Saturday, June 25, 2005


Mahmood Mamdani interview

The Italian weekly, Il Venerdì della Repubblica has published today a fascinating interview with Columbia University’s Mahmood Mamdani, author of the book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim. I am translating the article and interview into English.

Riccardo Staglianò

A systematic inversion of the burden of proof; that is the most grotesque and whispered collateral damage of 9/11. That which had made it necessary in one fell swoop that Muslims the world over should have to begin to justify themselves. Because the sole fact of coming from an Islamic nation or having an Arab name automatically puts them in the list of suspects. Among those whose sole presence in an adjacent passenger seat in an airplane makes people start to break out in a cold sweat. Yet, no one ever has placed the blame to Christianity for the terrorist attacks of the IRA or of the Red Brigades. A disparity of treatment that has been denounced by Columbia University’s Mahmood Mamdani, professor of Anthropology, in his book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim. But Mamdani expresses his denouncement also against the other historical amnesias.

Riccardo Staglianò: Attempting to simplify things, you are saying that the terrorist acts that were committed by Muslims have nothing to do with religion, but with political questions.

Mahmood Mamdani: If you strike me in the face and I explain it as an expression of your culture or religion, it is a conciliatory explanation. But to really understand why you struck out at me at all, it is necessary to get to understand the relationship between us. From this point is the need to pass from culture to politics in order to interpret conflicts.

RC: What is it that you call “pseudo cultural discourse” on Islam?

MM: The assumption that the politics of certain populations can be explained by their culture. They are just that way, contrary to us. They are premoderns. And differently from us, who know how to keep the evil at bay and construct the good, they are prisoners of their culture and they must be saved, or else put in quarantine.

RC: Why do the Muslims have to convince the rest of the world that they are not bad after the terrorist strikes of the World Trade Center?

MM: It is not the first time that the USA has used the mass media to present an entire population as an enemy. It happened with the Native Americans, with the Black Americans, with the Japanese Americans. Ann Norton, who has just written a book on the Neo-Cons, believes that the techniques of Islamophobia is very similar to the anti-Semitism before the Second World War.

RC: In your book you distinguish between the “greater Jihad” the struggle against personal weaknesses, and the “lesser Jihad”, self defence that can become war.

MM: Jihad means, “effort”. It was declined as a noun for the first time in a military manner associating it with Wahabbism that served the Saud family in order to build Saudi Arabia in the 19th century. Later, in Pakistan, this same notion was used by Abu ala Mawdudi and it strongly influenced the Egyptian thinker Said Qutb, ideologist of the Muslim Brotherhood. But even then, the concept was holistic, spiritual and social, and it justified violence only in the case of defence. The militaristic notion of Jihad was born during the Afghan war. It was formulated as an ideology in the traditional Islamic schools, the Madrasses. Their study programmes, however, were designed by institutions that were involved with the USA in precise military purposes.

RC: In the eighties, Ronald Reagan decided to use the extreme version of political Islam to “give the Soviets their Vietnam”. But something went haywire.

MM: Reagan introduced a religious vocabulary into politics. He characterised the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire”, a definition that has precise consequences, because one cannot co-exist with evil, and as a matter of fact, must ally with anyone at all in order to defeat it. The first alliance was with South Africa during the Apartheid. They called it, “Constructive Commitment”. In Afghanistan, on the other hand, they enlisted the most extremist Islamists against Communism, as in a battle against evil. From here the alliance with Al Qaeda was born.

RC: You write that the USA had constructed, in the facts themselves, the embryo of the infrastructure of terror that today is persecuting them.

MM: After the defeat in Vietnam, the USA needed to face a powerful antiwar movement in patria. When they realised that they could no longer intervene abroad, they searched out “proxies”. The attempt of Kissinger to ally the US with South Africa in Angola did not succeed. Reagan came to power after two important revolutions, those of Nicaragua and Iran. And he decided to attempt a new “war by proxy”, that of political Islam against the USSR.

RC: They furnished training and financing to Bin Laden, who was responsible for a project sponsored by the CIA to build a tunnel at Khost. Was this strategic myopia or a
cynical move?

MM: It was liquidated as “collateral damage”, justifiable by the fact that the USSR absolutely had to be defeated. And Al Qaeda became the puppet of the USA.

RC: You note that in Afghanistan and Pakistan, before the USA organised the Afghani Jihad, there was no local production of heroin.

MM: The “covert” wars can not be conducted with public funding, and from this need of money comes the attraction towards an alliance with the druglords, to whom Intelligence furnishes their protection in exchange for financing. It happened many times during the Cold War, from Laos to Central America, right down to Afghanistan.

RC: You also cite St. Bernard, who during the Crusades said, “the killing of an infidel is the killing of evil, not homicide”. But this violent idea of religion is now associated only with Islam.

MM: A part of the legacy of Reagan was a fascination with violence. He praised its use against civilians on behalf of his “proxies” as a means to diffuse democracy. He also said on television, from the White House lawn, that the Contras and the Mujahideen were “the moral equivalents of America’s founding fathers”. The Neo-Cons today have gathered this inheritance, but not the allies.

AsiaSource had a very good interview as well, and I reprint one question:

Could you explain the origins of the title, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim? Is it not the case that the US - or the West generally - should be supporting moderate, secular forces within the Muslim world to counteract extremist, fundamentalist currents?

Even when Bush speaks of "good" Muslims and "bad" Muslims, what he means by "good" Muslims is really pro-American Muslims and by "bad" Muslims he means anti-American Muslims. Once you recognize that, then it is no longer puzzling why good Muslims are becoming bad Muslims at such a rapid rate. You can actually begin to think through that development. If, however, you think of "good" and "bad" Muslims in cultural terms, it is mind-boggling that in one week, you can have a whole crop of "bad" Muslims - cultural changes do not usually happen with such rapidity! But if you have the aerial bombing of Falluja and the targeting of civilian populations accused of hosting "bad" Muslims, then you harvest an entire yield of bad Muslims at the end of the day, and the whole phenomenon becomes slightly less puzzling. This is connected to my claim that political identities are not reducible to cultural identities. Political Islam, especially radical political Islam, and even more so, the terrorist wing in radical political Islam, did not emerge from conservative, religious currents, but on the contrary, from a secular intelligentsia. In other words, its preoccupation is this-worldly, it is about power in this world. To take only the most obvious example: I am not aware of anyone who thinks of bin Laden as a theologian; he is a political strategist and is conceived of in precisely such terms. Of course, part of his strategy is employing a particular language through which he addresses specific audiences.


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