I wasn’t going to post anything about Michael Jackson’s death. I was way outside the cultural commotion he raised and thought of it as just more of the American adrenaline jumping from the superficial to the flashy and back again, voyeurism raised to a paying gig for some and to a weird sense of friendship and belonging to others. Juan Cole has changed my mind. There are –as always– lessons to be learned from paying attention to our fellow human beings.
Michael Jackson, Islam and the Middle East
Michael Jackson’s sad death at age 50 has provoked an outpouring of emotion around the whole world. Because of globalization, it is an event that affects fans in Asia and the Middle East, as well. In early 2007, his brother Jermaine, a Muslim, announced that Michael would embrace that religion. In November of 2008, just months before his death press reports said that Michael Jackson had formally converted to Islam.
Jackson was a man of multiple identities, which helped account for his enormous worldwide popularity. It seems clear that he was deeply traumatized by his rough show business childhood, and that things happened to him to arrest his development. Just as a stem cell can grow into any organ, Michael’s eternal boyishness made him a chameleon. Increasingly androgynous, he expressed both male and female. A boy and yet a father, he was both child and adult. In part because of his vitiligo, he interrogated his blackness and became, like some other powerful and wealthy African-Americans of his generation, racially ambiguous. Toward the end of his life he bridged his family’s Jehovah’s Witness brand of Christianity with a profound interest in Islam. He was all things to all people in part precisely because of his Peter Pan syndrome. A child can grow up to become anything, after all.
Cole offers a wonderful video of Gulf Arabs dancing to a Jackson tune.
Driving into work I listened to World Have Your Say, a particularly good British call-in show. The day was devoted to Jackson’s death. As Cole tells us above, Jackson was a world phenomenon. Calls were coming in from The Maldives, the extreme north eastern corner of India, from Argentina and Saudi Arabia. Most of them had been profoundly moved by his music and lyrics especially those, it seemed who were pre-adolescents when Thriller came out. One said he learned English to listen to the songs better. Some were clearly choked up. A few complained of the coverage. Iranians were worried that the death was a big gift to the authoritarian government now consolidating its power, distracting many from the events in Iran.
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