[Marxism] Mamdani tells it like it is
lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Mar 30 18:25:26 MST 2005
NY Observer, March 30, 2005
Mamdani Uproar: Scion Of Ed Said Rocks Columbia
by Andrew Rice
On a recent Tuesday evening, Mahmood Mamdani, a bookishly handsome and
relentlessly incendiary political theorist, spoke at a forum on the subject
of academic freedom held at Columbia University, where he teaches.
Not long ago, in the pages of Foreign Affairs, he wrote that the
neoconservatives are a twin of al Qaedathe kind of rhetorical Molotov
cocktail seldom tossed by the house organ of the Council on Foreign Relations.
On this evening, he was about to throw another one: into the already highly
emotional battle at Columbia over anti-Semitism at the university.
Among the graduate students and faculty members that packed the top-floor
conference room that night was a young correspondent from The New York Sun,
which had ardently been fanning the story of the handful of Jewish students
who have said they were ridiculed for expressing support of Israel in some
classes taught by professors in the schools department of Middle Eastern
The first speaker, a former university provost, gave a windy speech warning
of a rising tide of anti-intellectualism. Then Mr. Mamdani rose, and
announced he was planning to confront the issue directly. He was wearing a
smart dark suit, his royal blue shirt open at the collar, his curly gray
hair slightly mussed.
The accusation involved is the worst you can hurl at anyone in
contemporary American society, he said, his voice audibly seething with
indignation. Mr. Mamdani, who is from an Indian Muslim background, had not
been accused, but he was passionate in his belief that outside groups,
with skills honed elsewhere in the Empire, were mounting an attack on his
university, his rights.
He posed the rhetorical question: What is academic freedom?
First and foremost, it is the freedom of a professor to go against the
grain. To commit heresy, he said. Any student who enters a university
should be prepared for the discomfort that comes from having his or her
most cherished truths questioned.
With unwavering self-assurance, Mr. Mamdani has taken aim at a lot of
cherished truths lately. Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Mamdani, 58, was new
to America and barely known outside his narrow academic discipline, African
Since then, he has willed his way into the thick of the debate over the War
on Terror, casting himself as a public intellectual for the jihadist age.
Last year, he published a popular book on the roots of Middle Eastern
extremism. He chats with highbrow talk-show hosts like Bill Moyers and
Charlie Rose. His views have been attacked by The National Review and are
dismissed by some Middle East experts, but he has won praise from academic
heavyweights like Noam Chomsky, the economist Jeffrey Sachs and Columbias
late Palestinian scholar Edward Said, a friend and admirer, who played a
crucial role in assuring that Mr. Mamdanis book, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim,
ended up at his own major publishing house, Pantheon Books. Admirers say
the book carries on the tradition of his revered (and sometimes reviled)
patron; everybody at Columbia agrees that Saids legacy is threatened. What
happens next will test that ambition and test many other things at
A week before, Mr. Mamdani welcomed a visitor to his book-filled office,
which is mostly decorated in red, appropriately enough for an old Marxist.
He speaks softly, like many true radicals, with a lilting, cosmopolitan
accent. He said he saw the controversy that now grips Columbia as part of a
wider campaign against American teachers right to express unorthodox
I find it extremely worrying, Mr. Mamdani said. He was especially
incensed at Columbias president, Lee Bollinger, who recently called on
professors to resist the allure of certitude, the temptation to use the
podium as an ideological platform, to indoctrinate a captive audience.
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