Beyond Good And Bad

Columbia professor Mahmood Mamdani gets at the real roots of terror

With no draft to threaten students during the current war in Iraq, the professors seem to be the ones doing a lot of the heavy lifting in the anti-war department. Case in point is Mahmood Mamdani, the Herbert Lehman Professor of Government at Columbia. His latest book, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror (Pantheon), is a brief, readable plea to Americans to stop listening to the shuck and jive about a "clash of civilizations" and start learning some practical political history. It's not by an act of God that we find ourselves in a period of rococo imperialism. And reversing direction won't be easy. "A change in the U.S. administration," he tells the Voice via e-mail from Mumbai, "will not simply wash away the current wave of xenophobia."

Political scientist and anthropologist Mamdani directs Columbia's Institute of African Studies. His political analysis gets an extra kick from his background: He's a Muslim, a third-generation East African of Indian descent, and he lives in both New York and Kampala, Uganda. He knows the colonial mentality. America, he writes, "has yet to come to grips with its settler origins."

His title refers explicitly to the notion promulgated by the Bush regime that "bad" Muslims attacked us on 9-11 and that "good" Muslims want to expunge this disaster from their religion's conscience and are "on our side." Implicit, he points out, is the notion that good Muslims need to prove to us that they're good. Mamdani argues that it's not a question of good and bad Muslims, "just as there are no 'good' Christians or Jews split off from 'bad' ones. . . . The presumption that there are such categories masks a refusal to address our own failure to make a political analysis of our times." What he calls "culture talk" obscures the recent history underlying current events. Yes, religious feeling can be used to whip up a frenzy, but terrorism doesn't simply arise from religion without the help of other clashes—like those between colonizers and the colonized. Thus Native American atrocities against settlers weren't proof that one group of pre-modern humans needed to be "civilized" by another. The terrorist attacks were just part of a cycle of political violence over territory in which the settlers themselves were also barbaric, and each side's transgressions fueled the other's.

During the last years of the Cold War, America created, financed, and nurtured the terrorists who later began to plague us. You could say they were "good Muslims" back then—good because we used them to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Mamdani reminds us that Ronald Reagan declared in 1985 that the Contras and the Afghan "freedom fighters" were the "moral equivalents of America's Founding Fathers." After Vietnam, we couldn't send troops around the globe to rout our enemies (for a while, at least). So we had people like Oliver North help the Contras in Nicaragua. We supported "death squads" as long as they were anti-Communist. We helped South Africa's apartheid regime when it interfered in other African countries. We looked the other way when we subsidized drug smugglers in these "proxy wars." And then we paid for the training and arming of thousands of "Afghan Arabs," Muslims recruited from around the world to fight the Soviets. These facts about the last years of the Cold War are easily obtainable and indisputable. That was when we liked holy wars and their warriors.

It would help, Mamdani says, to put the current hysteria aside—along with the current U.S. administration. But Iraq is no Vietnam. Nothing will calm the Middle East until there's movement toward resolution of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. "The movement against the war in Vietnam required an electoral shift along with a popular anti-war groundswell," he says. "This time, though, the anti-war movement will need to focus on both Iraq and Israel—with more than just a passing connection between the strategy of the Israeli state in the Occupied Territories and that of the U.S. in Iraq. There needs to be a purposeful link between anti-war organizations in the United States and Israel."

 
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