Gabfest Reads is a monthly series from the hosts of Slate’s Political Gabfest podcast. Recently, David Plotz spoke with author Shahan Mufti about how Kareem Abdul-Jabbar fits into the story of a 1977 terrorist attack in his new book, American Caliph: The True Story of a Muslim Mystic, a Hollywood Epic, and the 1977 Siege of Washington, DC.
This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
David Plotz: Can you just briefly touch on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? Neither your title nor your subtitle references the fact that Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, arguably the two most famous athletes in America at the time, are intimately involved in all of this—and Jabbar, especially.
Shahan Mufti: Intimately involved, and also on the opposite sides of this—that’s what’s so amazing. So, while Elijah Muhammad had secured the support of Muhammad Ali, and he’s his star disciple, [leader Hamaas Abdul] Khaalis at a similar time manages to attract Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Lew Alcindor at the time. He was still at UCLA and by far the most exciting prospect for professional basketball and Khaalis reaches out to him. Actually, Khaalis and Kareem’s father had been in the same jazz circles in Harlem, so they knew each other from the jazz days. And Khaalis reaches out to him because he learns about Kareem’s general interest in Islam, which was just budding at that time. And Kareem is completely taken by Khaalis when he meets him and really throws himself into the Hanafi Movement, into Khaalis’s mission. Because compared to some other groups like the Nation of Islam, but also some of the more militant Black groups that Kareem knows about, Khaalis strikes Kareem as a much more reasonable guy.
He’s talking about equality of races, but he also has this thread of patriotism and how Blacks belong in America. So, Khaalis is preaching this message of patriotism along with love for all races. And so, he sounds quite reasonable to Kareem and he really throws himself in it. When Kareem becomes a pro basketball player though, and the money starts coming in, he signs a massive contract with the Milwaukee Bucks. He starts bankrolling the Hanafi Movement pretty much single-handedly. And that is what allows the Hanafis to move to Washington D.C. to that really gorgeous headquarters on 16th Street. It wouldn’t have happened without Kareem. Kareem purchased that building for the Hanafis in the early 1970s.
Are any of the hostage takers alive today and did they talk to you for the book?
I worked on this book seven years, and it couldn’t have been any later. There are a lot of people around, not just hostages, but hostage takers too, and negotiators and some of the ambassadors who helped with the resolution and all that. So, there were 12 hostage takers and a lot of them have died since, including Khaalis. But I was actually able to speak to most of the hostage takers who are alive still. Some of them are still associated with the Hanafi group, or whatever remains of it. Some of them really look back at that period in their lives and, though I don’t think anybody used the word “cult” but, they describe their experiences in that group and in that organization and under Khaalis as… They look back at those events and have no explanation for the ways they were behaving at that time and what they believed. And their understanding of Islam has evolved since; they’ve actually gone down several traditions of Islam.
Khaalis’s immediate family though, some of the children who survive, are still very much practicing Islam in that tradition. The Khaalis’s immediate relatives, blood relatives, none of them actually cooperated with me for this book project. But I did speak to many Hanafis, including the hostage takers and actually one of Khaalis’s wives as well. He had multiple wives. Yeah, they’re all over the… They’re across the spectrum, their experiences.
I’m a native Washingtonian; I grew up here, as I said. As a seven-year-old, this experience made a mark on me. I remembered it. It was important to me. And yet honestly, if you think about the kind of broader history of Washington, if you asked a hundred Washingtonians about it, they would not know about this event. It isn’t marked in the city the way 9/11 is marked in the city. It’s not deeply important to the historical life of Washington. Why do you think… Or maybe you disagree with that, but it feels to me like this book is a revelation because people don’t know about it. Why don’t we know about it?
I’ve had some version of this conversation just countless times with the people that I interviewed for the book. A lot of the people who are deeply involved with this in any way wondered the same thing: how did this get forgotten? And that’s something, honestly, that’s something that’s hovered over this project. I don’t answer it in my book. It wasn’t the project to answer that. But I think of what we were talking about a little earlier: that America honestly didn’t know what to make of this. This was a huge news event when it happened. It was all over the evening network news. All front pages across the country were covering this crisis when it happened. So it wasn’t like this event wasn’t covered in the news, it was big news, it was international news, but to make sense of it was another thing in retrospect.
And yeah, almost 50 years have passed since the hostage taking, and my book is the first time that anybody has dived into the record and tried to recreate the events at that time. So it was forgotten. And you’re right, if anything like this were to happen in America today, there’s no way we would forget about it in 50 years. That’s like saying that January 6th is just going to get forgotten in 40 years, which its not, though they are different events. But it didn’t register.
And I think part of it was that Americans didn’t have the vocabulary to describe it. It was sandwiched between two other major events that remain present in American memory, which is Massacre in Munich— where the Palestinian militants took the Israeli athletes hostage and murdered many—and the Iranian Revolution of 1979. And in some ways, I think this event in 1977, it bridges our understanding of those two major hostage takings that most people remember. I think the 1977 Siege of Washington is what really can allow us to understand how those two moments were connected.