|Mahmood Mamdani, _Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War,
and the Roots of Terror_
***** The New York Times, April 10, 2004
When U.S. Aided Insurgents, Did It Breed Future Terrorists?
By HUGH EAKIN
In the varied explanations for the 9/11 attacks and the rise in
terrorism, two themes keep recurring. One is that Islamic culture
itself is to blame, leading to a clash of civilizations, or, as more
nuanced versions have it, a struggle between secular-minded and
fundamentalist Muslims that has resulted in extremist violence
against the West. The second is that terrorism is a feature of the
post-cold-war landscape, belonging to an era in which international
relations are no longer defined by the titanic confrontation between
two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union.
But in the eyes of Mahmood Mamdani, a Uganda-born political scientist
and cultural anthropologist at Columbia University, both those
assumptions are wrong. Not only does he argue that terrorism does not
necessarily have anything to do with Islamic culture; he also insists
that the spread of terror as a tactic is largely an outgrowth of
American cold war foreign policy. After Vietnam, he argues, the
American government shifted from a strategy of direct intervention in
the fight against global Communism to one of supporting new forms of
low-level insurgency by private armed groups.
"In practice," Mr. Mamdani has written, "it translated into a United
States decision to harness, or even to cultivate, terrorism in the
struggle against regimes it considered pro-Soviet." The real culprit
of 9/11, in other words, is not Islam but rather non-state violence
in general, during the final stages of the stand-off with the Soviet
Union. Using third and fourth parties, the C.I.A. supported terrorist
and proto-terrorist movements in Indochina, Latin America, Africa
and, of course, Afghanistan, he argues in his new book, "Good Muslim,
Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the Roots of Terror" (Pantheon).
"The real damage the C.I.A. did was not the providing of arms and
money," he writes, " but the privatization of information about how
to produce and spread violence - the formation of private militias -
capable of creating terror." The best-known C.I.A.-trained terrorist,
he notes dryly, is Osama bin Laden.
Other recent accounts have examined the ways in which American
support for the mujahedeen in the 1980's helped pave the way for
Islamic terrorism in the 90's. But Mr. Mamdani posits a new - and far
more controversial - thesis by connecting the violent strain of Islam
to a broader American strategy.
"Mahmood's argument is that terrorism is a defining characteristic of
the last phase of the cold war," said Robert Meister, a political
scientist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has
followed Mr. Mamdani's work for three decades. He added, "It was a
characteristic that took on, especially in Africa, a logic of its
own, a logic that eventually broke free of the geopolitics that
In a telephone interview from Kampala, Uganda, where he has a second
home, Mr. Mamdani explained, "What I have in mind is the policy of
proxy war." As his book recounts, the African continent became a
major front in the cold war after the rapid decolonization of the
1960's and 70's gave rise to a number of nationalist movements
influenced by Marxist-Leninist principles.
For the United States, caught in the wave of antiwar feeling set off
by Vietnam, the only way to roll back this process was to give
indirect support to violent new right-wing groups. Mr. Mamdani
asserts, for example, that the United States policy of constructive
engagement with apartheid in South Africa helped sustain two
proto-terrorist organizations - Unita, the National Union for the
Total Independence of Angola, and Renamo, the Mozambican National
Resistance - that were armed and trained by the South African Defense
Force. Renamo became what Mr. Mamdani calls Africa's "first genuine
terrorist movement," a privatized outfit that unleashed random
violence against civilians without any serious pretension to national
In the 1980's, Mr. Mamdani argues, the American use of proxy forces
became increasingly overt. "What had begun as a very pragmatic policy
under Kissinger was ideologized by the Reagan administration in
highly religious terms, as a fight to the finish against the `Evil
Empire,' " Mr. Mamdani said.
Drawing on the same strategy used in Africa, the United States
supported the Contras in Nicaragua and then created, on a grand
scale, a pan-Islamic front to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Whereas other Islamic movements, like the Iranian revolution, had
clear nationalist aims, the Afghan jihad, Mr. Mamdani suggests, was
created by the United States as a privatized and ideologically
stateless resistance force.
A result, he writes, was "the formation of an international cadre of
uprooted individuals who broke ties with family and country of origin
to join clandestine networks with a clearly defined enemy."
According to Mr. Mamdani, the strategy of proxy warfare continued
even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as the United States
looked for new ways to sponsor low-intensity conflicts against
militantly nationalist regimes. In a final section on the current
conflict in Iraq, the book suggests that it, much more than the end
of the cold war in 1989, closed the "era of proxy warfare" in
American foreign policy.
Scholars familiar with the book say that Mr. Mamdani's account of the
late cold war, and its emphasis on Africa in particular, is likely to
be disdained by specialists on Islam, some of whom are criticized by
name in the opening chapter.
"The book is most original in the skewer it puts through what Mamdani
calls the `culture talk' that has substituted for serious
explanations of political Islam," said Timothy Mitchell, a political
scientist at New York University. "Scholar-pundits like Bernard Lewis
and Fouad Ajami tell us that the culture of Muslims or Arabs cannot
cope with modernity. Mamdani shows us that the origins of political
Islam are themselves modern, and, in fact, largely secular."
But John L. Esposito, a Georgetown University expert on political
Islam, warns that an attempt to explain Islamic terrorism through
international politics alone risks the same flaw as the cultural
approach. "To say it's simply politics, without taking into account
religion, misses the causes behind a lot of these conflicts, just as
the reverse misses them," he said. "It's religion and politics
Mr. Mamdani's unusual perspective is partly a result of his own
experience in Africa. A third-generation East African of Indian
descent, Mr. Mamdani, 57, grew up in the final years of colonial
"Idi Amin was my first experience of terror, and I understood how a
demagogue could ride a wave of popular resentment," Mr. Mamdani said,
recalling how he and other Asians were expelled in 1972.
After completing a Ph.D. at Harvard in 1974, he took a faculty
position at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, at the time
a hotbed of radical African politics. Among his colleagues were the
future Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, as well as Laurent Kabila,
the future president of Congo, and Ernest Wamba dia Wamba, leader of
one of the revolutionary factions against Kabila.
Mr. Mamdani returned to Uganda during the civil war that ousted Amin
and took a deanship at the national university in Kampala, where he
became a leading expert on agrarian administration and its relation
to post-colonial unrest. Often outspoken against the Ugandan
government, he was exiled a second time in 1985, during another civil
war. In the late 1980's, he led a Ugandan commission on local
government; later he taught at the University of Cape Town in South
Africa during the tumultuous early years after apartheid.
His previous book, "When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism,
Nativism and the Genocide in Rwanda," sought to overturn the view
that those atrocities had deep tribal roots. Much of the Hutu-Tutsi
ethnic rivalry, he argued, could be traced to the colonial period.
(The Belgians had introduced and enforced Hutu and Tutsi racial
identities in a segregated social system.)
Mr. Mamdani, who now directs Columbia's Institute for African
Studies, lives in New York and Kampala with his wife, the Indian
filmmaker Mira Nair, and their son.
To understand political Islam, Mr. Mamdani says Africa's experience
is instructive. "Africa is seen as exceptional, as not even part of
the rest of the world," he said. "But on the contrary, it's an
illuminating vantage point."