Mahmood Mamdani:

(Copyright © 2000 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
Despite the fact that I agree with the basic tenet (see Decolonization and the Islamic civil war), I think that this is a rather badly researched book with too narrow a vision. The fundamental flaw of this book is simple: for a book whose title is about "Muslims", it is amazing that the author did not feel he had to spend at least one page discussing the attribute that makes a Muslim a Muslim (instead of a Jew or a Hindu): Islam. This omission, plus the narrow focus, explains why the author cannot see what everybody else sees: that suicide bombers abound among Muslims, but are unknown in places such as South America and sub-Saharan Africa, despite the fact that Latin Americans and Africans would have much more valid reasons to wish all us westerners dead. Why are there so many Saudis and Jordanians willing to die taking with them as many civilians as possible, while there is not a single South African or Bolivian willing to do the same? This is the question that the world is really interested in. You won't get the answer from this book. This book is really about the victim (the USA) not the culprit (Islam). By depicting the victim as the culprit (as if the USA enjoyed fighting the Cold War against the Soviet Union, and, in fact, started it on purpose), the author manages to change the subject and not answer the question. His bias is obvious from the beginning: "The near decimation of Native Americans... was after all the first recorded genocide in modern history" (page 6). Well, it all depends on when one starts "modern" history. The Arabs enjoyed enslaving African-Americans way before the Europeans (and, last, the USA) started doing it. There were genocides committed by the rulers of several Arab kingdoms up to today. But, I guess, anything done by Muslims must be considered "ancient" history and does not qualify as "modern". In any case, thanks to Islam's determination to obliterate culture, it is not "recorded". Thus the statement stands that the decimation of Native Americans was the first "recorded" genocide in "modern" history": get it? And, of course, we are to understand that such "decimation" was perpetrated by the USA (it was actually started before the USA was born). Later he writes "The first genocide of the 20th century was the German annihilation of the Herero people in Southwest Africa in 1904". He doesn't write the number, but, for the record, it's 65,000 Herero people killed in Southwest Africa. More importantly (at least for a book with this title), the author omits that in 1902 Abdul al-Aziz, at the head of a bedouin army, began his conquest of southern Arabia under the puritanical Wahabi Islamic order (Osama Bin Laden's faith), a war that cost the lives of at least as many people. Either he adds a "well-publicized" in front of "genocide" or his statement is false: there was an earlier genocide and, surprise, it was carried out by the same people who terrorize us today. Maybe a coincidence, maybe not: but why ignore it? Therefore, the book suffers from a blatantly anti-western viewpoint (ignoring whatever else the non-Western world may have done to cause directly or indirectly the advent of Arab terrorism) and from the fact that it absolves Islam (the ideology) from the very beginning (by not analyzing it at all). There are some other minor distortions. The author keeps referring to "Islamic terrorism" when, in fact, 99% of Islamic terrorists are Arabs, and Arabs only represent one third of Islam. The problem is that if he called it "Arab terrorism", it would make it much more difficult to sell his point: with the exception of Algeria, Arabs were never as enslaved as other colonies of the world (such as India and Madagascar, to name two).

After a rather confusing chapter on "Culture Talk" (where he mostly vents his frustration at Euro-centric history, a frustration which I totally sympathize with), he delves into his main contribution: an analysis of how the Cold War laid the groundwork for Islamic terrorism. That first chapter pretty much defines the limit of such analysis, when he tries to separate "political" and "cultural" Islam (page 61), a fallacy both on semantic grounds (since when isn't politics part of culture anymore?) and on factual grounds (Islam "is" inherently political, as the Quran is a manual to build a state). Here, again, Mamdani fails to identify what is unique about Islam. Humans have experienced terrorism before, and many different varieties of it. There is something unique about Islam, and one can't grasp what is unique about Islamic terrorism unless s/he first grasps what is unique about Islam among world religions and ideologies. But Mamdani's book does not discuss Islam at all: it discusses everything else, except the subject of the book.

The following chapters analyze the Cold War from the vintage point of someone who experienced September 11. Needless to say, it is easy today to see a connection between the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and September 11. Any anti-USA teenager in France can do that. Too bad that nobody saw it when the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan. Nobody predicted that the USA would be hit by the very people that had helped defeat the Soviet Union. Thus it is always a bit presumptuous to claim that one event (Sep 11) followed from the other (Afghanistan) when not a single expert saw it coming. Were they all idiots? Or is there a chance that it would have happened anyway, and that other reasons matter more than what happened in Afghanistan?

(Incidentally, the USA's real mistake was not that it supported this or that faction, since that strategy did achieve its goal of defeating the Soviet Union. The USA's real mistake was to abandon its allies after the victory. The people who defeated the Soviet Union were the Mujaheddin. The people whom Mamdani is referring to are the Taliban. The Taliban came after the Soviet Union had already dissolved. The Taliban attacked the Mujaheddin. The USA abandoned Afghanistan to its destiny. The legendary leader of the Mujaheddin, Massoud, repeatedly implored the USA to help the Mujaheddin. Mamdani provides a very superficial and rather distorted reading of those events. It is not true that the USA was hit by the people that it helped against the Soviet Union).

Mamdani, for example, never considers the capital event of the 1980s in the history of Islam: that Arabs got immensely rich (as they had never been in centuries) thanks to profits from their oil reserves. The USA used to be the main world producer of oil until the 1970s. Then the leadership moved to the Gulf, and, after the oil crises of the mid 1970s, oil turned those poor undeveloped kingdoms into the wealthiest areas of the world. For the first time in centuries, Islamic kingdoms became rich enough to compete with the "West". Mamdani never mentions this fact. Thus he must assume that it is a negligible coincidence that Islamic fighters hit the West centuries ago, when the Islamic kingdoms were very rich, and then again in 2001, when the Islamic kingdoms got rich again, but never in between, when they were very poor. Mamdani must think that the economics is a negligible factor in the behavior of people, states and cultures.

Mamdani does a good job of surveying all the dubious wars that the USA has supported, but, again, Mamdani's bias is obvious. He pretty much considers any anti-communist fighter as a "terrorist". According to Mamdani, anyone who fought communist regimes in Africa, Asia or Latin America was a terrorist. Mamdani does not spend a single word to explain what happened when people were finally left free to vote: none of those regimes won a free election, except those (Mozambique, Namibia) that abandoned communism. Thus today we know that the "terrorists" were indeed freedom fighters, and the communist regimes were oppressing the people. True: many of them were born as independence movements, fighting the old European colonial powers (that Mamdani seems to absolve of all their crimes), and Mamdani forgets to mention that the USA often pressured the European powers to grant independence to their colonies. But many of those independence wars were hijakced by tyrants who were openly funded by the Soviet Union. Mamdani accuses the Hmong (allies of the USA) of being mercenaries and terrorists (they were and are a Christian minority oppressed by the communist regime), but does not say a word about, for example, the two million people massacred in Cambodia by Pol Pot, the madman that the Hmong were, indirectly, fighting against. If Mamdani listed both sides of the equation, it would be much less obvious were the high moral ground was. Mamdani shows little interest for the will of the people. It sounds as if any group that embraced a communist agenda was legitimate, and any group that fought against the communists (especially if funded by the USA) must be automatically considered "terrorist". Thus to him (page 89) Renamo was the "first genuine terrorist movement" in Africa. While I side with Mamdani in despising Renamo's war in Mozambique, and South Africa's destabilizing strategies, I find it odd that we should consider Renamo a bunch of terrorists but Menghitsu a legitimate leader (he killed one hundred times more people). Why? Because Menghitsu won the war and Renamo lost it? Or because Menghitsu was a communist and Renamo wasn't? As he correctly writes (page 92), the USA always denounced the crimes of Renamo and all the other USA proxies (the apartheid regime in South Africa was eventually crippled by USA sanctions), whereas (as he omits to write) the Soviet Union never denounced the crimes committed by the Soviet proxies. Where the high moral ground stands (as high as it can be in a war) is clear to anyone who knows "all" the facts, not just the very biased subset that Mamdani presents. By the same token, Mamdani presents the Sandinistas of Nicaragua (communists funded by the Soviet Union that fought against a USA-sponsored dictator) as noble freedom fighters, and the Contras (anti-communists funded by the USA that later fought against the Soviet-sponsored dictatorship of the Sandinistas) as terrorists. The fact that, when they were finally allowed to vote, the people of Nicaragua voted for the Contras and against the Sandinistas does not seem to matter to Mamdani.

This vice of neglecting the broader picture leads him to comic conclusions, such as that the cause of the drug boom of the 1960s and 1970s was the CIA, not the hippie revolution. Mamdani claims that the CIA made deals with drug lords in various parts of the worlds (all the powers did), and that this fact caused a massive increase in drug consumption. He forgets that it takes a consumer to consume. The reason for the boom in drug consumption is the hippy revolution of the 1960s, that increased the demand for such drugs.

His anti-USA bias leads him to consistently assume that the USA source was wrong and the anti-USA source was right. For example (page 75), he contrasts two articles, one published in the New York Times and one in the Cape Times (without mentioning the author of either), and assumes that the latter proves the former wrong. One could as well assume the opposite, right? What makes the writer of the Cape Times more reliable than the writer of the New York Times? Mamdani does not tell us.

His summary of the events is often wildly exaggerated, like when (page 71) he pretends that the United Nations troops sent to the Congo were actually obeying orders from Kennedy (the whole story of the Congo is wildly implausible and omits too many of the real protagonists: the USA was mostly a spectator).

Calling Afghanistan "the high point in the Cold War" (page 119) is, at best, an exaggeration: nobody at the time predicted that Afghanistan would end up being so important. THe high point in the Cold War was Reagan's massive arms race, coupled with the election of a Polish Pope (two capital events that are erased in Mamdani's book). The Soviet Union lost the war in Afghanistan because it was being weakened on the western front, otherwise Afghanistan would have perished the same way that the Baltic states, Ukraine and half of Poland had perished before.

Here Mamdani wants us to believe that the holy war against the Soviet Union was the first armed jihad in a long time (page 127). To name one, he forgets that in 1972 the Moro National Liberation Front was formed in the Philippines to carry out a terrorist campaign. And I let the reader decide when we can call "terrorists" the Muslims who took up arms against India over the issue of Kashmir. But, of course, the main "armed jihad" was and still is the Palestinian one, that had started in the 1960s, and that Mamdani mentions only in passing (and only to blame Israel for its atrocities against Palestinians).. Why in heaven the Afghan war qualifies as a jihad and all the other Islamic wars do not qualify as such, Mamdani never explains. There is no question that the USA, by sponsoring an Islamic jihad in Afghanistan, opened a can of worms, but Mamdani obliterates history by pretending that, basically, Islamic terrorism was a USA invention. Islamic terrorism preexisted Afghanistan. The fact that it was so easy to find volunteers for Afghanistan was precisely due to the widely publicized jihads that were going on in several places, from Algeria (where jihadists were crucial in defeating the French) to Egypt (where jihadists killed the president) to Israel to the Philippines. Next, Mamdani wants us to believe that the USA was part of the process that selected Osama Bin Laden as the leader of this jihad. First of all, Osama bin Laden was never the leader of the jihad: he was merely one of the many leaders. Second, he arrived when Islamic resistance against the Soviet Union was old news. Third, he was certainly "selected" by Saudi Arabia, but nobody in the USA knew who Osama bin Laden was (or was going to be). He was just a name. Neither Saudi Arabia nor the USA (nor Osama himself) knew that some day Osama would turn against the USA. Mamdani admits (page 133) that there are precious few documents about the CIA's involvement in recruiting, training and arming the people who would later found Al Qaeda, but then proceeds to take for granted that the role of the CIA was crucial. Today, with hindsight, it is easy to look back and see that such and such a charity organization, and such and such a madrasa, were laying the groundwork for Arab terrorism. Had Mamdani, or anyone else, seen this before September 11 (and not after) he could blame the USA for not seeing it. The truth is that nobody saw it coming. Thus the USA, the CIA, Reagan, etc etc etc are as responsible as Mamdani himself (presumably a super-expert in Islamic affairs, unlike Reagan and the CIA).

Chapter four is particularly vicious. Again, he neglects a lot of background: the invasion of Iraq was not the first post-Vietnam invasion by the USA (Panama came first, then Haiti); the involvement of the United Nations was not the first one (Korea was the first, and was followed by many others, mostly unsuccessfully); "proxy" wars have always existed, since the dawn of civilization; etc etc. But Mamdani wants you to believe that all of these phenomena are somewhat unique to the evil USA world.
Mamdani distorts the relationships between the USA and Iraq: if the USA was such a close ally of Saddam Hussein, what was wrong with letting him invade Kuwait? What was wrong is that Saddam Hussein was not an ally at all. THe USA never sold weapons to Saddam (a fact that Mamdani ignores). Iraq fought against Iran using mainly Soviet and French weapons, whereas Iran was still using USA weapons. The USA was in fact the only country to apply unilateral sanctions against Iraq (before the Gulf War). Mamdani makes a big deal of a Rumsfeld visit to Iraq: Rumsfeld was a low-level bureaucrat with little influence on Washington, who visited dozens of countries and shook hundreds of hands, like all bureaucrats in the world. Mamdani wants us to believe that the USA sold Saddam both chemical and biological weapons. The chemical weapons were self-made (alas, anyone can make them in a basement). The biological weapons that Mamdani refers to is anthrax. USA laboratories (not the USA government) used to ship anthrax to any civilian facility that requested it for scientific use. Anthrax was shipped by the USA to dozens of countries. Centers in Iraq were among the centers that requested it and that received it. Those centers had to pay nothing for the anthrax: it was not viewed as a weapon of mass destruction, but as material for research centers. Until 2001, the USA had no policy to restrict the transfer of anthrax to other countries. Mamdani mentions (page 181) that the USA trained Iraqi military personnel: first of all, the USA trained a grand total of 19 Iraqi people (as compared with the thousands from other countries), and, second, that program was terminated in 1967 (Saddam Hussein seized power the following year). Hardly evidence of a fond USA-Iraqi alliance. Far from ignoring the Iraqi gasing of Kurds, the USA was the only country in the world to react by imposing sanctions on Iraq. Then Mamdani starts recycling really low-level anti-USA propaganda: that the USA ignored civilian casualties (false: never in the history of humankind has a country gone out of its way to minimize civilian casualties, and even developed specific weapons designed to minimize civilian casualties), that the sanctions killed 500,000 Iraqi children (there is no evidence of such a decline in the Iraqi population), that infant mortality doubled (using data of the Saddam Hussein regime and then data by Unicef which, of course, are not based on the same criteria, one trying to minimize the number and the other one trying to maximize it), that the USA injustly accused Iraq of producing a nuclear weapon (in fact, the United Nations inspectors found the nuclear material, destroyed it and declared that Iraq was indeed close to making a nuclear bomb), that depleted uranium killed another half a million of Iraqis (western countries have been exposed to depleted uranium for decades without any increase in death rate, not one single NATO soldier dying because he touched and carried depleted uranium), that it was the USA, not poor Saddam Hussein, that caused all the tragedies of the Iraqi people. (See Demistifying the effects of depleted uranium on Iraq's population, and How many Iraqi civilians are killed by the sanctions?).
Mamdani's strategy is the good old Soviet strategy of turning the table on the USA: gulags? it is the USA that runs gulags. Pollution? it is the USA that pollutes. Dictatorship? it is the USA that does not have a free press. People's will? It is the USA that does not respect the people's will. For example, Mamdani makes a big deal of the Jessica Lynch affair (the USA military claimed to have liberated her when in fact she had been helped by Iraqi people), a very minor fact that had no effect on anybody's opinion (and Lynch herself thanked the Iraqi people who helped her, live on tv). But to Mamdani this very minor detail becomes as important as the control of the press in any Arab dictatorship. In fact more so: Mamdani never once attacks the Arab regimes throughout the entire book (typical of the Muslim attitude that the Islamic world is perfect and all evils must reside in the non-Islamic world).
Why does Mamdani go into this embarrassing litany of USA evils? Because his point has suddenly become that Arab terrorism is caused by USA evil. Rather than looking into Islam to find out why Muslims (and not Mozambicans or Peruvians or Angolans or Burmese or Mexicans) are so easily convinced to become suicide bombers and to blow up infidels as well as fellow Muslims, Mamdani lists all the sins of the USA to justify the fact that Muslims become suicide bombers.

This fourth chapter is the most confused and confusing, as Mamdani simply lists USA evils without clearly articulating why the USA would do what it does other than for an inherent desire to commit atrocities. If one follows Mamdani's own list, it appears that the USA is hurting its own interests by hurting all the countries all the time. Mamdani fails to present a coherent view of USA actions in the Middle East because he fails to see what is so obvious: the USA never acted, it simply reacted. The reason that the USA went from ignoring Saddam to mildly supporting him to punishing him is that the USA never acted: it simply reacted to what Saddam was doing. There was no global USA design on the region, simply a series of moves to counter USA enemies, from the Soviet Union to Iran. Mamdani totally misses the point of what the USA had to gain from invading Iraq, despite the fact that it is pretty obvious: the geopolitical importance of Iraq has been known to any historian since the ancient Greeks.

In his anti-USA rhetoric, Mamdani runs into the usual inconsistency of the anti-USA propaganda: it blames the USA for supporting tyrants, but then it condemns the USA for removing tyrants. In other words, the USA is guilty either way, whether it does X or the opposite of X. In other words, Mamdani's point is not what is right and what is wrong: his point is that the USA is bad because it has to be bad. Islam, in the meantime, is guilty of absolutely nothing. Mamdani does not seem to see anything wrong at all with the simple fact that every single Arab country is run by a tyrant, that the Islamic world ranks last in most surveys of social and cultural values, and that the only famous Muslims are terrorists. (Why every Arab country is run by a tyrant is easily explained: Mamdani condemns the USA for removing the Taliban and Saddam Hussein from power, and condemns sanctions against those regimes. Thus it is logical to conclude that his ideal solution is to leave all tyrants in power for eternity. Mamdani's personal attitude towards tyrants is a good example of the attitude that makes them so successful in the Arab world).

For a book that claims to study the source of Arab terrorism it is stunning that it does not devote one single page to the analysis of the Arab regimes. Not a single word against some of the most brutal regimes on Earth. Mamdani seems to think that those regimes have absolutely no influence on Arab terrorism. They just happen to share the same region of the planet and the same people, but Mamdani seems to think that they have nothing else in common.

Mamdani sees a correlation between the Vietnam war and Arab terrorism, but doesn't see any correlation between the fact that the Arab world has not had a decent scientist in centuries and the fact that so many Arabs are willing to become terrorists. Mamdani sees a correlation between Vietnam and Osama, but doesn't see any correlation between Palestinian suicide bombers and Al Qaeda's suicide bombers. To him, apparently, it is a mere coincidence that they use the same method and worship the same prophet.

Mamdani's book does not spend a single word on the fact that over the last 1,000 years the Arab world has translated fewer foreign books into Arabic than Spain translates in one year. Not a single word on what the Arab schools teach their children. Not a single word on what the clerics preach in the mosques. Not a single word on all the violent anti-USA propaganda that Al Jazeera uses to brainwash the Arab masses. Mamdani ignores the entire fabric of Arab society as if it had absolutely nothing to do with Arab terrorism. For him, distant events such as the wars in Angola and Vietnam are relevant to understand Arab terrorism, but the Arab society and the Arab regimes are not relevant at all.

Well, this "is" the problem: as long as people like Mamdani (presumably a Muslim himself) ignore themselves and point the finger at everybody else, they will never solve "the" problem. Because they "are" the problem.

Is this a book of lies? Absolutely not. Most of what Mamdani writes is probably true. But it does not provide an accurate picture of the events because it neglects too much of what was going on and it frequently blows out of proportion selected events. In other words: Mamdani has a political agenda, and focuses only on the facts that serve his agenda. The most grotesque omission is a study of the origins of Palestinian terrorism, clearly the forerunner of Al Qaeda's terrorism (Mamdani seems unaware that one of the leading terrorist groups in Palestine is named "Islamic Jihad"). Another serious omission is a study of the guerrilla methods advocated by communist prophets Trotsky, Lenin and Mao. If Mamdani had read even superficially their books, he would have noticed striking similarities with the ideology of Arab terrorism. This alone would have been an interesting topic to read about, since it has not been researched extensively. In concluding, Mamdani's problem is knowledge: he knows too little of what he is writing about. His tells us no more and no less than what every high-school kid in Europe knows (they love to discuss all the mistakes that the USA made in the world, the same mistakes that Mamdani lists in this book).

Thus by the end of the book ("historical responsibility") we are left with a partial analysis of the Cold War (a very tiny fraction of it, from which, for example, 30,000 nuclear weapons have been carefully removed, not to mention the plight of hundreds of millions of people who were oppressed by the Soviet Union and its allied regimes), but with precious little logical foundations for the implication that Islamic terrorism is a political consequence of the Cold War. Political Islam has always existed (it is, in fact, the very nature of Islam) and, quite simply, it has been able to express itself only when the Arab world (the center of "political" Islam) has had the means to express it, i.e. when the economics catapulted the Arab kingdoms on the world stage. That's the point that Mamdani's 300 pages miss.

In the Middle Ages, Christian demand for spices caused the Muslims to get wealthy, and the Islamic world used that wealth to wage war against the Christian world and attack its moral capital, Constantinople (Istanbul). At the turn of the second millennium, Christian demand for oil caused the Muslims to get wealthy, and the Islamic world is again using that wealth to wage war against the Christian world (even attacking its moral capital, New York).

Mamdani does not state what his solution of the problem would be, but it sounds like the only solution would be that the USA stops "messing" with the rest of the world (even when the rest of the world very much wants the USA to mess with their tyrants). My prescription is simpler than Mamdani's: change the modern economy so that the oil does not matter anymore, and Arab terrorism will disappear; not because Muslims become "good" again, but simply because the "bad" ones (almost all of them concentrated in rich oil countries or funded by such countries) won't have the means to strike anymore. Or convince the Arab world that Allah does not exist and that Mohammed was not his prophet. These are, to me, the only ways out of Arab terrorism: neutralize its power to strike, or degrade it to superstition for senile people. Since I don't wish poverty on anyone, I'd rather go for the latter. (Of course one could also wage a total war against the Islamic world or expel all Muslims from the non-Muslim world, as more and more people around the world are advocating, but I hope that common sense will prevail and the world will never have to resort to such extreme means).

Mamdani offers no solution to the problem because, quite frankly, he hasn't faced the problem: Islam. He has only faced a series of relatively minor miscalculations by the country that would end up ruling the world (the USA); and, which, by the way, is not the only (or the first) victim of Islamic terrorism. The fact that such country ended up ruling the world proves that those miscalculations were indeed minor: the USA did win all three world wars and has, so far, defeated all its enemies, and has gone from being a bunch of former colonies to being the greatest superpower of all times. Hardly a sign of failure.

The Islamic world, in the meantime, has gone from being the most advanced place on Earth to being the most backward place on Earth. It doesn't take a genius to figure out who failed, Islam or the USA.
Mamdani's book is a good example of why this happened: because Muslims tend to blame others for the problems that they created. They list all the sins of the rest of the world, but never list one (not one) of their own sins. Which is precisely what this book does.