Author: Mahmoud Mamdani
Publ: Vita Books
Reviewer: G Oluoch-Olunya
The writing of this review was started in May, in the context of an ongoing war between Israel and Gaza that saw the shelling of the Palestinians in Gaza as Israel sought to once again reassert its hegemony over its nation-state. Jeffrey Sachs, University Professor at Columbia and himself a Jew, and American, in an early response to the war was ‘deeply troubled by Israel’s reckless anti-Arab violence, which runs against the very core of Jewish ethics.’ Sachs was emphatic that the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu’s actions were narrow, and self-driven, occasioned by a waning popularity against a backdrop of impending prosecution for corruption allegations. For him, although the Prime Minister ‘claims to be acting in the name of the Jewish people. He certainly is not. Many Jews despise his racist politics.’ Although a ceasefire has now been declared, eleven days into the war, Sachs, tired of the cycle of violence, has proposed an economic solution to the problem: Israel, not external donors, must bear the cost of rebuilding Gaza. It is this compulsion of America and Europe to prop up Israel, glad to see the Jewish ‘problem’ thus confined to this nation-state that Mamdani explores so well in this richly layered and compelling book.
He, for instance, revisits the Six Day war of 1967, and reflects on its far-reaching effects, such as the emergence of a more culturally confident Palestinian. Back then, Israel took over the Gaza strip, although it was forced to withdraw its civil administration in 2005 because the Palestinian Arabs resisted Judaization. According to Mamdani, this war may have given an entire generation of Arab Jews ‘independence, status and promotion’, but they remain a minority, and different, to date. Indeed, the complex identity of being culturally Arab, but religiously Jewish goes back to the Biblical separation of Jew and gentile. God’s role in the destiny of Israel reads like a continuation of the Old Testament story, where actions are ‘a part of God’s plan’. Here is a culture fully alive to God’s purpose, quite literally. Yet even as Israel has continued to use terror to delegitimize Palestinian resistance to its colonial strategies, violence and occupation, Palestine remains intricately bound by what scholar Maya Mikdashi calls the ‘civilian infrastructure of terrorism’. As she argues, ‘You do not have to pick up a gun in Palestine to be a revolutionary or an enemy of Israel… You just have to be Palestinian.’
This is the kind of detailed engagement that characterizes this book in which Mamdani painstakingly examines how different peoples have dealt with this question of minorities and majorities. He looks at five case studies or areas that constitute the main chapters in the book: The Indian Question in the United States; Nuremberg: The Failure of Denazification; Settlers and Natives in Apartheid South Africa; Sudan: Colonialism, Independence and Secession, and as highlighted above, The Israel/Palestine Question. These are all areas in which Mamdani has taken keen research interest over the years, studying their socio-political processes, their histories and trajectories; how their pasts filter into present, and the implications of these for future. The book sifts and synthesizes, advancing many of these ideas, and ways of thinking. It unsettles, but also nudges in directions that enable solid traction in tackling difficult, sometimes stubbornly and long-held positions.
In order to understand this book properly, we need to go back to the pivotal moment in Mamdani’s life that has informed his enduring interest in questions of belonging. In From Citizen to Refugee: Ugandan Asians Come to Britain (1973, 2011), he describes his return home to Uganda from his studies at Harvard, to find his community expelled, under short notice, by then President, Idi Amin. Most had already settled, having been brought in as members of a common British Empire, of which they were assured subjects. Yet here he was, suddenly a member of a minority that did not belong. It was an early lesson in the shifting nature of power, with its arbitrary and fickle application, rendering the notion of nation as portable. Much later he would come to see it as the failure to reform statecraft in new states. And so Mamdani found himself drowning in the intolerance that difference provokes. He subsequently speaks of the wages of what he calls postcolonial modernity, this ‘era of blood and terror, ethnic cleansing and civil wars, and, sometimes, genocide’, not from a place of academic abstraction, but from the painful experience of having sought refuge himself, in London.
In subsequent books, he has continued to revisit this question. In his analysis of the genocide in Rwanda, in When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism and the Genocide in Rwanda (2001), he found that ordinary members of the community were complicit in the killings, just as the communities in Sudan were the actors in their own war. In Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror (2013), he deals with this conflict in Sudan. His interrogation of Apartheid in South Africa, not as something exceptional, but as offering a framework for looking at ethnicity and race. His close following of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after the end of Apartheid is discussed in his most widely read work to date, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism (1996, 2004). Indeed, in the book under review he sees the path taken by South Africa in its embrace of diversity and difference, but even more, in its making of the distinction between Apartheid as a political process, rather than one seeking to punish criminal culpability, as unlocking an impasse reached by many modern states. It is this accommodation that he suggests as offering direction in the impossible situation in which the nation-state finds itself.
So as to fully understand this phenomenon, he goes back to the beginnings of our so-called modernity, beyond the usual date of 1648 when the Treaty of Westphalia was signed. This treaty brought to an end decades of continuous war across Europe, and enabled unprecedented civility, or tolerance. It was here that it was first agreed the internal minorities be protected within the state, rather than be oppressed or expelled, and is where most political scientists locate the beginnings of the modern nation-state. Mamdani takes us back to the much earlier year, 1492. This year marked the establishment of the Spanish (Castillian) State through conquest, and also the establishment of Spanish colonies in Americas. For Mamdani, the frame for our current political ways of organizing must be traced back to these models, which were both achieved through the ethnic cleansing of a native population. The origins of the modern state bear this distinguishing birthmark. And yet the situation is complex, especially as Mamdani grapples with the broad conceptualisations of race, the ethnic and the tribal/aboriginal, and how these are variously engaged, and read. Going back even further in his survey of the tensions that underpin and order our present, Yuval Harari (2018) recognises the insidiously polarizing and alienating impacts of the monotheistic religions. From the annals of Indian history he brings us Emperor Ashoka, who in the third century BC issued an imperial edict on tolerance. Known as ‘Beloved-of-the-Gods, the king who regards everyone with affection’, his benevolence and toleration preceded, and belie the intolerance that was to play itself out periodically in later centuries.
Ultimately, Mamdani argues, powerfully, that the history of colonialism, which he covers in astonishing breadth, is our history. If the nation-state was born of colonialism, then this book calls us to rethink political violence and reimagine political community beyond majorities and minorities. He insists that the postcolonial crisis is first and foremost a political crisis, rather than a criminal one (as in the Nuremberg trials), but he pushes even further for a rethinking of the very notion of the political community itself. The nation state as it is constituted, with a controlling majority (sovereign) and a suppressed minority (subject) is unsustainable. For him, ‘Only by decoupling the nation from the state can there be democracy, a scenario in which shifting coalitions of interest, constructed through persuasion, hold sway.’ The separation of nation, and state – a radical idea indeed. Some of us may imagine that we belong incontrovertibly to both, but it helps to remember that the separation of Church and State was, for instance, also unthinkable once.
The book, which has already generated wonderful debate, some of which can be found online, is clearly written, and well-argued, opening it to diverse area specialists as well as a general readership.