[Marxism] Mamdani tells it like it is

Louis Proyect 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 Qaeda”—the 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 school’s 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 Columbia’s 
late Palestinian scholar Edward Said, a friend and admirer, who played a 
crucial role in assuring that Mr. Mamdani’s 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 Said’s legacy is threatened. What 
happens next will test that ambition– and test many other things at 
Columbia besides.

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 
political views.

“I find it extremely worrying,” Mr. Mamdani said. He was especially 
incensed at Columbia’s 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.

full: http://www.nyobserver.com/pages/frontpage3.asp

Louis Proyect
Marxism list: www.marxmail.org 

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