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 second visit to meet Sudanese political parties to understand their debates. I returned to Columbia after that. That is when I began to hear the Save Darfur narrative of what was going on. It aroused my curiosity and concern. Outraged, I wrote this piece in the London Review of Books. It turned out to be my entry point in the public discussion on Darfur.
BS: “The Politics of Naming” was the piece for LRB?
MM: Yeah, “The Politics of Naming.” That gave me an audience. I dropped the idea of writing this comparative project – it was too ambitious anyway. I said, “This is what I should do.” And it’s true. I was completely green, in a sense. I was green in the sense that I had never done any work on Sudan. But I wasn’t green in another sense. I was very well equipped to understand the impact of colonialism, because I had spent decades doing that. And I was very well equipped, also, to put Sudan in an African setting, because the whole of Sudanese scholarship has descended from Egypt down. All of them basically set Sudan in the Middle Eastern context. It’s Islam, and that’s it, nothing else. So, again, I had something new to bring to the subject. I hope that as we move away from the Save Darfur-driven discussion, there will be a discussion that will focus on the deeper issues, the scholarship, etc.
BS: Perhaps I am creating a false binary, but I wonder if there is the public intellectual and the intellectual who is more obscure, academic, ivory tower? Do you feel there is some truth to the idea that some thinkers and writers shift into the public arena? Do you feel you are motivated by a certain role you want to play?
MM: I don’t think I ever made a conscious effort to become a public intellectual in the US. Before I came to the US, in Dar-es-Salaam and Kampala and South Africa, I was always a public intellectual. The public was not particularly large, but if you are in a university in East Africa, you are eyeball to eyeball with the government: One government, one country, one university. And the university is the unofficial opposition. Whatever you say, you learn that you’ll be held responsible for it, so you’re taking a risk. Whatever you say in the classroom, you’re taking a risk. Somebody from security could be sitting there. So, for me, to come to the US and be completely thrown into a totally marginal occupation like African studies was sort of like, “What am I doing here?” Now, I think I have a sense of being useful in some ways. But at the same time, I also have a clear understanding. As a person who works in the university, I do not just participate in public debate; I also participate in an intellectual debate. I give time to both.
BS: You said an interesting thing in your article on the Uganda-Asian expulsion on the idea of a role for the African intellectual in this space – in the West, in the US. Let me quote:
Though I had been out of the country for ten years, I later came to realize that I shared with most progressive African intellectuals I know an aversion to identifying with your immediate community: whether you define them as ethnic, tribal, religious or racial. More than any other place I know, it is in Africa that progressive intellectuals pretended to be universal intellectuals, without an anchor to the ground below. If you were a Muganda, the mark of your progress was that you consciously avoided speaking or writing in Luganda; if you were an Asian, you considered yourself apart from the Asian question. Years later, a South African friend would quote Sartre to me, “The universal intellectual is paid back in particulars."
And that comes back as a refrain in some of other articles and interviews. Could you explain?
MM: I mean that I think progressive intellectuals had kind of ceded the ground of most local struggles and most sectional struggles, because these struggles tend to be defined in a language other than the language of nationalism, or other than the language of abstract social justice. We tended to become identified either with the state or with universities. We tended to accept the framing that there was tribalism, and tribalism was bad – that there was nationalism, and nationalism was good. And then we began to make distinctions between state and nationalism, state and civil society, and hatched the very anti-state framework that was used against us eventually. Gradually, we became so removed from the day-to-day struggle that we lost a sense of it. We moved more and more into the ideological realm, and became more and more like globalized intellectuals, even though we spoke in regional terms. We spoke in terms of Africa, but still we spoke from satellite stations.
BS: Not nationalist?
MM: We were nationalists, and that’s the closest we came to the ground. But we had yet to have a critique of nationalism, one that would not remove the ground from under us. That didn’t happen until the eighties.
BS: Do you feel that the African intellectual in the West is constantly in a defensive position? How would you conceive of this entity – not just for yourself, but generally?
MM: I don’t really know about African intellectuals in the West. I was speaking earlier about those who are in African studies, Westerners or Africans or wherever they come from, who are known as Africanists. But of the African intellectuals, I’d say I don’t know, because I assume that most of us think of ourselves as having left Africa, and thus are here. We deal with this place when we write about Africa. I think of myself as not having left, but as a kind of migrant worker. I go back 3 months every year, and whenever I get sabbatical time, I am there. So I don’t really know about African intellectuals; we don’t really constitute a community or come together as one.
BS: As someone who is a specialist, even with respect to the Darfur issue, there ends up being a position of defense.
MM: There I speak of African intellectuals as intellectuals in Africa. And because I came from Uganda…those of us who come from small countries with one national university, where there is very little room within the country, we tended to cross borders much more. We were the pioneers in setting up a Pan-African voice – CODESRIA – Council for the Development of Social Research in Africa. I was active in it from '73 onwards, from the time I took my first job at the University of Dar-es-Salaam, and became president of it for four years…a difficult period. So that’s the vantage point from which I speak, and I feel quite comfortable speaking from the vantage point of a critic of human rights fundamentalism. As you know, I have no problem with it. I don’t know if I would agree with you that it’s just a defensive position. I tried to sketch an alternative way of thinking of these problems – not just a critique of the way in which these problem are conventionally thought about. Actually, half the book is dedicated to an alternative way of formulating the problem, so as to think of a different way forward – and actually think about an African paradigm as an alternative to the paradigm on political violence, which comes after the Holocaust.
BS: In your conversation with Moses Isegawa, you talk about becoming a nationalist when you came to US. I completely understand that – this problem that, suddenly, you just have this one identity that you’re forced to kind of express or explain. What else would you say about coming to the US? Had you been abroad? Was it your first time in the West?
MM: Yes, it was my first time in the West. I finished secondary school in ‘62. It was the year of independence. The US government gave an independence gift to the Ugandan government, which included 23 fellowships to universities.
BS: Do you know how many applied?
MM: 800, something like that.
BS: Wow, you were really a good student!
MM: I came here to be an electrical engineer.
BS: Is that right?
MM: Yes, I was a science student. In the British system, in the eighth grade, they separate you into different streams. If your marks are high, you go to the science stream. If they are high enough, you go to physics and chemistry, rather than biology. That’s where I was. I came to do Electrical Engineering, and this being America, I had to do electives. I had to do all kinds of things but science. I ended up doing all kinds of courses – music, art, Roman catacombs, philosophy, history…so I changed.
BS: Was there a feeling of exile?
MM: It wasn’t exile. I barely had a sense of the world, even though, when I was a high school student, my father used to take me to political rallies. But I didn’t really have any sense of it. I thought the British had no business being there, but that was it, no more than that. I didn’t have a sense of outrage. I didn’t have a sense of great injustice. I did have [a sense] of the color bar, yes, because I knew there was a white area and you couldn’t go there – or if you went to see your scout master, who was British, you had to stand outside…all those things.
But it’s really here I got a sense of it, because a friend of mine took me to a SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] meeting, six or seven months after I was here. At the end of the meeting they announced that buses were going to Montgomery, Alabaman, to demonstrate. I went there, got beaten up, thrown in jail…
BS: How was that? How long were you in jail?
MM: One night. They let you make one phone call, and I called the Ugandan Ambassador in Washington, DC, talked to him, and he said, “What are you doing interfering in the affairs of a foreign country?” I said, “What? We just got our independence! This is the same struggle. Have you forgotten?” Anyway, he got me out. Two or three weeks later, I was in my room. There was a knock at the door. Two gentlemen in trench coats and hats said, “FBI.” I thought, “Wow, just like on television.” They sat down. They were there to find out why I had gone – because this turned out to be big – it is after Montgomery that King organized his march on Selma. They wanted to know who had influenced me. After one hour of probing, the guy said, “Do you like Marx?”
I said, “I haven’t met him.”
Guy said, “No, no, he’s dead.”
“Wow, what happened?”
“No, no, he died long ago.”
I thought the guy Marx had just died. So then, “Why are you asking me if he died long ago?”
“No, he wrote a lot. He wrote that poor people should not be poor.”
I said, “Sounds amazing.”
I’m giving you a sense of how naïve I was. After they left, I went to the library to look for Marx. So that was my introduction to Karl Marx.
BS: The FBI.
MM: The FBI. Then, of course, I took a class on Marx. Couldn’t just get Marx out of the library. But, basically, it is the US – the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement – which gave me a new take on my own experience, and on the Asian experience in east Africa. It gave me a way of rethinking my own experience of growing up in east Africa and growing up in an Africa with a lens crafted by the civil rights movement.
BS: Did you go back a lot?
MM: No, I went back every two years. I was here for nine years, so when I returned it was ‘72. It was just six months before Idi Amin declared the expulsion and I was thrown out. But when I was thrown out, I didn’t come back to the US. I went to a refugee camp in London for a few months and then to Dar-es-Salaam and took a job there. So I didn’t stay on.
BS: You didn’t want to work in the US?
MM: I had just published The Myth of Population Control, and I had three offers. I had an offer in Michigan, and I had a post-doc fellowship in Bombay. I had applied to something there. I had an offer at the University of Dar-es-Salaam. I decided against the US because I felt I was at the weakest point in my life. I had been thrown out, and if I went to the US…I knew that it was a habit-forming society. I was sure I would end up with a family, three kids, two cars, one house, and that would be the end of me. And I was very tempted to go to Bombay.
BS: Had you ever been at that point?
MM: I had been as a baby because my father had gone to college for one year and come back. I decided I should give East Africa a second chance, and Bombay was my fallback. I went to Dar-es-Salaam. But I also went to Bombay, because I was recruited in London and part of the deal was I would have an air ticket to London. So I changed my air ticket and went to Bombay. I went for summer vacation, but it was ‘75 and it was Indira Gandhi’s emergency. I landed in Bombay in the emergency and went to Oxford University Press and met this Parsi editor who was a Naxal front person. He gave me all his Naxal contacts throughout India. So I took this Naxal trip.
BS: Really! How long were you there?
MM: I was there three months.
BS: So how was it?
MM: It was a weird experience, because it was the first time in my life that I was in a place where everybody looked like me. And I looked like them. And I could understand what they were saying – I speak Hindi. So that was the first shock. The second shock was that after a week I realized they couldn’t quite understand what I was saying and it seemed to confuse them. And I couldn’t quite understand what they were saying, because what I assumed they were saying was not always what they were saying. It was kind of different. I began to understand the ways in which it was a different place. But I had a great time.
BS: Did you have family there?
MM: I had no family. My family had come over 100 years ago from Gujarat, from Kathiawad, and I had never been there. There’s no one left there, anyway.
BS: Were you cast as a Muslim immediately in India?
MM: Oh, yeah. It was ’75, and it was constantly in the back of my mind: “Should I be coming to India?” I remember the first time was in Patna in Bihar. I had gone from Bombay to Delhi and Calcutta, and in Calcutta, I had met this guy from Kerala who was a newspaper writer. He lived in a zhopadpatti. We ate some great fish, and then he said, “Lets go to Patna,” and we went. This was the Naxal connection, and we met this Naxal guy. So Narendra, this fellow, said to him, “So Mahmood is thinking of working here.” So then this guy says, “But what will you do as a Muslim?” Suddenly, there it was. I said whoa, what is this?!
BS: Well, political correctness is not an Indian virtue.
MM: So this really was a jab. That was the first time. But you know, I didn’t feel it as much as when I met Muslims my age who would ask me about opportunities for them to live and work outside [India]. I would say, “Why do you want to leave?” And they would say, “You don’t understand what it’s like to be Muslim here.”
So I would hear these stories from others, but I didn’t feel anything personally. Of course, I married into an Indian family, and that’s a very different experience. To get married in India is to cut out the entire need for orientation. It is as if you come down, like, in a helicopter: Suddenly you have a family. Everybody is a family member, and you are a family member, and you inherit all these relationships. It’s an extremely privileged way of entering society. So I have never had that experience of having to negotiate my entry as an individual.
BS: You skipped a lot of stages.
MM: I’ve skipped that entire experience of an outsider and a newcomer – negotiating, learning the ropes…I was a privileged and a protected person.
BS: There were no Hindu-Muslim tensions within the Asian community in Uganda ever?
MM: Well, there were…but not really, no. Because there was India and Pakistan…For example…my father did not have a single black friend, but all his friends were Asian, as we say, and they were both Hindu and Muslim. So, you know, some of his closest friends were Hindus.
BS: What do you think is going on in India? What do you make of the Hindu-Muslim civil violence? How would you formulate it? You write about internal conflicts in Africa, but what is going on there? Would you think of it as genocidal things going on? In India, at least, everything turns into this vocabulary – of “communal riots” – but its not riots. There are militias. There are planned killings. It’s not like one morning a mob just gets angry. There was a lot of planning that went into the 1992 Ayodhya mosque burning, for example. There was lot of planning with the Gujarat violence in 2002. The police allow for killings to take place, allow for slaughter. Is India a completely different animal, or can we think of all that in colonialism and decolonization terms?
MM: Look, it’s not a completely different animal. There is what I call an instrumentalization of violence. There are political uses of violence. There are ways in which violence obliterates the middle ground. Indian violence cannot be understood as genocide. It is more about making an example, gruesome examples, to terrorize the population. That is how you deal with minorities. It is not extermination. People are too quick to label it genocide. Genocide is a brand name that is meant to trigger a certain kind of political response.
BS: Generally speaking, there is a lack of vocabulary – an inability to historicize and go past the old British "Divide and Rule" theories. As you said violence is just a way to keep minorities terrorized.
MM: Yes, violence is a way to do that. You make an example of a few to keep many in check. The idea is not to kill all, but to send a message, “This is what will happen to you if you don’t mind your own business.” That is the function of political terror.
BS: So, that’s how you view it in an Indian context.
MM: Yes. Not genocide, but political terror.
BS: What are your general opinions on American universities and American students?
MM: What a privileged place is an American university. What amazing resources. My god! I am so acutely aware of the poverty of resources in African universities, just having spent some years writing about Makerere in Kampala. Outside of the war-related industries, this is the only industry where the US has an edge – in education. I don’t see it dominating any other economy in the world market. My sense of Indian and Chinese higher education is that it’s so single-mindedly focused on the instrumental – the engineering, the science, the medical – and the place of the humanities and social sciences is so marginal, whereas in American universities you can do away with medical school and engineering school and the university will still be there. But if you do away with the faculties of arts and sciences, there is no university. So this liberal education is very much a driving force for ongoing confrontation with the world, and at least sustains those who question that.
About students - Columbia is a privileged place from which to get a sense of American students. I think, quite often, if you take top 20 percent of Columbia undergrads, they are smarter than half the grad students at Columbia. The downside of American students is this thing which runs through – seems to run through – the Western experience, but seems particularly crystallized in the American case, which is this notion that you can save the world. And this determination to save the world. This conviction that they know what’s good for the world, and they know what’s good for you, better than you know. So it’s almost like the medieval Christians who burnt people to save their souls.
They can be like the modern counterpart of the missionaries. They are not particularly interested in the problem: They are there to give you the solution. By the time they leave the university, they are imbued with the sense of what should be the solution. I always tell them that, before you get unleashed upon the world, let me have a chance to talk to you. Get them to realize that the real question is not, “What’s the solution?” – it’s “What’s the problem?” And the elements of any sustainable solution have to be found inside the problem. Surely, [these students] are not the solution, and can’t be the solution.
That’s the dangerous thing. Somehow, ways have to be found to impart some degree of modesty to this new generation of Americans.
BS: In relation to that, I wonder about self-censorship. Do you think that American students suffer from self-censorship? For example, when I once added a Cold War and the University component to a literary theory class, it seemed that no one wanted to deal with this. It was treated like a conspiracy theory, but this information is everywhere. Yet, it seems, one does not want to know. What’s this self-censorship? Do you find this theme too?
MM: Yeah. One of the most damning words in the American academy is to be described as controversial. What should be the essence of scholarship has become a critique of scholarship, which is bizarre to me. Completely. The student experience is a tough one. You are judged constantly by the very people who teach you, and these are the very people who tell you that you should learn to think for yourself and think free of consequences. Yet the consequences are right there – there is the exam, and marking, and there are the risks you must take if you deviate from what the professor thinks, whether it’s a right-wing professor, a left-wing professor or a centrist professor. There is a cost of deviation. So between the language, the rhetoric and the reality there is a huge gulf. And the student knows it better than anybody else. In a way, the student is being made to to conform – to not say that which he or she thinks if it deviates from the norm. So we’re turning out kind of a group of mercenaries. It’s always a question for me: How do you deal with this catch-22? How do you say to the student, “Write what you think,” and yet you know that the student knows that you will be grading that student?
BS: Who are the people that influenced you? Writers? Thinkers?
MM: Keeps on changing.
BS: But the foundation?
MM: When I was very young, Tolstoy’s War and Peace was very influential for me. The freemason, Pierre, in that book…I think he delayed my disenchantment with religion for several years; he gave some of the most powerful arguments. Of course, there was Karl Marx for my generation, and then there was Fanon and those who tried to think through the colonial period – Fanon, Amilcar Cabral, Samir Amin…these were very important people. And then, I hope I came to a point when I refused to be overly influenced by any one person.
Bhakti Shringarpure is Editor in chief of Warscapes magazine. Twitter @bhakti_shringa