Monday, May 26, 2008

Islam In Africa

Good Muslim, Bad Muslim - An African Perspective by Mahmood Mamdani, Herbert Lehman Professor of Government and Anthropology, Columbia University:

Islam and Christianity have one thing in common. Both share a deeply messianic orientation. Each has a conviction that it possesses the truth. Both have a sense of mission to civilize the world. Both consider the world beyond a sea of ignorance, one that needs to be redeemed. Think, for example, of the Arabic word al-Jahaliya, which I have always known to mean the domain of ignorance.This conviction is so deep-seated that it is even found in its secular version, as in the old colonial notion of "a civilizing mission," or in its more racialized version, "the White Man's Burden." Or simply, in the 19th century American conviction of a "manifest destiny."In both cultures, Christian and Muslim, these notions have been the subject of prolonged debates. Even if you should claim to know what is good for humanity, how do you proceed? By persuasion or force? Do you convince others of the validity of your truth or do you proceed by imposing it on them? The first alternative gives you reason and evangelism; the second gives you the Crusades.

Take the example of Islam, and the notion of Jihad, which roughly translated means struggle. A student of mine gave me a series of articles written by the Pakistani academic and journalist, Eqbal Ahmed, in the Karachi-based newspaper, Dawn. In one of these articles, Eqbal distinguished between two broad traditions in the understanding of Jihad. The first, called "little Jihad," thinks of Jihad as a struggle against external enemies of Islam. It is an Islamic version of the Christian notion of "just war". The second, called "big Jihad," thinks of Jihad as more of a spiritual struggle against the self in a contaminated world.

All of this is true, but I don't think it explains terrorism. I remain deeply skeptical that we can read people's political behavior from their religion, or from their culture. Remember, it was not so long ago that some claimed that the behavior of others could be read from their genes. Could it be true that an orthodox Muslim is a potential terrorist? Or, the same thing, that an Orthodox Jew is a potential terrorist and only a Reform Jew is capable of being tolerant of those who do not share his convictions?

I am aware that this does not exhaust the question of culture and politics. How do you make sense of politics that consciously wears the mantle of religion? Take, for example the politics of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, both of whom claim to be waging a Jihad, a just war against the enemies of Islam? How do we make sense of this? I want to suggest that we turn the cultural theory of politics on its head. Rather than see this politics as the outcome of an archaic culture, I suggest we see neither the culture not the politics as archaic, but both as very contemporary outcomes of equally contemporary conditions, relations and conflicts. Instead of dismissing history and politics as does culture talk, I suggest we place cultural debates in historical and political contexts. Terrorism is not a cultural residue in modern politics. Rather, terrorism is a modern construction. Even when it tries to harness one or another aspect of tradition and culture, it puts this at the service of a modern project.

Eqbal Ahmed writes of a television image from 1985, of Ronald Reagan meeting a group of turbaned men, all Afghani, all leaders of the Mujaheddin. After the meeting, Reagan brought them out into the White House lawn, and introduced them to the media in these words: "These gentlemen are the moral equivalents of America's founding fathers." This was the moment when official America tried to harness one version of Islam in a struggle against the Soviet Union. Before exploring the politics of it, let me clarify the historical moment. 1975 was the year of American defeat in Indochina. 1975 was also the year the Portuguese empire collapsed in Africa. It was the year the center of gravity of the Cold War shifted from Southeast Asia to Southern Africa. The question was: who would pick up the pieces of the Portuguese empire, the US or the Soviet Union?

As the center of gravity of the Cold War shifted, from Southeast Asia to Southern Africa, there was also a shift in US strategy. The Nixon Doctrine had been forged towards the closing years of the Vietnam War but could not be implemented at that late stage - the doctrine that "Asian boys must fight Asian wars" - was really put into practice in Southern Africa. In practice, it translated into a US 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 US and apartheid South Africa, accused by the UN of perpetrating "a crime against humanity." Reagan termed this new partnership "constructive engagement."South Africa became both conduit and partner of the US in the hot war against those governments in the region considered pro-Soviet.

This partnership bolstered a number of terrorist movements: Renamo in Mozambique, and Unita in Angola. Their terrorism was of a type Africa had never seen before. It was not simply that they were willing to tolerate a higher level of civilian casualties in military confrontations - what official America nowadays calls collateral damage. The new thing was that these terrorist movements specifically targeted civilians. It sought specifically to kill and maim civilians, but not all of them. Always, the idea was to leave a few to go and tell the story, to spread fear. The object of spreading fear was to paralyze government.

After the Cold War and right up to 9/11, the US and Britain compelled African countries to reconcile with terrorist movements. The demand was that governments must share power with terrorist organizations in the name of reconciliation - as in Mozambique, in Sierra Leone, and in Angola. If terrorism was an official American Cold War brew, it was turned into a local Sierra Leonean or Angolan or Mozambican or Afghani brew after the Cold War. Whose responsibility is it? Like Afghanistan, are these countries hosting terrorism, or are they also hostage to terrorism? I think both. Official America has a habit of not taking responsibility for its own actions. Instead, it habitually looks for a high moral pretext for inaction.

I was in Durban at the World Congress Against Racism (WCAR) when the US walked out of it. The Durban conference was about major crimes of the past, about racism, and xenophobia, and related crimes. I returned from Durban to listen to Condoleeza Rice talk about the need to forget slavery because, she said, the pursuit of civilized life requires that we forget the past.It is true that, unless we learn to forget, life will turn into revenge-seeking. Each of us will have nothing but a catalogue of wrongs done to a long line of ancestors. But civilization cannot be built on just forgetting. We must not only learn to forget, we must also not forget to learn. We must also memorialize, particularly monumental crimes. America 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.

I would like to conclude with the question of responsibility. It is a human tendency to look for others in times of adversity. We seek friends and allies in times of danger. But in times of prosperity, the short-sighted tend to walk away from others. This is why prosperity, and not adversity, is the real litmus test of how we define community. The contemporary history of Southern Africa, Central America, and Afghanistan testifies to this tendency.Modernity in politics is about moving from exclusion to inclusion, from repression to incorporation. By including those previously excluded, we give those previously alienated a stake in things. By doing so, we broaden the bounds of lived community, and of lived humanity. That perhaps is the real challenge today. It is the recognition that the good life cannot be lived in isolation.I think of civilization as a constant creation whereby we gradually expand the boundaries of community, the boundaries of those with whom we share the world - this is why it is so grotesque to see bombs and food parcels raining on the defenseless people of Afghanistan from the same source.

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