Thursday, 23 September 2010

Book Review: Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, by Mahmood Mamdani (2005)

For every complex solution there is at least one deceptively simple answer which is spectacularly wrong.

There is nothing simpler than to blame all of the world's problems on the United States as the only current global superpower. Mahmood Mamdani, an East African of Indian descent and a Professor at Columbia University, subscribes to the well-worn theory of "when in doubt, blame the CIA". It's a theory that conveniently allows everyone else to become a victim, and it distills finding real solutions to this: "if only America would behave!".

The contents of Good Muslim, Bad Muslim have nothing to do with the title. The book is one continuous, simplistic, shrill, unbalanced, and one-sided diatribe against the foreign policy of the United States, pushing the theory that the attacks of September 11 2001 and all else that ails the world are a direct result of American foreign policy since the time of the Vietnam War.

There is nothing wrong with holding the US to account for its many direct and indirect adventures and misadventures in foreign lands. What is inexcusable is presenting one side of every story; not attempting to rationally discuss the justifications of the actions of the United States; and most importantly, not discussing the alternatives to those actions.

What would the world look like today if Soviet-back regimes had not been checked in Central America, South East Asia, and Africa? What would Asia and the Middle East look like if the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan had prevailed? Other than the actions that the US took, what realistic alternative actions does Mr. Mamdani propose, and what would have been the likely outcome of these actions?

Criticism of foreign policy is intellectually bankrupt when it fails to present reasonable and thoughtful alternative actions and the clear implication of other likely outcomes.

Equally inept is Mamdani's failure to allocate any responsibility to the apparent victims of US foreign policy. Why have the countries of South East Asia thrived since the end of the Cold War, while the countries of Africa and the Middle East have not? How did South Africa and most of South America throw off the shackles of brutal regimes which were sometimes backed by the US? What did the citizens of these countries do that others can learn from?

Mamdani is not interested in difficult questions like these, since such discussions require that nations take some responsibility for their progress. It's so much easier to play the victim and blame the bully.

Even with its limited intent of pinning the September 11 2001 attacks on US foreign policy since the Cold War, the book is an abject failure. Various authors, including Lawrence Wright in The Looming Tower (2006) and Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon in The Age of Sacred Terror (2002) have traced the very deep roots of violent Islamic extremism to at least the 1920's, when Britain and France were the world's superpowers.

And if we want to just trace the modern ill-treatment of the Muslim world by colonial and other powers, Robert Fisk in The Great War For Civilisation (2005) presents atrocities by all the world's major powers, including extreme Muslim-on-Muslim violence, dating back at least to the First World War.

Mamdani mentions in passing some of the early origins of Islamic extremism, but does not dwell on them since they do not fit his simplistic America-bashing agenda.

Good Muslim, Bad Muslim is a title too long: Bad is a good enough title for this book.

Subtitled "America, The Cold War, And The Roots Of Terror".
260 pages, plus Notes and Index.
Published in paperback by Three Leaves Press.

The Ace Black Blog Book Review Index is here.

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