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, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror, arguing that the much-publicized violence in Darfur was not, in fact, a genocide, had just landed on the scene. 

Prendergast went first and cut an unlikely figure in the academic setting – with long, sandy hair parted in the middle, an easy jocularity and a cowboy’s confidence. His points were simple and direct: People were dying in Darfur; there were clear “bad guys” – the Janjaweed tribes of migrant Arab horsemen armed with guns by the Sudanese government, a specter Prendergast repeatedly compared to images of the Ku Klux Klan in the United States; and the world had a moral obligation to intervene – with military might, if necessary. His emotional appeal mirrored prominent calls for action from activist groups like 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 controversial op-ed recalling lost opportunites for a negotiated solution.

New York’s intellectual and cultural landscape shifted drastically with the 9/11 attacks, and herein Mamdani’s rather anomalous work, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim – essentially a history of the Cold War and its intersections with Islam – enjoyed phenomenal success, selling out in twenty days. Mamdani has been unstoppable since, taking on the delicate and rather defensive role of an intellectual speaking for Islam and for Africa and against the monolith of US foreign policy. The elite and unquestionably affluent American institution where he has worked for the past decade, Columbia University, has provided a fertile environment for his research, a far cry from the under-funded, struggling African universities where he also feels at home. I sat in on one of his undergraduate lectures with over a hundred students huddled over notebooks and laptops. A fleet of young teaching assistants anticipated Mamdani’s every petty need – from changing dying batteries in his microphone to supplying chalk and blackboard erasers – all of which Mamdani seemed to accept without irony as he delivered a fairly monotonous lecture.

I also met Mamdani for the first of our two long interviews in his cozy, book-lined office looking out onto leafy branches of the idyllic Columbia campus. I found the professor relaxed and soft-spoken, miles away from the formidable and stern intellectual I had witnessed at the debate and in the class lectures. Below is the transcript of a long conversation, which covered a range of topics from his research to teaching, relating to students and the more complicated details of his personal journey. 

Bhakti Shringarpure: Tell us a bit about your recent book, Define and Rule. 

Mahmood Mamdani: This book is a set of three lectures, which I gave a few years ago – the W.E.B Du Bois lectures at the department of African and African-American studies at Harvard. At this time, I was trying to understand the big shift in British colonial policy, which heralded a shift in western colonial policy. It suggested a move away from common citizenship to the recognition of “difference” in the political domain. This move took place in the colonies. It was a response to a deep fundamental crisis of British colonial rule marked by two events – the 1857 uprising in India and the Morant Bay rebellion in the 1860s in Jamaica. Some decades later, the Mahdiyya in Sudan followed. British scholars began a sustained, determined search into what had gone wrong. Why did the 1857 uprising take place? Why had the natives rejected the civilizing mission? Among the leading British thinkers, or rather, the one who came up with a response that held sway, was the legal anthropologist Sir Henry Maine. Maine proposed that the only way forward was to understand the agency of “native” and to understand the history through which that agency had been forged. So it’s really a book about nativism, about how the notion of nativism is born and is created by the settler, and is born as a response to a crisis. It traces a journey, from 1857 India to how this becomes a strategy for governance in 20th century African colonies and the ways in which it is then critiqued by the Nigerian historiographical tradition. 

BS: Your book Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror is definitely one of your most controversial. The book, while offering a historical context to Darfur, also states that what is taking place there is a violent insurgency and counter-insurgency, but not genocide as the West declared. 

At the time, almost four years ago now, you participated in many debates and talks about Darfur. Often, at the end, students and victims from Sudan would throw strong accusations at you. At the debate with John Prendergast at Columbia, one young woman accused you of being against helping refugees. Then, three men from Darfur, who were victims, said, "Stop confusing us with history,” and "It’s always history, never reality for Mamdani." Did you expect such a response? Why did your book yield these reactions? 

MM: I had expected that victims’ stories would play a strong role, so I wasn’t really surprised when those questions came up. I do not agree with the point of view that the way forward is victims’ justice. I do have a notion that the real problem, at least in the situations that I know of in the African context, is an ongoing cycle of violence. Victims and perpetrators have tended to trade places over time. Yesterday’s victims become today’s perpetrators. And “victims’ justice” will simply produce another round of violence. How do you bring it to an end? That is really my question. So my answer is that we have to look beyond victims and perpetrators to the issues. What are the issues? What drives the violence? Not just in terms of criminals and criminal justice, but in terms of political justice. It is personally difficult to be confronted by victims, to whose specific suffering I have no response. My books are really not a response to that subject. It is suffering that I can neither deny nor disrespect.

BS: Do you think there is something about the book itself – the form or tone – that yields this resistance to historicizing, politicizing, or seeking nuanced political understanding? Have you thought of it from this perspective? 

MM: Yes. Of course my approach evokes these responses, because the conventional approach, the approach used by the contemporary human rights movement, has been to document the atrocities, [to take] testimony, to identify perpetrators, to name and shame. The perpetrator is portrayed as someone with all the agency in the world. The victim is someone with no agency. That’s the narrative. Thus the demand is justice for the victims and punishment for the perpetrators. It is completely abstracted from any context, any history. So the full focus is on the victims, on the suffering of these victims, on their need for some kind of punishment. The alternative I put forward sets this whole thing in context. It suddenly gives the victim some agency and detracts from the total agency of the perpetrator. Of course it cannot be very comfortable. I have no doubt about that.

BS: So in a future work that could be similar, would you incorporate a different approach? Or do you stand firm on how you approached Darfur to some degree? 

MM: Well, it depends on the objective. If the objective is to bring the cycle of violence to a conclusion, then of course one has to look beyond the victim – and, instead, to look to the victim and the perpetrator, the context, and the issues. I wrote a book on the Rwanda genocide – which, unlike the case of Darfur, was genocide. It was an attempt to annihilate an entire group. The strongest reactions to my book came from those who were upset that I narrated events in context. I didn’t deny it was genocide. I tried to explain the kind of historical dynamic which could make genocide thinkable. That’s the question I asked. What makes genocide thinkable? I accept the notion, a kind of theological notion, that it’s evil that makes it thinkable. Even with the Holocaust, I am far more interested in someone like Hannah Arendt who tries to historicize it. The human rights people, of course, think that any attempt to historicize turns into an apology for the perpetrator because it provides, or seems to provide, a rationale for his actions, whereas I am interested in the motivation and what drives it. If you're not going to focus on the issues, then you're going to focus on the psychology of the perpetrator, the culture of the perpetrator – what else is there? Or, maybe, the identity of the perpetrator? That leads straight to demonization. That, I think, is a descent into an abyss.

BS: Detrimental to resolution?

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. 

BS: 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…

BS: 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. 

MM: 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. 

BS: 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?

MM: (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.

BS: Shaped also by time in South Africa?

MM: 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 is really a response to 9/11. It is a response to suddenly finding myself in a situation where Muslim had become a political identity. Simply my name made me a Muslim. And growing up in East Africa, where the political identity was not Muslim, but Asian, this was such a major change for me. I had never thought about myself in the way I came to be thought of the day after 9/11. Ten days after 9/11, there was big public gathering at a largish church near Columbia, on Amsterdam Avenue. There were ten of us who spoke from Columbia faculty. I spoke for just for five minutes or so, but the basic ideas for the book were there already. Then, there were a series of church meetings, starting with Riverside Church on the Upper West Side, and people would come and talk. I began to talk for the first time because, mind you, I had come here in ‘99 and had gone through two years of realizing that African Studies was something completely marginal in the US, with very secondary scholarship and uninteresting people. Then, suddenly, I was hit by this – being drawn to the other extreme – of public speaking in community places; I was drawing on history which only I seemed to know because I could connect it with post-Vietnam Southern Africa and Central America, whereas everybody else was just thinking about Afghanistan. That was the depth of their historical understanding, and mine went beyond Central Asia and Central America to Southern Africa. 

SSRC (Social Science Research Council) invited a number of intellectuals to write on its blog on 9/11.  I was one of them. They said they were going to publish a number of the essays as a book, and my chapter was selected. So I began to recognize that my point of view had an audience. And that’s when I decided I would write a book. I thought I would expand the article into a book over a summer in Kampala. Of course, I went to Kampala and it didn't happen over a summer, it took two years. And I knew Edward. He was in his last months at that point. He said to me, "Mahmood, send me the manuscript you're writing." So I sent it to him and he sent it to his editor at Pantheon. He said, “Shelley, you must publish this.” I am sure that helped. So Shelley Wanger decided to publish it. 

I realized that this book sold more than everything else I had ever written in my life. You know, my wife is a filmmaker, and each time when I'm busy writing something and spending late-night, early-morning hours she would say, "How many people do you think are going to read this thing you're writing?" And I’d say, "Well, I hope a thousand." And she would say, "Arrey, you're spending so much energy…" (laughing). She thinks in terms of a million, not a thousand. And then, suddenly, I was not thinking of a thousand. I mean, this book sold 100 thousand copies. I realized, then, that I didn’t have to change my parameters or my analysis. I simply had to write in a more accessible language. That recognition came from the editing process on GMBM. Shelley Wanger, in the first draft that I wrote, took out 10 pages with a red pen, and the basic message she had was to write in an active voice. Forget the passive voice. Take responsibility for what you write. So I watched this, you know, this shift – it actually happened to me, that kind of experience. 

The first book I wrote, The Myth of Population Control, also became well known. My roommate was a Canadian called Michael Ignatieff. Michael was on the Harvard Crimson, a reporter with great facility in writing. I remember he sat me down – because we were in the same history class, a small seminar. I wrote this thing for it, and he went at it with a red pen, two pages, showing me that I was making the same two or three mistakes over and over again. That was my first leap into learning how to write. GMBM was my second leap. It taught me the importance of writing in a language that would make it accessible to a larger audience. After I wrote GMBM, I wrote my next book, which is not even published in this country. It was called Scholars in a Marketplace.

BS: Where was it published?

MM: It was published in Kampala, in Pretoria, and in Dakar. It’s a book on my university, Makerere University in Kampala. It’s basically a critique of neo-liberal reform in higher education and it focuses on a single university.  It is an attempt to intervene in an African debate. I couldn’t find a publisher here. My audience is not here for this book. My audience is there. 

GMBM was something I did in response to an event, and then I was soon back to business as usual, to what I had been doing. Before GMBM, I had started research on a comparative project – Sudan and Nigeria – because these were fascinating for me. They were the locus of the Mahdist movement in the 19th century, and they were both colonized by the British. I had spent some time in Nigeria, then I came to Sudan. The same year, the insurgency began in Darfur. My first visit was to talk to Sudanese intellectuals, to understand Sudanese debates about Sudan. Then, I had a secon

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