In Conversation with Mahmood Mamdani


It is in his bittersweet and touching book on the Asian expulsion from Uganda that one can trace the beginnings of author and intellectual Mahmood Mamdani’s world-view. He captures the terrifying experience of families being uprooted from ancestral homes and businesses, their scramble to leave amidst looting and violence and, most poignantly, the racism and hostility experienced during their resettlement period in Britain. As his flight takes off for London, he remembers seeing the places of childhood fade from view, and confesses that the tragedy taught him a simple, political lesson: “Unless you belong to the class that rules, a good argument will never be enough to safeguard your interests.” 

In From Citizen to Refugee: Uganda Asians Come to Britain Mamdani offers portraits of people reduced to a vegetative existence in refugee camps, feeling the burden of not being fluent in English and struggling with the uncomfortably cold weather. Not surprisingly, these few months played a pivotal role in shaping Mamdani’s theoretical and political leanings, and it is here that one can locate his preoccupation with the formation of racial, ethnic and class identities during the colonial era and his overarching concern with issues of citizenship.

From here on, there is a distinct line that runs through all of Mamdani’s writings. Citizen and Subject, published in 1996, was considered a landmark work for its bold, theoretical framing and nuanced critique of post-independence Africa. Mamdani claims that racism and apartheid were the absolute norm of colonialism, colonialists using a system of controlling communities, as opposed to individuals, leading to all local power being organized on an ethnic or religious basis. When Victims Becomes Killers digs deep into the history of Belgian colonialism in Rwanda, where Tutsi were granted many privileges and Hutus were systematically under-developed – a crisis of postcolonial citizenship that eventually led to the genocide. Saviors and Survivors uses a similar theory and method to reveal the politics of the Arab and African identities within Sudan. His most recent publication is a slim volume of essays titled Define and Rule, which further probe ideas of colonial governance in the nineteenth century that engendered a new language of pluralism and difference. 

Throughout, Mamdani is refreshingly uninterested in bending to mainstream discourses about the continent of Africa – and as penetrating as a laser on its perversion in the narratives of non-first-world societies. I had the opportunity to witness Mamdani’s full indignation on a chilly April evening in 2009 in New York, when a few hundred people filled a Columbia University auditiorium (see video at end of the article) for what promised to be a tense and controversial, but potentially illuminating, debate on the situation in Darfur. The two men in the spotlight were John Prendergast, celebrity Africa activist and former advisor to the Clinton administration, and Mahmood Mamdani, professor of anthropology and a scholar on internal conflicts in Africa. Mamdani’s landmine of a book, Save Darfur and the Enough! project, of which he is a co-founder. 

Wearing a gray Nehru-collar suit with a starched white shirt beneath, Mamdani, broad-shouldered and bespectacled, sat unsmiling and detached throughout Prendergast’s presentation, emanating gravity and a dour sense of purpose. The professor was no stranger to intellectual altercations, but Prendergast’s arguments clashed with all the scholar stood for: viewing the world through careful analysis and historical context. 

Given the floor as Prendergast wrapped up, Mamdani rose, walked to the lectern and eviscerated Prendergast’s presentation as simplistic and manipulative. Mamdani’s opening remarks presented a simple, yet sinister, conundrum: “African conflicts,” he claimed, “happened in the dead of the night such as with Rwanda, Congo or Angola, yet Darfur was different. Darfur seemed globalized,” an anomaly Mamdani found deeply suspicious. He then offered the audience some of the main arguments from his book. Genocide is often conflated with numbers of innocents killed, yet in Darfur, Mamdani pointed out, claims have ranged all over the map, with American activist groups invoking the most inflated figures. Why the fixation on labeling Darfur a genocide, Mamdani asked? He pushed the audience to consider the ways in which data has been exaggerated; calls by activist groups for military intervention in Darfur; the region’s strategic geopolitical importance in the War on Terror; and its largely untapped oil reserves. Were the victims not being used as pawns? Mamdani drew deeply upon details of Sudanese history and politics, the product of careful research and heartfelt engagement with issues plaguing the African continent and its resounding, ongoing struggle with the history of European colonialism. 

More recently, Prendergast has led the rhetorical drive for US military intervention in the hunt for Lords Resistance Army leader Josephy Kony, calling the Obama Administration to arms in a "winnable war" involving US special forces training an elite African Union paramilitary force to "directly target" Kony and his top deputies. It is a subject upon which Mamdani also weighed in with historical nuance, in a  line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”> Tell us a bit about your
recent book, Define and Rule. 

Mahmood Mamdani: "Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:
"Times New Roman";border:none windowtext 1.0pt;mso-border-alt:none windowtext 0in;
padding:0in”>BS:
"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:
"Times New Roman";border:none windowtext 1.0pt;mso-border-alt:none windowtext 0in;
padding:0in”>MM:
"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:
"Times New Roman";border:none windowtext 1.0pt;mso-border-alt:none windowtext 0in;
padding:0in”>BS:
"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:
"Times New Roman";border:none windowtext 1.0pt;mso-border-alt:none windowtext 0in;
padding:0in”>MM:
"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:
"Times New Roman";border:none windowtext 1.0pt;mso-border-alt:none windowtext 0in;
padding:0in”>BS:
"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:
"Times New Roman";border:none windowtext 1.0pt;mso-border-alt:none windowtext 0in;
padding:0in”>MM: 
Yeah. The Left used to do it. And now it’s interesting, the new human rights movement does it. The old human rights movement wasn’t used to doing it. The old human rights movement, which was born with the French revolution – human rights of man, the citizen – it sought to empower the victim and to focus on issues. This new one seeks to empower saviors to salvage this helpless victim. It is a completely changed world. Though, the closer one gets to the ground, to local human rights movements, the more you find that their world resembles that of the old human rights movement. It is more historical, more context-sensitive, issue-sensitive. Once you speak of human wrongs, you have to talk of issues. But these guys are so caught up in wanting a universal language that they just want to move away from politics and specificities. So they just rattle out numbers. 

font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”> You have experimented with writing styles a bit. Citizen and Subject belonged to a very academic, esoteric, theoretical realm, and I would say Victims become Killers reins in that theory and brings it into an anthropological space. And then there is Good Muslim Bad Muslim. At that time, I was working in publishing, and my job was to read manuscripts and evaluate their potential for films. And when GMBM landed on my desk, I knew your work and was pretty sure there was no film in it, but did wonder what was going on! Before that, you were not famous in that sense…

MM: (laughing) Not at all. Not at all…

font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”> Was there a shift in motivation? You were trying to take on a very broad topic, and to enter a more public arena? The realm of the public intellectual is quite narrow, I think, in the United States, but I wonder if you are trying to fill this gap? For example, at the time your Sudan book came out, there was a lot of writing by well-known journalist and columnist Nicholas Kristof, and some of it directed at your work. And you engaged with it in the mainstream outlets. 

font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”> I did respond to Kristof then. The whole thing – that he had borrowed the language of academics but not our methods, so his sources were few and shallow and his writing not even internally consistent – the argument collapsed like a house of cards. 

font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”> It reminded me of the kind of position Edward Said found himself in. I think the Palestinian issue is more polemic and takes up infinitely more space than anything African, but I did feel that you had entered this very insular space of New York magazines, where there is a lot of talking back at each other. Did you know what you were in for?

font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”> (Laughing). Well, look. Citizen and Subject was a difficult book for me. It was a book I wrote at a time when, really, there were few certainties. The Cold War had ended. There was no one big idea. The situation we were used to, the big issues, were settled. And more locally, I was in Kampala, Museveni was in power. I was appointed to chair a local commission on the relationships between peasants and the state…There was no revolution. The challenge was to think of political reform. Try and think of politics in some autonomous way. It was a book that was a response to that – an attempt to step back and think about the previous two decades.

font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”> Shaped also by time in South Africa?

font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”> No, I wasn’t there yet. Well, I'd been in South Africa for six months in '93, but my three-year stay in South Africa was still ahead of me. So this book was written in Kampala. But it was illuminated by my shock at going to South Africa and realizing that I knew this beast. This is not a stranger, even though at the time it had been so demonized we had thought it was something completely different. It was extreme, but not exceptional. 

Good Muslim Bad Muslim "Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:
"Times New Roman";border:none windowtext 1.0pt;mso-border-alt:none windowtext 0in;
padding:0in”>MM: