A Conversation with Mahmood Mamdani

by Robert P. Baird

Mahmood Mamdani-1A little over a month ago I asked Mahmood Mamdani if he’d be willing to have a conversation about Ugandan politics in advance of the presidential elections here. Often described as the intellectual heir of Edward Said, Mamdani has attracted praise, scorn, and much international attention for his richly detailed and often stridently contrarian analyses of contemporary African events. He is the author, most recently, of Saviors and Survivors, a critical and controversial analysis of the Save Darfur Coalition.

Mamdani is one of the most acute observers of African events working today, and he has a deep and complicated personal relationship to Uganda’s recent political history. Born in Kampala to Indian Muslim parents, he was exiled (along with the rest of the country’s Asian population) by Idi Amin in 1972. He earned a Ph.D from Harvard in 1974 and has taught at universities in Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa, and the U.S. Currently he is a professor of anthropology and government at Columbia University and the director of the Makerere Institute for Social Research (MISR) in Uganda. He and his wife, the filmmaker Mira Nair, split their time between Kampala and New York.

Mamdani graciously agreed to an interview, but by the time we met in his purple-walled office at the MISR, the uprising in Egypt had become all-engrossing. I decided to take the opportunity to get his early thoughts about the revolutions in North Africa. (As it happened, the Feb. 18 presidential elections in Uganda saw Yoweri Museveni extend his twenty-five-year rule over Uganda with 68% of the vote, despite widespread and credible allegations of bribery and vote-rigging.)

I asked Mamdani if he thought the events in Egypt and Tunisia could have any influence in Uganda. He told me, “You have to remember that we had our civil war [in 1980-6].” The chaos that Hosni Mubarak swore would follow his removal, Mamdani noted, was something that Museveni was counting on Ugandans to remember. “It’s still within living memory, and that’s a powerful deterrence.”

Still, he argued, “it’s hard to overestimate what’s happening in Egypt.” When I asked for specifics, he said that beyond their immediate and local effects, the events in Tunisia and Egypt offered the world a new image of Arab identity. The theme is one that has occupied Mamdani for some time. In his 2005 book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, Mamdani identified the dominant Western view of Islam after 9/11 as one that saw Muslims as captives of their own culture, incapable of any but destructive responses to the demands of modernity:

In post-9/11 America, Culture Talk has come to focus on Islam and Muslims who made culture only at the beginning of creation, as some extraordinary, prophetic act. After that, it seems Muslims just conformed to culture. According to some, our culture seems to have no history, no politics, and no debates, so that all Muslims are just plain bad. According to others, there is a history, a politics, even debates, and there are good Muslims and bad Muslims. In both versions, history seems to have petrified into a lifeless custom of an antique people who inhabit antique lands.

Needless to say, Mamdani rejected both of these views. But what he sees in the North African uprisings, he told me, is a potent image of Arab political agency. “The Arab no longer appears in the figure of the terrorist. The Egyptians you see are young and old, Muslim and Christian, even babies.”

That shift, he suggested, could have critical geopolitical ramifications. “It could give us the solution to the Palestinian problem. The specter of the Arab terrorist has had a powerful effect on the average American and the average Israeli. If that changes, it may prompt a recognition that it’s time to solve the Palestinian problem. Already you can see some officials talking about it.”

Mamdani also expressed hope that the North African revolutions would put an end to the post-9/11 style of American foreign policy. “It’s significant that Obama has come to power at a time of U.S. decline,” Mamdani said, suggesting that Obama was the perfect person to do the kind of public posturing that America’s bifurcated foreign policy requires. The president could offer up the pious rhetoric of human rights far more credibly than George W. Bush, while at the same time authorizing a huge security footprint around the world.

But now, Mamdani suggests, “the U.S. has the chance to rethink its whole strategy. It’s the kind of moment that comes in the wake of losses, a chance to recut the foreign-policy cloth in the light of America’s declining empire.” The popular uprisings in North Africa and the geopolitical rejiggering that is sure to follow offer the U.S. a chance to prove its commitment to ideals like popular sovereignty and democracy promotion. “That is Obama's challenge and his opportunity.”

I left Mamdani’s office about two hours before a military spokesman announced Hosni Mubarak’s resignation on Egyptian state television. Even at that late hour, after the occupation of Tahrir Square had survived more than two weeks, the course of the protests seemed unpredictable. I asked Mamdani what he thought about the prospects for a revolution. He was optimistic.“You’ve got to remember: these are the people who built the pyramids. They can draw on that, and more, as they seek to move immovable objects.”