Juan Cole : Michael Jackson, Islam and the Middle East

Michael Jackson. Photo from Getty Images.

Michael Jackson was deeply hurt and humiliated by the experience [of his 2005 trial], and his withdrawal to Bahrain and search for a different tradition of spirituality may well have come out of that abasement.

By Juan Cole / June 26, 2009

See related videos, Below.

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.

Jermaine Jackson explained that it was the experience of touring the Gulf that brought family members into contact with Islam. Interestingly, he found that Islam resolved some dilemmas he had about Jehovah’s Witness beliefs. Just as Malcolm X had been converted by his pilgrimage to Mecca from a narrow sectarian folk religion in America to Sunni anti-racist universalism, so Jermaine took a similar path.

We can only speculate about the attractions for Michael Jackson of Islam, but likely his 2005 trial in which he was acquitted of all charges was implicated in his desire for a change. The court psychiatrist confirmed his psychological innocence, saying he had been arrested at the stage of a 10 year old. Michael Jackson was deeply hurt and humiliated by the experience, and his withdrawal to Bahrain and search for a different tradition of spirituality may well have come out of that abasement.

Those who lived through the 80s will never forget the Michael of “Thriller” and other breakthrough videos.

But it seems to me that the iconic later Jackson is “Black or White,” which powerfully makes the points above about the fluidity of identity in a globalized world, and underlines the common humanity of us all, something that the eternal boy could see through the ravages of hurt that clouded his never-ending childhood. Young children don’t know about racial or religious prejudice. The great tragedy of Michael Jackson is that his childlike withdrawal from reality may have left him more vulnerable to himself and others, and never protected him from bigotry or, other human realities. After all, children shouldn’t die.

Here are the lyrics of “Black or White”:

Jackson is still enormously popular in the Middle East. Here is a Gulf tribute to the King of Pop. Given the stereotyping of Gulf Arabs as medieval and fanatical, and given the hurtful prejudice against their very form of clothing in the West, it is only right that they should have the last word here on Michael Jackson’s universal appeal:

Source / Informed Comment

The Rag Blog

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5 Responses to Juan Cole : Michael Jackson, Islam and the Middle East

  1. I remember seeing this young little guy on Ed Sullivan, and knowing what both Gary and Hobart, Indiana, had to offer any one who lived there; how the blacks worked so hard in the steel mills and what a run-down wretched stretch of land it is (I had friends who were born there and grew up there, so I visited it many times in my earlier life), it seems like a miracle that not only Michael, but his brothers had the courage to bring their talent to the big stage.

    Granted, their father was a very controlling force much like the Lennon Sister’s dad was; the kids were the meal ticket and the ticket to ride to a world that few could ever dream of in a distressed small town like Michael came from.

    This evening I so enjoyed the many tributes, but as I saw how hard Michael pushed himself physically, I realized why he wound up suffering so much pain (physical) in his life.

    Aside from breaking his leg; injuring his back – the repeated surgeries, and long days and nights of perfecting his performances, created the conditions and caused him to be a man who had undergone the stress of a person twice his age.

    I think of Judy Garland – another child star who died tragically in a similar way. We remember Elvis – again a poor young kid with talent who gave his heart, soul, and his life to entertain his fans and bring joy to millions.

    Certainly the restrictive viewpoints of the Jehovah’s Witnesses would have thwarted and chastised a person like Michael. I’d have expected Michael to reach to the Islam teachings or even more, to the teachings of Buddhism.

    As a person who’s suffered severe chronic pain for 8 years now, and also having struggled to remove my usage of pain killers and anti-depressing medications that my 8 different doctors have prescribed for me, I understand why just being free from pain; having the ability to sleep and rest, could have been the ultimate desire for Michael.

    Michael gave so much; he used up his earthly body, and it wouldn’t surprise me that the pending tests will show that he made a request for relief from pain and possibly asked to be given something to let him ‘get some sleep’.

    I believe Michael was a most sensitive person; a young boy in a man’s body – a person who knew he could bring joy to millions, and he gave his life as a gift for us all.

    This was a rough June; we lost David Carradine who was a dedicated person and very complex. We lost Ed McMahon – a loyal partner to Johnny Carson and another one who loved to see the talent of young people exhibited for the world to see.

    We lost the smile and grace of Farrah Fawcett, and we saw each of these people set the example for excellence and dedication.

    We’ve watched another tragedy in Iran; seen lives snatched away so suddenly – lives that were given to people with strong beliefs and commitment.

    I hope each of us will take heed to all of this, and make the decision to give our all and go that extra mile – they all leave a legacy of determination and will-power.

    In this world of ordinary people, I’m glad there were these people who did extraordinary things!

  2. A post script: After I was seriously injured in 2002, the Aurora Pain Clinic in Palm Desert administered Oxycodone to me; then gave me a shot of Demerol. When the pain wasn’t entirely relieved, they sent me to the Eisenhower hospital there, and gave me Morphine – I had trouble breathing and was given oxygen and monitored until I could start breathing on my own before they released me the next day.

    Now I read this from Reuters:

    Celebrity website TMZ.com, citing an interview with an unidentified “close member” of the Jackson family, reported the entertainer was injected with Demerol about half an hour before he went into cardiac arrest.


    TMZ, citing family members, said Jackson received a daily shot of Demerol, a narcotic painkiller, and that the family believed his death was caused by an overdose of the drug.

    Another report that I read said he was taking Oxycotin as well and also given Zoloft (as I used to take), so I think it was another ‘cocktail’ of medications much like Anna Nichole Smith took that also led to her death.

    Lucky for me, I was in a hospital when my breathing started to fail me; neither Anna Nichole nor Michael were in a hospital, and didn’t get the immediate care they needed………..

  3. Anonymous says:

    I find it interesting that 99.9% of reporters and commentators state or imply that Michael Jackson’s connection with the WatchTower Cult ended when he was disfellowshipped in the 1980s.

    Katherine and Rebbie’s family are all active JWs. Anyone who knows anything about JWs knows how this would play on MJ, who was at onetime an extremely devout JW.

    In fact, circa 2004-5, a southern California newspaper published photos and an article showing MJ and his children attending their local Kingdom Hall. Does anyone really believe that someone with MJ’s ego would not only attend a “meetings” at his Kingdom Hall, but also take his children with him, if he were being shunned as disfellowshipped persons are at a JW Kingdom Hall. I suspect that MJ had been “reinstated” as an active JW sometime prior to 2004. Let’s see some reporter dig into that one. Don’t expect the WatchTower Society or local JWs admit such without presentation of overwhelming evidence given present citcumstances.

    The negative influence of the teachings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses on Michael and his family have been either downplayed or totally ignored for as long as the Jackson Family has received public attention. For those readers who really want to know what life is like to be reared in the WatchTower Cult, nothing beats real world scenarios, and of real world scenarios, nothing beats actual civil and criminal court cases.

    The following website summarizes 900 court cases and lawsuits involving children of Jehovah’s Witness Parents. The summaries demonstrate how JW Families rear their children and live life day-to-day. Also included are nearly 400 CRIMINAL cases — most involving MURDERS:



  4. My thanks to Anonymous for an excellent comment and the link.

    I remember in 1966 when I had my car for sale for $600. A man came to the door with $600 in cash; he said he was a Jehovah’s Witness and that in order to make ‘right with the world’, he needed to free himself from all ‘worldly’ debt’, and since he still needed a car to get to work, he wanted to buy my car.

    He also gave me a ‘lecture’ – a WATCHTOWER magazine, and told me the world was coming to an end in the near future, and that as part of his faith, he had to keep everything clear of debt and spend his spare hours spreading ‘the word’.

    He was so brain-washed. I told him that he shouldn’t bother buying a car if we felt the world was going to end. He told me he needed it to get to his job and continue to do ‘God’s work’.

    Think of that – 43 years ago, and the world is still here………..

  5. Anonymous says:


    Millions of little members of the worldwide F.F.A. (Future Followers of the Antichrist) have finally learned how to find a certain part of their lower anatomy and quickly touch it while dancing – thanks to Michael Jackson, the highest paid Lower Anatomy Toucher of all time! Special thanks also go to the Jesus-bashing, Hell-bound Hollywood moguls who were just as quick to see higher profits in lower anatomies! [Just saw this opinion on the web. Other grabby items on MSN, Google, etc. include “Separation of Raunch and State,” “David Letterman’s Hate, Etc.,” “Tribulation Index becomes Rapture Index,” and “Bible Verses Obama Avoids.” – something for everyone!]

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