A Mirror for Americans

Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror (Pantheon, 2004) is a bombshell of a book that will probably not explode. It's subtitle ought to have been promoted, because this book really does link America, the Cold War, and the roots of terror. Mahmood Mamdani is a professor currently at Columbia University, which is how I happened to hear him on the radio. His theory is simply stated, although never so simply as it might have been. After its failure in Vietnam, the United States resorted to fighting the Soviet menace in proxy wars. The essence of a proxy war is that other people do the fighting, but the sponsor pays the bills and trains the forces. Because it has always been difficult, if not impossible, to sell such wars to the American electorate, CIA and other operatives had recourse to alternative financing, in the international drugs trade. So much for the money. As for the training, it discovered the usefulness of terrorism. This was, after all, 'good' terrorism, our terrorism - against the bad guys. And - how convenient - it had to be covert anyway. When the Cold War ended, pockets of terrorists had been built up in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Angola, Sierra Leone, and much of Central America, principally with secret American aid. And of course when the Cold War ended, the best and the brightest in Washington found themselves without a compass. The tensions that had held everything in place while the United States and the Soviet Union menaced themselves and the rest of the world with MADD dissipated, and Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait was one of the first outbursts to fill the vacuum. He had, of course, been supported by the United States during his long war against Iran, but then so had been the Iranians, indirectly, through Israel - remember Iran-Contra? Once American troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia, religious leaders who no longer had any reason to fight the Russians turned around and took a grim look at us. Nous voilą.

Among the many interesting - and, for me, startling novel - arguments advanced by Mr Mamdami, the most electrifying concerns United States support for Israel. Surely, he believes, this cannot be explained by the power of "Jewish interests" alone. There must be something else, and Mr Mamdami finds this something else to be a failure to come to terms with the meaning of the occupation of American territory. Having subdued wilderness and Native American as if these were two sides of the same coin - as if the Native American were not a great deal less like the wilderness and a great deal more like the subduer - the United States does not and cannot see anything wrong with the Israeli project for the Occupied Territories. Equally astigmatic was the initial American approach to freed slaves, which led to a further colony, in still-troubled Liberia.

America's response to major catastrophes - first slavery, then the Holocaust - has crystallized a tendency among Americans to see overseas settlements as a solution, not a problem. In both cases, the American solution was a return home, but a return so marked by a callous disregard for those who were already home, who had never left home, that in each instance the project turned into one of settler colonialism. How does one explain the insensitivity to native interests that seems to be a special feature of American political history? Could it be that America, both official and unofficial, both privileged and not, which has never dared look at its original crime, the expropriation and genocide of Native Americans, in the fact, has historically tended to see settler projects as effective ways to cope with major internal dislocations, at the same time projecting them as so many civilizing missions to the world at large?

This is strong stuff, and while I find it roughly persuasive I will have to chew on it for a year or so. But Mr Mamdami's ability to look at Americans as ordinary mortals is most refreshing, for nothing stinks with as much stale pungency as the essentially adolescent idea of American exceptionalism. This notion was always an aspect of American patriotism, but in the age of sole hyperpower it has become shockingly dangerous. Exceptionalism isn't something that good Americans should prize, but something that they must outgrow. We cannot return our slab of continent to Native Americans (who in any case would undoubtedly prefer to keep their casino privileges), but we can begin to teach ourselves that, for all the hard work involved, the European settlement of the United States was - but for slavery - an unproblematic bonanza.

I must conclude regretfully that I found Good Muslim, Bad Muslim a difficult read. Mr Mamdami writes fluently, but he does not always signal his direction, and the threat of anti-American oratory rumbles persistently, distracting attention from the book's carefully worked-out interpretations of the historical record. A stronger editor might have made this a must-read, with blurbs from writers more sympathetic to the United States than J. M. Coetzee and Noam Chomsky. And the title, as I say, is grossly misleading: Mr Mamdami never intends to distinguish among Muslims, but only to ridicule the American idea that the Muslims who like us are the good ones. Muslims and the Middle East are not at the center of this book; American self-deception is. I fear that disappointing packaging will keep this book's important message from too many minds. (July 2004)

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