Academic, Politics

Mahmood Mamdani is, in my mind, the most important living writer on the violence of politics and the politics of violence. In his work on colonialism in Africa, as well as on genocide in his native Uganda he has provided clear and cogent accounts of large scale political processes that much academic work only manages to make less understandable. So I was happy to see the New York Times giving attention to his latest book, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror:

Mahmood’s argument is that terrorism is a defining characteristic of the last phase of the cold war,” said Robert Meister, a political scientist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has followed Mr. Mamdani’s work for three decades. He added, It was a characteristic that took on, especially in Africa, a logic of its own, a logic that eventually broke free of the geopolitics that started it.”

This, typically of Mamdani, is an argument that is powerful in its clarity and simplicity. Equally typical, his goal is as much to crush myths as it is to provide an explanatory framework. His arguments do have a tendency to overshoot their target, but I personally prefer arguments that err on the side of trying to bite off more than they can chew. Too many academics would rather say nothing at all than take any risks. In this latest book (which I haven’t yet read) Mamdani takes on the Huntington and others who blame Islam for promoting a culture of political violence:

Not only does he argue that terrorism does not necessarily have anything to do with Islamic culture; he also insists that the spread of terror as a tactic is largely an outgrowth of American cold war foreign policy. After Vietnam, he argues, the American government shifted from a strategy of direct intervention in the fight against global Communism to one of supporting new forms of low-level insurgency by private armed groups.

In practice,” Mr. Mamdani has written, it translated into a United States decision to harness, or even to cultivate, terrorism in the struggle against regimes it considered pro-Soviet.” The real culprit of 9/11, in other words, is not Islam but rather non-state violence in general, during the final stages of the stand-off with the Soviet Union. Using third and fourth parties, the C.I.A. supported terrorist and proto-terrorist movements in Indochina, Latin America, Africa and, of course, Afghanistan…

The real damage the C.I.A. did was not the providing of arms and money,” he writes, but the privatization of information about how to produce and spread violence — the formation of private militias — capable of creating terror.” The best-known C.I.A.-trained terrorist, he notes dryly, is Osama bin Laden.

His argument is grounded in the recent history of Africa:

Mr. Mamdani asserts, for example, that the United States policy of constructive engagement with apartheid in South Africa helped sustain two proto-terrorist organizations — Unita, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, and Renamo, the Mozambican National Resistance — that were armed and trained by the South African Defense Force. Renamo became what Mr. Mamdani calls Africa’s first genuine terrorist movement,” a privatized outfit that unleashed random violence against civilians without any serious pretension to national power.

It is worth reading the whole article. I’ve noticed that the Times often hides its most controversial political articles in the Arts section…