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Washington's alliance of convenience
The lies that they tell about Islam

Review by Snehal Shingavi | April 15, 2005 | Page 9

Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror. Pantheon Books, 2004, 320 pages, $24.

IN THE last four years, there has been a proliferation of books that attempt to provide answers to the question "why do they hate us?"

The most prominent answers have come from authors Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington, whose books quickly became the ideological foundation for much of the State Department's thinking about the war on terror. Lewis and Samuel Huntington have helped to push forward the idea that "fanatical" or radical interpretations of Islam lead, invariably, to terrorism.

Mahmood Mamdani's new book, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, is a corrective to what he calls "culture talk"--a way of talking about Islam as if it were something that all readers of the Koran share. Mamdani argues that attempts to find the root of political questions in religious thought relies on a misunderstanding of both religion and politics and serves as a convenient smokescreen for genuine culpability.

Political terrorism wasn't the result of certain dogmatic and idiosyncratic readings of religion but rather the direct consequence of American foreign policy in the wake of the Vietnam War. Political Islam, for instance, was born under the colonial occupations of the 19th and early 20th centuries, but it never produced terrorism of the contemporary variety until the Cold War.

Mamdani argues that the U.S. government cultivated and nurtured right-wing Islamism to do the dirty work that it could not.

In the face of its defeat in Vietnam and profound antiwar sentiment at home, the U.S. government's hands were tied as pro-American dictators in Latin America and Africa fell to nationalist movements with ties to the Soviet Union. The U.S. government was forced to pursue more clandestine operations to ensure that it could first contain and then roll back Soviet influence.

Mamdani shows how America turned first to proxy armies and then to what it called "Low-Intensity Conflict"--the code words for "terrorism"--in order to achieve its foreign policy objectives. Funding for these operations involved establishing an ever-extensive network of drug traffickers.

The result was a number of notorious organizations that received funding and training from the United States: RENAMO in Mozambique, the contras in Nicaragua, and UNITA in Angola. Each of these organizations was an important ally during the Cold War, as they were able to carry out military operations that the U.S. couldn't risk politically. And as the war with the Soviet Union continued, the allies that the U.S. turned to became increasingly vicious.

Afghanistan was an important turning point. The U.S., now determined to end the Cold War on its terms, found fanatical Islamic thought to be a necessary component of its strategy. At every available opportunity, the U.S. helped to make sure that right-wing Islamists triumphed over their more moderate rivals, first edging out the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan and the Jamiat-i-Islami, and later even Hizb-i-Islami, in favor of the Taliban.

As Mamdani points out, a fringe religious and political element that couldn't have imagined taking political power before Afghanistan was now capable, with U.S. help, to take center stage in the Middle East. "How did right-wing Islamism, an ideological tendency with small and scattered umbers before the Afghan War, come to occupy the global center stage after 9/11?" Mamdani asks. "The answer lies in the Afghan jihad, which gave it not only the organization, the numbers, the skills, the reach, and the confidence but also a coherent objective."

The support for the right-wing Islamists was not only material but ideological as well. In 1985, on the White House lawn, then-President Ronald Reagan introduced a group of Afghan men, all leaders of the mujahideen, to the American news media with the following praise: "These gentlemen are the moral equivalents of America's founding fathers." These men would later go on to be leading figures in the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

September 11, then, was less the consequence of a stubborn, anti-modern and dogmatic religious ideology than the result of America's Cold War strategies. Mamdani goes on to argue that the era of proxy wars and Low-Intensity Conflict ended with the American war in Iraq, allowing the U.S. to rid itself of the baggage acquired from the Vietnam War.

This book offers a comprehensive picture of the dirty war the U.S. fought in the Third World as well as an explanation of the origins of terrorism. In this respect, it is in an invaluable resource for antiwar activists.

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