Ali Mazrui on Africa, Islam and the West
Weekly Pulse
July 20-26, 2007
Ali Mazrui is Africa’s leading intellectual, respected and honoured worldwide, with varied qualifications as a scholar, artist, ideologue and philosopher. In addition to numerous other intellectual accomplishments, his fame rests on the nine-hour BBC television series, The Africans: A Triple Heritage, which he wrote and narrated, sparking a controversy. The Reagan Administration termed it as “an anti-Western diatribe.” However, it was widely appreciated by the rest of the world, especially in Africa and the Muslim world.

While teaching at a university in North Cyprus until a couple of years ago, I had the privilege of meeting academic luminaries like Ali Mazrui and Richard Falk. Back home, I do not miss the opportunity to benefit from their thoughts on core philosophical strands of contemporary world politics such as ‘Islam and the West,’ ‘Clash of Civilizations’ and ‘End of History.’ His works on challenges facing Africa and Africa’s historical legacy and future destiny are amazing.

Born in Mombassa, Kenya, Ali Mazrui is currently Director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies and Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities at the State University of New York at Binghamton, New York; Albert Luthuli Professor-at-Large, University of Jos, Nigeria; and Senior Scholar and Andrew D White Professor-at-Large Emeritus, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. He has published extensively over the decades, authored over a dozen popular books, written for the world’s leading journals such as Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs and newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post. African Trinity

While exploring the concept of the African trinity, Ali Mazrui has over the years evolved theoretical concepts that have moved the trinity idea toward his current advocacy for reparations: he is firmly committed to the proposition that the injustices of enslavement and bondage of millions of African captives by the West cannot be simply said to have ended with formal emancipation. Those injustices can truly end with the atonement of reparations.

On the issue of reparations, Mazrui notes that perhaps the greatest obstacle to reparations is “from many Africans and black people.” He says: “Africa must conquer itself if it is to avoid further colonisation by others. Africa needs to establish a Pax Africana—an African peace promoted and maintained by Africans themselves. One day, each African will look in the mirror and behold the fusion of the guardian and the ward.”

The tide must change, therefore, contends Mazrui, before the Africans can go to the colonialists and demand their forty acres and a mule, the amount the United States government promised to its formerly enslaved Africans as a measure of compensation—a promise that still has not been kept. About Africa’s destiny shaped by the Africans in the second half of the present century, Mazrui says, “We come from a generation where we were politically conscious both before and after independence. Political astuteness did not originate after independence. But, things, right after independence, began to be difficult much sooner than people assumed. A lot of people assume things became difficult in the 1980s. Not so, There were African dictators all through the 1960s and the pre-independence era up until the recent coups, as we had the warning signals that independence was not going to be that rosy.”

Is democracy then a doomed concept in the African context? Answers Mazrui: “We must remember that it is not a necessity that a country must be affluent before it could accommodate democracy. I do believe that economics is an ingredient, but don’t believe it is necessary for democratic principles.”

Talking about the change in Africa, Mazrui argues, “three decades ago, decolonisation was equated with liberation. Now, decolonisation appears to require the collapse of colonial structures. If this is so, instability may be the real engine of decolonisation. Just because almost all African countries are unstable in varying degrees, however, we must not assume that they are unstable for the same reasons...Just because all patients in a hospital are sick does not mean that they all suffer from the same disease. Conflict prevention requires greater and greater sophistication in diagnosing conflict-prone situations.”

Mazrui’s bottom-line about the present state of affairs in Africa is that the continent is “full of contradictions: conflict generated by too much government, versus conflict generated by too little; conflict generated by too many ethnic groups, as distinct from conflict ignited by too few ethnic groups. It is dark outside and Africa is waiting for the dawn. Let us hope the wait is not too long.”

Scholarly Activism

The aftermath of September 11, 2001 has generated new levels of scholarly activism and academic output by Ali Mazrui on issues of globalisation and Islam’s relationship with the West. Like liberal-leftist writers such as Noam Chomski, Tariq Ali and late Edward Said, Ali Mazrui is a leading exponent of the Muslim cause at the global level, and, likewise, a principal critic of Samuel P Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations thesis.

His latest book, published last year, titled Islam: Between Globalization and Counter-Terrorism, elaborates in detail Islam’s relationship with the Western world. I remember back in November 1998 at an international conference in Cyprus, where we were together as speakers, making an interesting comparison between the Muslim world and the West on democratic performance. He said the United States after two centuries of practicing democracy was not able to elect a woman candidate as President or Vice President, while conservative Muslim countries like Pakistan had elected a woman prime minister twice and the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition in Bangladesh were both women.

Here are some excerpts from his latest book: “When Huntington first published his article ‘A Clash of Civilisations’ in 1993, the idea sounded remote to many people. Muslims especially did not like Huntington's thesis that a confrontation was on the horizon between the West and Islam. Since September 11, 2001, however, it is no longer inconceivable that we are heading for escalating tensions between the United States and its allies, on one side, and much of the Muslim world, on the other.

“Samuel Huntington has argued that there are more violent situations involving Muslims in the world than situations involving members of any other civilization. Huntington does not distinguish between situations where Muslims are primarily victims (as in Chechnya, Kashmir and Palestine) and situations in which Muslims are primarily perpetrators (as in Sudan). In those cases where Muslims are in rebellion against the status quo, a substantial cultural reason for the rebellion is perceived collective indignity. This is true of rebellions of Muslims in Chechnya, Palestine, Macedonia, Kashmir, Kosovo, and even Nigeria.

Cultural Allies

Ali Mazrui further writes: “When all is said and done, history is moving in the direction of making mainstream Christianity and Islam cultural allies in an increasingly secular and often amoral world. However, contemporary political and strategic issues have yet to stem the trend towards alienation between Islam and the secular West. In the Christian identity of the West there is hope for a new realignment of partnership. But the secular identity of the West is still in the shadows of militarism, imperialism capitalism and race. Christian-Muslim relations offer a beacon of optimism. Western-Muslim relations in the secular arena are in danger of vindicating Samuel Huntington's prophecy of ‘a clash of civilizations.’

“Aside from Iran, countries such as Sudan and Saudi Arabia have revived Islamic legal systems and other features of the Islamic way of life, aspects of which go back 14 centuries. Islamic movements in countries like Algeria, Egypt, and Afghanistan are also seeking revivalist goals. A similar sacred nostalgia is evident in other religions such as the born-again Christian sects in the United States and Africa.

Mazrui goes further: “Of all the value systems in the world, Islam has been the most resistant to the leading destructive forces of the twentieth century— including AIDS. Lower levels of prostitution and of hard drug use in conservative Muslim cultures compared to other cultures have, so far, helped contribute to lower-than-average HIV infection rates. If societies closer to the Sharia are also more distant from the human immunodeficiency virus, should the rest of the world take a closer look?

Post-Modernist Solutions

“One can escape modernity by striving to transcend it as well as by retreating from it into the past. Perhaps the Muslim world should explore this path, searching for postmodernist solutions to its political tensions and economic woes, and pursuing the positive aspects of globalization without falling victim to the negative aspects of westernization.

“Western liberal democracy,” he further argues, “has enabled societies to enjoy openness, governmental accountability, popular participation, and high economic productivity, but Western pluralism has also been a breeding ground for racism, fascism, exploitation, and genocide. If history is to end in arrival at the ultimate political order, it will requite mow than the West's message on how to maximize the best in human nature. Humankind must also consult Islam about how to check the worst in human nature—from alcoholism to racism, materialism to Nazism, drug addiction to Marxism as the opiate of the intellectuals.”

According to Mazrui, “The current phase of Americo-Islamic relations requires the taming of the imperial power of the new United States following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. America's own internal democracy needs to develop the skills of restraining America as an empire. In the final analysis, only America as a democracy can effectively control America as an empire. Yet one additional force is needed for restraining the United States. That other future force is the potential power of the Islamic civilization when its petro-wealth is combined with a truly emergent Islamic renaissance. Such an Islamic rejuvenation may be needed to help the global system realize the virtues of checks and balances once again.”

Intimate Exploration

Concluding the chapter titled “Between Westernising Islam and Islamising the West,” Mazrui writes: “At some stage the focus must be switched from the broad theme of Islam and the West to a more intimate exploration of Islam in the West. There was a time in history when the Muslim presence in the Western world was one of intellectual and scientific influence. There were the days when Arabic words like algebra and cipher entered Western scientific lexicons….

“One of the most remarkable things about the Twentieth Century is that it has combined the cultural Westernisation of the Muslim world, on the one hand, with the more recent demographic Islamisation of the West, on the other... Paradoxically, the cultural Westernisation of the Muslim world is one of the causes behind the demographic Islamisation of the West. The cultural Westernisation of Muslims contributed to the ‘brain drain’ that lured Muslim professionals and experts from their homes in Muslim countries to jobs and educational institutions in North America and the European Union.”

He further states: “Judaism, Christianity and Islam are the three Abrahamic creeds of world history. In the Twentieth Century, the Western world is often described as a Judeo-Christian Civilisation, thus linking the West to only two of those Abrahamic faiths. But if Muslims will soon outnumber Jews in countries like the United States, perhaps Islam is replacing Judaism as the second most important Abrahamic religion after Christianity.

“Numerically, Islam in time may overshadow Judaism in much of the West, regardless of future immigration policies...The question has thus arisen about how Islam is to be treated in Western classrooms, textbooks, and media as Islam becomes a more integral part of Western society. In the Muslim world, education has been substantially Westernised. Is it now time for Western education to become partially Islamised?”

Fertile Ground

“If Islam in the Twentieth Century has not always been the most fertile ground for democracy, it has also been less fertile for some of the greatest evils of this century: Nazism, fascism, communism, and genocide. These have emerged in societies that were Christian or Buddhist or Confucian.

“Muslims are often criticised for not producing the best, but they are not congratulated for having standards of human behaviour that avert the worst. There are no Muslim equivalents of Nazi concentration camps...American racial lynching, apartheid under the Dutch Reformed Church, Japanese racism before the Second World War, or genocide under Stalin and Pol Pot. What is it in Islam that insists on minimum standards of humanity and humanness?”

Mazrui has a purely universalistic and humanitarian vision for the future. “For much of this century, we were very often no more than passengers on a ship called the S S Earth. We were just passengers, sometimes passengers in chains. In the course of the second half of the Twentieth Century, we began to be members of the crew—at least some of us. We began to be participants in the movements of that ship and in helping to direct its ultimate destination. The question that now arises is: are we in a position once again to take charge of the ship, if not in this decade, if not in the next decade, not long after that? Are we in a position to take our turn as the collective captain of the S S Earth?”