Good Muslim, Bad Muslim

Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, The Cold War, and the Roots of Terror
by Mahmood Mamdani (NY: Pantheon, 2004)

A very smart book that should alter how we think and talk about the war and world politics. Unlike the ceaseless prattle that passes for analysis in the mainstream news, and even in the liberal left press, this book (published, interestingly, by a division of Random House!) recasts the history of so-called “Islamic terrorism.” In his first chapter Mamdani argues for a political understanding of the wide and diverse social and political movements that are lumped together under “Islamic” and analyzes the language used as “Culture Talk,” a way of ruling elites to dehumanize and condescend to so-called pre-modern civililzations. It’s an obvious ongoing racism, but Mamdani does a nuanced and historically well-traced job of explaining how it operates and gets normalized into invisibility.

But the heart of this book is a new look at US foreign policy since the collapse of the South Vietnamese government in 1975. Starting under Ford and Carter, the Cold War shifted to southern Africa, and the US strategy began a now three-decade-old process of privatizing military conflict. Employing surrogates in the former Portugese colonies of Angola and Mozambique, first the South Africans, later “home-grown rebels” like Renamo in Mozambique, and UNITA in Angola, the US sought to contain militant nationalism under the logic that it was sponsored by the Soviet Union. With the Iranian and Nicaraguan revolutions in 1978-79, Carter’s strategy of containment and coexistence lost support and was replaced by Reagan’s belligerent intention to “roll back” what he called the Evil Empire (the Soviet Union) but was really a series of nationalist uprisings against the brutal dictatorship of US-sponsored tyrants (e.g. the Shah in Iran, Somoza in Nicaragua).

The logic of using privately created and financed armies, according to this smart book, is the precise origins of today’s terrorism. (The off-the-books financing has been largely derived from illegal drugs, mostly heroin, often protected, if not sponsored, by the CIA and its operatives.) The culmination of this strategy was the “secret” war in Afghanistan, which saw the U.S. funneling hundreds of million of dollars and countless high-tech weapons to the armies fighting the Soviet Union. Mamdani explains how the United States, working hand-in-glove with the Pakistani Secret Police (ISI) more or less created the terrorists they are now so rhetorically obsessed with. Bin Laden was recruited to inspire and lead the jihadists against the Soviets when an actual Saudi prince proved unavailable. Soldiers and saboteurs of the jihadi army were brought to U.S. bases in the 1980s for training in the techniques of urban mayhem and terrorism that have become well-known.

The Nicaraguan Contras were also schooled in techniques of destroying civil infrastructure, attacking nurses and teachers, and making society unmanageable. Cynical, well-financed and militarily sophisticated operations by the United States have been directed against countries that have sought to improve their people’s lives, or even simply those that refuse, out of nationalism, to remain supine before the Empire and its corporate owners. The duplicitous manipulation of the Iran-Iraq War from 1980-1988 is a case in point, and an example of how the overt and covert actions of the U.S. overlap and interpenetrate (while supporting Saddam Hussein overtly, the U.S. was covertly funneling arms to Iran via the Iran-Contra scandal’s arrangements.)

The 2003 invasion of Iraq represents an end to the period of surrogate wars, according to Mamdani’s analysis. But does it? The second largest army in Iraq, after the U.S.’s 140,000+, is the private contractors, numbering somewhere over 10,000, followed by Britain’s 9,800 or so. Clearly the cost of running a war with highly paid mercenaries is vastly greater than employing a normal, low-wage army. Is it a coincidence that this year’s Afghani opium crop is the largest in history?

Mamdani’s conclusion is to repudiate the impunity with which the war criminals running the U.S. government are operating, administering collective punishment to whole regions and peoples for seeking their independent path to modernity. “America cannot occupy the world. It has to learn to live in it” ends Mamdani. Sounds like a good idea, but unlikely to develop peacefully or out of rational choice. It seems that the madmen, now planning to even further expand the U.S. global military project, will have to be defeated militarily and socially, and put in loony bins where they belong.

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