Islamic Chic

Only in America can a poor black boy grow up to be a rich white woman

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Malcolm X did it, Cat Stevens did it, and even simpleminded Mike Tyson did it. And if you blinked you might have missed it, but Michael Jackson, too, fell in love with Islam. Of course, Jackson’s “conversion” bears very little resemblance to the soul-searching and sustained spiritual commitments of Malcolm X or Cat Stevens. Perhaps more akin to Mike Tyson, who embraced the faith following incarceration for rape, Jackson’s quickie Islamic makeover came at a time when he desperately needed the support of a group like the Nation of Islam — in the aftermath of his 2003 arrest on pedophilia charges.

Of course, Michael Jackson is no stranger to makeovers; he’s been restlessly shape-shifting for the past few decades. There is a wickedly funny email that made the internet rounds not too long ago: “Only in America,” it reads, “can a poor black boy grow up to be a rich white woman.” The caption charts Jackson’s astonishing metamorphoses in a series of mesmerizing images, from handsome African American young man to kinky geisha girl, decadent Saudi princess to Planet of the Apes extra, and as the current creepy curator of his own wax museum. With each new face, a new persona. But, arguably, no incarnation is more curious than his recent association with the distinctly American Nation of Islam and his ephemeral Muslim impersonation.

There’s always been something incongruous about the innocuous Peter Pan persona — an unthreatening slip of a man — and Jackson’s macho drag of crotchgrabbing in the early “Beat It” video through “Bad” to the more recent “You Rock My World.” The only constant throughout has been that of a man violently uncomfortable in his own skin. Following accusations of child molestation in 2003, a full decade after the first accusation of sexual misconduct with a minor (and an out of court, multimillion dollar settlement) Michael Jackson struck another improbable pose.

After denying that the Nation of Islam was handling his legal affairs, he released (on the internet) an odd new song: “Give thanks to Allah.” In immaculate Arabic (who would have guessed?) and a delicately pretty, clear-as-a-bell singing voice, Michael enjoins his listeners to “hold onto their iman (faith)” and “not give into Shaitan (Satan).” True, Jackson had hinted at messianic leanings before, striking the occasional martyred-Christ poses, on stage and in his songs, but this was something else.

Muslim fans from Nigeria to Singapore, quick and adamant enough to learn of this overnight “conversion,” logged onto blogs net-wide to register their ecstasy: “I cried from happiness…I was about to fly.” Welcoming their beloved “brother” Michael to the fold, and wishing him forgiveness for his sins, one overzealous acolyte went so far as to invite him to “come to infinity… I like to see you in heaven dancing and singing with me.”

What would this mean? Could we look forward to the surreal sight of a twirling Jackson, executing those peculiarly abrupt signature movements, in a gallabiya (like the one Muslim-convert brother Jermaine Jackson has taken to wearing)? Would the falsetto animal yelps or shrill hiccups that punctuated Michael’s songs be displaced by Arabic sprinklings, giving more thanks to Allah? As it turns out, it did not mean very much at all. In much the same way a hasty marriage to Lisa Marie Presley followed his 1993 sex charges, so the Muslim chant followed those of 2003. No Yusuf Islam (aka Cat Stevens), Jackson’s newfound faith did not entail any staggering life changes. He merely panicked and, in his confusion, tried Islam on for size, found it didn’t fit, and dropped it like a sequined glove or false eyelash. No harm done.