidence points towards the existence of a "hierarchy of cynicism" with regard to the beliefs that hold Farrakhan's militaristic hierarchy together. Though replete with "Swenglish" syntax and wrongly transcribed words (eg, jive/jibe, rampart/rampant, morals/mortals), his exposition of the NOI theology is useful, but even in this he is overly occupied by ironing out the wrinkles in order to disclose the dazzling coherence in the most contradictory narratives. When that crazy strategy breaks down he blithely affirms contradiction to be at the very core of religion in general and opens another chapter in this essay in the perils of over-interpretation.
Paul Gilroy is professor of sociology and cultural studies, Goldsmiths College, University of London.
Countdown to Armageddon: Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam
Author - Mattias Gardell
ISBN - 1 85065 289 9
Publisher - Hurst
Price - £14.95
Pages - 482