On a recent Tuesday evening, Mahmood Mamdani, a bookishly handsome and relentlessly incendiary political theorist, spoke at a forum on the subject of academic freedom held at Columbia University, where he teaches.
Not long ago, in the pages of Foreign Affairs, he wrote that “the neoconservatives are a twin of al Qaeda”-the kind of rhetorical Molotov cocktail seldom tossed by the house organ of the Council on Foreign Relations.
On this evening, he was about to throw another one: into the already highly emotional battle at Columbia over anti-Semitism at the university.
Among the graduate students and faculty members that packed the top-floor conference room that night was a young correspondent from The New York Sun, which had ardently been fanning the story of the handful of Jewish students who have said they were ridiculed for expressing support of Israel in some classes taught by professors in the school’s department of Middle Eastern Studies.
The first speaker, a former university provost, gave a windy speech warning of a “rising tide of anti-intellectualism.” Then Mr. Mamdani rose, and announced he was planning to confront the issue directly. He was wearing a smart dark suit, his royal blue shirt open at the collar, his curly gray hair slightly mussed.
“The accusation involved is the worst you can hurl at anyone in contemporary American society,” he said, his voice audibly seething with indignation. Mr. Mamdani, who is from an Indian Muslim background, had not been accused, but he was passionate in his belief that outside groups, “with skills honed elsewhere in the Empire,” were mounting an attack on his university, his rights.
He posed the rhetorical question: What is academic freedom?
“First and foremost, it is the freedom of a professor to go against the grain. To commit heresy,” he said. “Any student who enters a university should be prepared for the discomfort that comes from having his or her most cherished truths questioned.”
With unwavering self-assurance, Mr. Mamdani has taken aim at a lot of cherished truths lately. Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Mamdani, 58, was new to America and barely known outside his narrow academic discipline, African studies.
Since then, he has willed his way into the thick of the debate over the War on Terror, casting himself as a public intellectual for the jihadist age. Last year, he published a popular book on the roots of Middle Eastern extremism. He chats with highbrow talk-show hosts like Bill Moyers and Charlie Rose. His views have been attacked by The National Review and are dismissed by some Middle East experts, but he has won praise from academic heavyweights like Noam Chomsky, the economist Jeffrey Sachs and Columbia’s late Palestinian scholar Edward Said, a friend and admirer, who played a crucial role in assuring that Mr. Mamdani’s book, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, ended up at his own major publishing house, Pantheon Books. Admirers say the book carries on the tradition of his revered (and sometimes reviled) patron; everybody at Columbia agrees that Said’s legacy is threatened. What happens next will test that ambition– and test many other things at Columbia besides.
A week before, Mr. Mamdani welcomed a visitor to his book-filled office, which is mostly decorated in red, appropriately enough for an old Marxist. He speaks softly, like many true radicals, with a lilting, cosmopolitan accent. He said he saw the controversy that now grips Columbia as part of a wider campaign against American teachers’ right to express unorthodox political views.
“I find it extremely worrying,” Mr. Mamdani said. He was especially incensed at Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, who recently called on professors “to resist the allure of certitude, the temptation to use the podium as an ideological platform, to indoctrinate a captive audience.
“The administration seems to be giving no indication that it understands academic freedom to be something different from freedom of speech,” Mr. Mamdani said. He believes there is a crucial distinction: Teachers are supposed to teach. “I think that if we treat the classroom space as any public space, then we might as well throw out of the window the notion of the university as it developed after the Middle Ages in the West,” he said. “Because all of these new trends seem to be indicating a determination to treat professors and the classroom as if they were politicians and public officials, and to ensure that they in fact reflect the prevailing public view on different issues.
“Well, then that wouldn’t be a university at all. That would be a chorus.”
Mr. Mamdani believes it is his part to play the dissenting outsider, and he portrays his book as an attempt to fight what he describes as America’s “amnesia” about its past behavior. In a recent television interview, a somewhat perplexed Charlie Rose asked Mr. Mamdani how America should begin to respond to the challenges of the Middle East. Mr. Mamdani replied, with a Chomskian authority, “Understand yourself.”
Like Said, who entitled his memoirs Out of Place, Mr. Mamdani inevitably understands himself as an outsider. He was born in Africa, but he is not black. His name is Indian, and he owns an apartment in New Delhi, but he doesn’t really belong there, either. He exists, as the critic John Lahr once wrote of Mr. Mamdani’s wife, the filmmaker Mira Nair, “in that weird, liminal expatriate zone.” Like many such people, Mr. Mamdani ended up in New York, but his relationship with America is, as he might say, deeply problematic.
He hastens to say that he has “no illusion that any one person can step into the shoes of Edward Said,” but the professor’s admirers say that in effect, that is what he is trying to do.
“Mahmood fills the vacuum,” said Robert Meister, a friend of Mr. Mamdani’s since they met at Harvard 30 years ago, and now a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “He’s claiming to be the only sincere antiterrorist.”
Mr. Mamdani must be understood as coming for a very particular time and place: Africa, in the era of the Cold War. He was born in Uganda, where Indians, many of them brought over by the British to build a railroad through East Africa, made up the colonial shop-keeping class. At the country’s independence from Britain, in 1962, Mr. Mamdani was offered a scholarship by the United States government. He attended the University of Pittsburgh, where he was a debater, and studied for his Ph.D. at Harvard, where he led graduate students in a strike to protest a tuition hike. He returned to Uganda, only to be kicked out by the dictator Idi Amin, who deported the Indians and confiscated their property, saying he hoped to create “black millionaires.”
“I was a flaming nationalist in March 1972. And I was expelled in November 1972 as a Ugandan [Indian],” Mr. Mamdani recalled, laughing. “And I thought of Sartre saying that ‘the universal intellectual is paid back in particulars.’”
Penniless, Mr. Mamdani lived as a refugee in Britain-where he went without meals and spent his days at the colonial archives, researching his dissertation-before landing a teaching job at the University of Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania. At the time, the school was a center of leftist ferment. Like many, he was drawn to the thinking of Frantz Fanon, who famously wrote in his book The Wretched of the Earth that “the colonized man liberates himself in and through violence.” Some students of Mr. Mamdani’s would even leave school to fight in guerrilla rebellions around the continent.
Mr. Mamdani returned to Uganda after Amin’s 1979 overthrow. In 1986, rebel leader Yoweri Museveni, a former Dar es Salaam student, took power. Mr. Mamdani occupies a position of prominence that an American academic could scarcely imagine. Commonly referred to simply as “The Professor,” his pronouncements are front-page news, and he has debated President Museveni on television.
Eventually, though, Uganda proved too small for his ambitions. Mr. Mamdani moved to South Africa, and wrote an influential book about colonialism and apartheid, Citizen and Subject. Later, he turned his attention to the Rwandan genocide.
In 1989, he met Ms. Nair, who was researching her film Mississippi Masala, about an Indian family that moved to America after being expelled by Amin. They fell in love, married, and had a son. Though Mr. Mamdani and Ms. Nair keep a house in Uganda that overlooks Lake Victoria, they now spend much of their time in New York. Ms. Nair’s success allows them to live comfortably. (“He’s never been attracted by [money], and I don’t think he feels he’s been corrupted by it either, so there’s nothing to be guilty about,” Mr. Meister said.) It has also given Mr. Mamdani a degree of visibility he might not otherwise enjoy.
“Mira is a continuing inspiration,” Mr. Mamdani said, particularly when it comes to the process of marketing his ideas. “I for a long time resisted the idea that any publicity was necessary. I thought that things get read or bought on their merit. I lived in that kind of world. Mira would often tell me that that’s not true, that there’s this entire layer of institutions … between the creative people and a potential audience.”
Mr. Mamdani occasionally accompanies his wife to industry events like the Venice Film Festival, but for the most part, he said, he and his wife keep their work separate. Still, his intellectual interests-empires, exile-match themes in her work. In 2002, Ms. Nair made a short film about a Pakistani immigrant killed in the World Trade Center as part of a project called 11’09”01, in order to counter the stereotype, she told The New Yorker, “that Muslims equal terrorists.”
“Both of us, over the last six years, have spent most of our time living in the U.S., but with a split sense of home,” Mr. Mamdani said. “We look at the U.S. through a perspective forged in many places, and through a sensibility that very consciously takes into account multiple experiences, and maybe is never quite at home in any one of those places. So we both share some kind of a restlessness, some kind of a discontent which is productive in a creative sense.”
In 1999, Mr. Mamdani took a job in Columbia’s anthropology department, and he and Ms. Nair moved into an apartment on Riverside Drive. One of their neighbors, as it turned out, was Edward Said. Mr. Mamdani became friends with Said, with whom he shared an obsession with the legacy of colonialism. After Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Mamdani became a ubiquitous presence at antiwar rallies and teach-ins. “He just had an extremely good analysis, and it was right-on from the beginning,” said Brenda Coughlin, a sociology graduate student who helped Mr. Mamdani research his book.
Mr. Mamdani had to be talked into putting aside the plaudits of academia to write Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, fearing that it might dim his reputation among his academic peers. Before he died of leukemia in 2003, Said read the manuscript, and made sure it made it into the hands of his own editor, Shelley Wanger.
“Edward had a loving, proprietary attitude toward those who he thought should be guided in this difficult world,” Mr. Mamdani said. “He guided me to an appropriate publisher.”
Helped along by a television appearance, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim sold through its first printing in days. It is now in its sixth hardcover printing, and will soon be released in paperback. Mr. Mamdani, who has a dry wit, likes to joke that the book’s sold well because Americans misunderstand the title, thinking it “a directory of good Muslims and bad Muslims-you know, which ones to avoid.”
He conceived of his book as a rejoinder to the popular notion of a “clash of civilizations” between the Islamic world and the West, a view associated with intellectuals like Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington. In Mr. Mamdani’s view, these commentators-and the Bush administration-divided Islam into groups of “good” Muslims, who were secular and pro-American, and “bad” Muslims, who were devout and inclined to terrorism. Mr. Mamdani believes that religion has nothing to do with it. “I know of no one inspired by Osama bin Laden for religious reasons,” Mr. Mamdani writes in Good Muslim, Bad Muslim. “Bin Laden is a politician, not a theologian.”
It follows for him that political Islam-or at least Al Qaeda’s toxic brand of it-is not an outgrowth of the faith, but a “mutation,” one largely created by the United States in the course of contracting out brutal Cold War rebel movements in Angola and Mozambique in the 1970′s, a policy that he says culminated in the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union.
“Official America learned to distinguish between two types of terrorism-’theirs’ and ‘ours’-and cultivated an increasingly benign attitude to ours,” he writes. “But then it turned out that their terrorism was born of ours.”
Some terrorism experts question his version of history. “It’s sort of conventional Upper West Side [thinking], to just to blame everything on the U.S. I think it’s kind of lazy,” said Peter Bergen, author of Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden. “The real story is that the C.I.A. did not have a clue about who bin Laden was until 1995.”
In 2001, David Rieff wrote a devastating review in The New Republic of Mr. Mamdani’s book on Rwanda, alleging that, in his attempt to explain the historical roots of the antipathy that drove hundreds of thousands of Hutus to hack their Tutsi neighbors to death with machetes, Mr. Mamdani was “on a certain level … inviting his readers to feel the historical pain of the génocidaires.”
Like his youthful idol Frantz Fanon, Mr. Mamdani is fascinated by the political uses of violence and, also like Fanon, sometimes finds himself treading the line between analysis and apologia.
In an interview last year conducted by Nermeen Shaikh for the online publication AsiaSource.org, Mr. Mamdani was asked about the motives of the contemporary terrorist. He quoted a verse of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and speculated that suicide bombers see themselves as participants in a “youth revolt.”
Mr. Mamdani told The Observer, “So many find it tempting to draw that line between good and evil, where we can be very comfortable on this side of the line called ‘good’ and just have our adversaries as ‘evil.’”
“He is not a defender of the people who brought down the Twin Towers,” said his friend Robert Meister. “What he is trying to say is that [American foreign-policy makers] are being hypocritical and are not really antiterrorist in the way that he is, because they are not democrats, with a small ‘d,’ in the way that he is.”
Back at the public forum, a middle-aged man in a herringbone blazer raised his hand. “It seems to me, that the substantial issue is the issue of anti-Semitism,” he said. “Where is that debate going to take place?”
Mr. Mamdani jumped in.
“The notion,” he said, “that any critique of the state of Israel is anti-Semitism is a nonstarter.”
Later, talking to a reporter, he expanded on this theme.
“Bollinger is all the time talking of a measured intellectual temperament, which takes everything into account, which sees all sides of an issue, which is balance itself,” he said. “But what about the intellectual predisposition of an inventor, of someone who makes a new discovery, of the tenacity that is required to go in the face of societal common sense and intellectual orthodoxy? Intellectual work requires you to persist in the face of no reward, and continuous critique. Even in the face of people thinking you’re nuts, or even crossing the line to the enemy side, to lunacy.
“Does this temperament have a place in the university? Of course it does,” he continued. “And that is what academic freedom is supposed to protect.”
Follow Andrew Rice via RSS.