IN the varied explanations for the September 11, attacks and the rise in terrorism, two themes keep recurring.
IN the varied explanations for the September 11, attacks and the rise in terrorism, two themes keep recurring. One is that Islamic culture
itself is to blame, leading to a clash of civilisations, or as more nuanced versions have it, a struggle between secular-minded
and fundamentalist Muslims that has resulted in extremist violence
against the West. The second is that terrorism is a feature of the post-cold-war landscape, belonging to an era in which international relations are no longer defined by the titanic confrontation between two superpowers, the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
But in the eyes of Mahmood Mamdani, a Uganda-born political scientist and cultural anthropologist at Columbia University, both those assumptions are wrong. 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.
â€œIn practice,â€ Mamdani has written, â€œit translated into a United States decision to harness or even to cultivate, terrorism in the struggle against regimes it considered pro-Soviet.â€
The real culprit of September 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 pro-terrorist movements in Indo-China, Latin America, Africa and, of course, Afghanistan, he argues in his new book, â€œGood Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the Roots of Terrorâ€ (Pantheon).
â€œThe real damage the C.I.A. did was not the providing of arms and money,â€ he writes, â€œ but the privatisation of information about how to produce and spread violence, the formation of private militias capable of creating terror.â€ The best-known C.I.A.-trained terrorist, he notes dryly, is Osama bin Laden.
Other recent accounts have examined the ways in which American support for the mujahedeen in the 1980â€™s helped pave way for Islamic terrorism in the 90â€™s. But Mamdani poses a new and far more controversial thesis by connecting the violent strain of Islam to a broader American strategy.
Mahmoodâ€™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 Mamdaniâ€™s work for three decades.
In a telephone interview from Kampala, Uganda, where he has a second home, Mr Mamdani explained, â€œWhat I have in mind is the policy of proxy war.â€ As his book recounts, the African continent became a major front in the cold war after the rapid decolonisation of the 1960â€™s and 70â€™s gave rise to a number of nationalist movements influenced by Marxist-Leninist principles.
For the U.S., caught in the wave of anti-war feeling set off by Vietnam, the only way to roll back this process was to give indirect support to violent new right-wing groups. Mamdani asserts, for example, that the U.S policy of constructive engagement with apartheid in South Africa helped sustain two proto-terrorist organisations 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 Defence Force. Renamo became what Mr Mamdani calls Africaâ€™s â€œfirst genuine terrorist movement,â€ a privatised outfit that unleashed random violence against civilians without any serious pretension to national power.
In the 1980â€™s, Mamdani argues, the American use of proxy forces became increasingly overt. â€œWhat had begun as a very pragmatic policy under Kissinger was ideologised by the Reagan administration in highly religious terms, as a fight to the finish against the â€˜Evil Empire,â€™â€Mamdani said.
Whereas other Islamic movements, like the Iranian revolution, had clear nationalist aims, the Afghan jihad, Mamdani suggests, was created by the U.S. as a privatised and ideologically stateless resistance force.
A result, he writes, was â€œthe formation of an international cadre of uprooted individuals who broke ties with family and country of origin to join clandestine networks with a clearly defined enemy.â€
According to Mamdani, the strategy of proxy warfare continued even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as the U.S. looked for new ways to sponsor low-intensity conflicts against militantly nationalist regimes.
Scholars familiar with the book say that Mamdaniâ€™s account of the late cold war and its emphasis on Africa in particular, is likely to be disdained by specialists on Islam, some of whom are criticised by name in the opening chapter.
â€œThe book is most original in the skewer it puts through what Mamdani calls the â€˜culture talkâ€™ that has substituted for serious explanations of political Islam,â€ said Timothy Mitchell, a political scientist at New York University. â€œScholar-pundits like Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami tell us that the culture of Muslims or Arabs cannot cope with modernity. Mamdani shows us that the origins of political Islam are themselves modern and in fact, largely secular.â€
But John L. Esposito, a Georgetown University expert on political Islam, warns that an attempt to explain Islamic terrorism through international politics alone risks the same flaw as the cultural approach. â€œTo say itâ€™s simply politics, without taking into account religion, misses the causes behind a lot of these conflicts, just as the reverse misses them,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s religion and politics together.â€
Mamdaniâ€™s unusual perspective is partly a result of his own experience in Africa. A third-generation East African of Indian descent, Mamdani, 57, grew up in the final years of colonial Uganda.
â€œIdi Amin was my first experience of terror, and I understood how a demagogue could ride a wave of popular resentment,â€ Mamdani said, recalling how he and other Asians were expelled in 1972.
After completing a Ph.D. at Harvard in 1974, he took a faculty position at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, at the time a hotbed of radical African politics. Among his colleagues were president Museveni, late Laurent Kabila and Ernest Wamba dia Wamba, leader of one of the revolutionary factions against Kabila.
Mr Mamdani returned to Uganda during the civil war that ousted Amin and took a deanship at Makerere University, where he became a leading expert on agrarian administration and its relation to post-colonial unrest. Often outspoken against the Ugandan government, he was exiled a second time in 1985, during another civil war. In the late 1980â€™s, he led a Ugandan commission on local government; later he taught at the University of Cape Town in South Africa during the tumultuous early years after apartheid.
His previous book, â€œWhen Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism and the Genocide in Rwanda,â€ sought to overturn the view that those atrocities had deep tribal roots. Much of the Hutu-Tutsi ethnic rivalry, he argued, could be traced to the colonial period.
Mamdani, who now directs Columbiaâ€™s Institute for African Studies, lives in New York and Kampala with his wife, the Indian filmmaker Mira Nair and their son.
To understand political Islam, Mamdani says Africaâ€™s experience is instructive. â€œAfrica is seen as exceptional, as not even part of the rest of the world,â€ he said. â€œBut on the contrary, itâ€™s an illuminating vantage point.â€
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