There’s a friend of mine who believes that the universe gives her signs to help her negotiate the mad, bad world. Generally, these signs come through the songs that play in her iPod when she sets it in the “shuffle” mode. This actually came out when a bunch of us had gathered to help a friend decide whether he should save the world by continuing to work or go to university to get a degree that gives him a certificate saying he can now officially save the world. At one point, the Messiah of the iPod stuck the earphones in our friend’s ears and instructed him to make his mind “blank” and then listen for the lyrics. After a bit, she asked him whether he’d got anything. He said he didn’t know. The last three songs had been in French. Clearly the universe hadn’t bargained for the linguistic obstacle. Ultimately, my friend told us we were all useless and, on an unrelated note, urged us to go and watch Professor Mahmood Mamdani talk about the post-9/11 world. It turned out to be not so unrelated after all.
Mahmood Mamdani, Herbert Lehman Professor of Government in the Departments of Anthropology and Political Science at Columbia University, is better known in some circles as Mr. Mira Nair. He was engaging, a wonderful debater and, having defied Idi Amin and the British government, not repentant about demanding a certain amount of etiquette (read: silence) from his audience while talking. He also made much of the room gasp at one point by saying, “You can’t think ISI without thinking CIA if you have any sense of history”. What was outstanding was how Mamdani structured his lecture, building his argument systematically. He began by defining sovereignty, referring to the popular mood before the 2008 American election and then moving on to Barack Obama before settling on the narrative of the war on terror. By the end of the talk, you realise that his point about why Obama is different connects neatly to the solution he is offering to ongoing cycles of violence. Mamdani pointed out that while the 1960s peace movement in America worked outside the political system, Obama belonged to another kind of movement – one that works within the political process and bypasses both the white and black establishments as a result. Its stress on governance requires compromises, which is what Mamdani suggested was the only way to bring a level stability to unstable regions.
Like most left-leaning liberal folk, Mamdani is of the belief that war is not an answer, and certainly not pre-emptive war. It ends up being a permanent state, as it has ended up being in Gaza, Afghanistan and Iraq. The solution Mamdani offered was to “step back from the violence and see the politics of violence” and he offered South Africa as an example of how this can be made to work. In South Africa, Mamdani argued, no military victory was in sight so there was a change in focus. In an effort to put the country’s violent past behind it, there was a decision to sort things out from within (“deglobalise” the issues, as Mamdani phrased it, so that “the problem solvers cannot and will not run away like America did in Afghanistan”) and make no one accountable for past crimes. “Forgive but do not forget,” as Mamdani put it. So in this way, the state re-begins with something close to a blank slate with an emphasis on non-violence. New rules can be established that focus on solving problems without being burdened by the responsibility of having to judge crimes that were committed in a completely different socio-political situation. The other country that he pointed out as an example was Mozambique where, after years of civil war, there has been growth and peace with the Liberation Front of Mozambique (FRELIMO) and Mozambique National Resistance (RENAMO) turning from guerilla warfare to governance.
“The paradigm of terror looks to detach terror from context,” argued Mamdani and this leads to the stance that prescribes the same response to all kids of violence, which in turn leads to more violence. Focussing on context and seeing the politics of violence is crucial, he said. “The founding movement of every state is a huge crime. How do you make it a pre-history? By adopting the position of non-accountability, like in South Africa.” He kept saying that this came at “a big cost” but it was the only example that showed a halt in bloodletting, despite “counter examples” like Algeria, Palestine and Somalia.
If there really are signs the universe offers to help make up your mind in life, this talk was one to drive home the point about the erudition and impracticality of much of academia. Not that I have answers for world peace (even though like Miss Universe, I do want the stuff) but to me, Mamdani sounds persuasive until you do a Rapunzel on his argument and entice it down from Columbia University’s brownstone towers to settle on dusty reality. Wanting “an analytical apparatus to understand and distinguish different kinds of violence” is fine, so long as it its in a lecture room and not in real life. Do I really want people who kidnapped children and put guns in their hands to be statesmen in my country? Is it ok to have Neo Nazis hollering their way through the streets so long as they’re not actually chucking people into gas chambers? How do you prevent a victim from feeling disenfranchised when you declare the perpetrator of violence unaccountable for their acts? Should Ayman al-Zawahiri not have to bear the guilt of being one of the masterminds of Al Quaeda and be allowed to run for office in Afghanistan or his native Egypt? What about the impact of preachers like Sayyid Qutb, considered the granddaddy of radical Islam, who didn’t commit acts of violence but whose writing has spawned the likes of Zawahiri? And is it credible in today’s world to think that we can erase “black sites” and terrorist activity?
Crucially, Mamdani’s argument that issues need to be deglobalised has no answer to the fact that with 9/11 Al Quaeda has globalised terror. There is no country they’re fighting for and governance doesn’t seem to be their aim. They’ll settle in Somalia and Aghanistan, have fundraiser meetings in Malaysia to plan an attack in America and it’ll be carried out by people from places like Germany and Lebanon. How do you localise something like this? Not by bombing Iraq, agreed, but that’s because the war in Iraq can’t be justified as even a pre-emptive strike. The Al Quaeda has made terrorist groups across the world aware of its mandate to help those of its political and religious ilk, regardless of what country they are. Consequently, the responses to it will be equally global. The IRA bombs and Intifada didn’t make it to the folk art of rural Bengal but 9/11 appears in the songs and paintings of Khandu Chitrakar of Midnapur, Bengal, who can’t speak a word of English and knows no one in America. In fact, he doesn’t know where America or Afghanistan are, even on a map. “But I don’t need to know where it is to write a song,” he told me. “I just need to know what happened and it has to matter enough to me. How can so much cruelty not matter?”