One reaction from intellectual readers of my recent article in the Times on the Ismaili Imam, the Aga Khan, was to urge me to read thepost 9/11-essay by the Ugandan-born Mahmood Mamdani, whose writings on African history and society are widely admired. Islam in West Africa — I am thinking especially of Senegal, Mali and Burkina, three countries whose entire populations are virtually all Muslims (if not animists, or traditional believers — is of course the paradigmatic instance in the world of the “good muslim” in Mamdani’s mind. These are gentle, tolerant Muslims, and they are representative actually of an older, wider tradition of African tolerance that has been obscured by recent decades of disorder and state failure not to mention violence expressed under the rubric of enthnicity of tribal affiliation. Mamdani draws attention to the Cold War roots of violent political Islam (my terms) and offers some especially penetrating insights into the African experience. He writes of the seminal year 1975, when I turned 20 years old in New York, and he was a young professor in Tanzania:
“1975 was the year of the American defeat in Indochina, and of the collapse pf Portuguese rule in the colonies of Mozambique, Angola, and Portuguese Guinea, the last European empire in Africa. In retrospect, it was the year that the focal point of the Cold War shifted from southeast Asia to southern Africa.”
In Africa, as elsewhere, the long view of history continues to animate, distort and ultimately explain a great deal of current affairs. More broadly informed historical work that place African affairs in a global context are needed — partly as an antidote to the specialized and sometimes tendentious studies of African specialists and partly because developments in Africa often drove events in faraway places (and not the other way around, as often is presumed). See my recent writing on Ghana’s independence for an instance of this (the effect of Nkrumah’s achievement of power in 1957 on the flagging US civil rights movement was enormous). In “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim,” Mamdani provides other important examples of African-generated global trends of great significance.