Columbia University in New York City is looked upon by many as a fountain of academic wisdom—and that’s a problem. A case in point is Mahmood Mamdani, the Herbert Lehman Professor of Government in the school’s Department of Anthropology.
Exemplifying a noticeable trend among Middle East scholars in the U.S., Mamdani has recently come out with a book that places much of the blame for present-day terrorism on American foreign policy during the Cold War.
In Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror, Mamdani argues that the spread of terrorism owes more to U.S. anti-Communist intervention than to anything Osama bin Laden ever did.
Especially culpable in Mamdani’s eyes is former President Ronald Reagan. As Pantheon, the book’s publisher, states: “Mamdani writes with great insight about the Reagan years, showing America’s embrace of the highly ideological politics of ‘good’ against ‘evil.’”
“Identifying militant nationalist governments as Soviet proxies in countries such as Nicaragua and Afghanistan, the Reagan administration readily backed terrorist movements, hailing them as the ‘moral equivalents’ of America’s Founding Fathers,” the publisher explains.
An article Mamdani wrote for the Social Science Research Council in 2001 contains similar themes. Here he discusses “a U.S. decision to harness, or even to cultivate, terrorism in the struggle against regimes it considered pro-Soviet.”
“In Southern Africa, the immediate result was a partnership between the U.S. and apartheid South Africa, accused by the UN of perpetrating ‘a crime against humanity.’ Reagan termed this new partnership ‘constructive engagement.’ … This partnership bolstered a number of terrorist movements: Renamo in Mozambique, and Unita in Angola.”
“In another decade,” Mamdani continued, “the center of gravity of the Cold War shifted to Central America, to Nicaragua and El Salvador. And so did the center of gravity of U.S.-sponsored terrorism. The Contras were not only tolerated and shielded by official America; they were actively nurtured and directly assisted, as in the mining of harbors.”
Bin Laden, too, is a creation of American anti-Communist activity, Mamdani says: “The CIA created the Mujaheddin and Bin Laden as alternatives to secular nationalism. Just as, in another context, the Israeli intelligence created Hamas as an alternative to the secular PLO [italics in original].”
“The grand plan of the Reagan administration was two-pronged,” Mamdani writes. “First, it drooled at the prospect of uniting a billion Muslims around a holy war, a Crusade, against the evil empire. I use the word Crusade, not Jihad, because only the notion of Crusade can accurately convey the frame of mind in which this initiative was taken. Second, the Reagan administration hoped to turn a religious schism inside Islam, between minority Shia and majority Sunni, into a political schism.”
After condemning a long list of American military undertakings in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, Mamdani asks rhetorically: “Should we, ordinary humanity, hold official America responsible for its actions during the Cold War? Should official America be held responsible for napalm bombing and spraying Agent Orange in Vietnam? Should it be held responsible for cultivating terrorist movements in Southern Africa and Central America?”
Mamdani, a Uganda-born Muslim of Indian descent, has taught at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, Makerere University in Uganda, and the University of Cape Town in South Africa. A contributor to the Socialist Register and the Monthly Review, both Marxist publications, Mamdani has been at the forefront of efforts to encourage Columbia to divest from all companies involved in selling arms to Israel.
Although Mamdani focuses most of his criticism on U.S. actions during the Cold War, his disdain for America’s history is not confined to recent foreign policy. “America,” he writes, “was built on two monumental crimes: the genocide of the Native American and the enslavement of the African American. The tendency of official America is to memorialize other peoples’ crimes and to forget its own—to seek a high moral ground as a pretext to ignore real issues.”
America, according to Mamdani, “has yet to come to grips with its settler origins.”
It goes without saying that the Columbia professor is not a fan of President George W. Bush. But the problem, as he sees it, lies not just with the current political leadership.
“A change in the U.S. administration,” he told the Village Voice this year, “will not simply wash away the current wave of xenophobia.”
Mamdani believes that those who oppose current U.S. policy in the Middle East need to be better coordinated than were Vietnam War protestors.
“This time, though, the anti-war movement will need to focus on both Iraq and Israel—with more than just a passing connection between the strategy of the Israeli state in the Occupied Territories and that of the U.S. in Iraq,” he says. “There needs to be a purposeful link between anti-war organizations in the United States and Israel.”
Sean Grindlay is the managing editor of Campus Report.