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Comfort in deception

Mahmood Mamdani explores the roots of Islamic terrorism


The United States is not a benign innocent unfairly targeted by fanatics on Sept. 11, 2001. That is the larger message that University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill says he intended in his now infamous 2001 piece, "Some People Push Back. " Churchill's use of inflammatory language and unfortunate similes -- likening the victims to Nazis -- obscured the thrust of his arguments under a wall of ire with demands for his resignation and a subsequent investigation of his past work.

Mahmood Mamdani chooses his words more carefully, but even so, his sixth book, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror, lays out a damning -- and alarming -- indictment of America's involvement in the formation of Islamic terrorism.

Good Muslim documents how the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, the World Trade Center attackers and the authors of the majority of terrorist attacks conducted since 1990 are rooted in CIA-supported training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

U.S. funds and expertise, he writes, created the camps during the 1980s to train the mujahedin in terrorist warfare to defeat the Soviets, occupiers of Afghanistan beginning in December 1979. Ten years later, the Soviets withdrew and the United States redirected its attentions. But the militants --an estimated 35,000 to 100,000 attended the camps -- did not hang up their Kalashnikovs. They went on to form the Taliban, join other militant groups or come under the influence of leaders like bin Laden.

Mamdani accuses the United States of legitimizing terrorism by enveloping it as a religious war to defeat the Soviet "evil empire." He acknowledges that on one level it worked; the Soviets withdrew. But he questions whether the aftermath justifies the initial gain.

The author's assertions make for uncomfortable reading and Good Muslim is not a fast read. The reader is left with an increasing sense of incredulity; Mamdani's sources, though, are credible and his background as an African immigrant perhaps provides him with a more insightful analysis of American foreign policy. Indian by descent, Mamdani grew up in Kampala, Uganda. He continues to live in Kampala and in New York, where he teaches political science and anthropology at Columbia University. He has written previously on the Rwanda genocide and the failure of the West to respond.

In Good Muslim, he explodes the myth of U.S. innocence by documenting the role of American foreign policy in terrorism, traced back to the influence of Henry Kissinger, who served as secretary of state from 1973 to 1977. According to Mamdani, Kissinger utilized covert strategies to wage war and avoid congressional oversight. Those covert strategies evolved in the Reagan years into the overt support of terrorists, including the Nicaraguan contras and the mujahedin in Afghanistan.

Islamic terrorism, Mamdani argues, is not a product of a religion. Rather, the CIA, acting through Pakistan's spy agency, cast the fight against the Soviets as a jihad, a religious war, forging a link between Islam and terrorist warfare. The camps indoctrinated militants with a sense of divine purpose and this ideology justified terrorist attacks.

Good Muslim challenges readers to recognize America's role and to confront and rethink the view of Muslim terrorists as a product of a bad religion.

"The United States tends to memorialize other peoples' crimes, not its own -- to seek a high moral ground as a pretext to ignore real issues," Mamdani writes.

It may be tempting to rail against commentators like Ward Churchill while obscuring the real issues. Mamdani challenges this self-deception.


Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror

by Mahmood Mamdani

(Pantheon Books: New York)


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