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“Africa’s bondage of boundaries: it is time to loosen the chains”
Interview with Professor Ali Mazrui
Professor Ali Mazrui delivered a series of lectures in Somaliland in a visit two weeks ago and reiterated that the bondage, which African countries had built to boundaries, and which were designed by colonials, must loosen up and new dimensions of coexistence must rein. SSI caught up with Professor Mazrui and discussed his works, observations and conclusions about his visit to Somaliland. Excerpts from the exclusive interview follow. Part II of this interview will be featured in next week’s issue.
SSI: You have been widely involved with a high reputation in the academic and the intellectual arenas. Could you please tell us what you have been doing of late and how you have been involved in the political, intellectual and development spheres in Africa?
Prof. Mazrui: As you know I am a scholar rather than a policy maker, and politically active, so for the last 10 years, I have had my primary base in the US with two major universities, one in the State of New York, at Binghamton, and the other one is with Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. In these institutions, I teach African politics and politics of Diaspora and also Islam in the black experience.
In the African perspective, in the previous Organization of African Unity, I was involved in the “Reparations,” a committee that looks into ways in which black people can campaign for reparations for the hundreds of years of servitude, colonization, slavery and discrimination. This was first instituted in a conference in Dakar in the 1990’s where we were sworn in front of the Summit. There we started some work under the chairmanship of a wealthy Nigerian man with resources by the name Chief Mashoud Abiola. As long as he was alive, the initiative was running well because he was ready to inject his money, where his mouth could say something. In that way he was keeping us running, so as to find out comparative situations how people have been paid, such as those of Jews in the Holocaust and Japanese with the US in the WWII, who were compensated.
Later Mashoud Abiola got into trouble with soldiers in his country, where he stood in the elections and won the elections, but the soldiers would not let him become a President. I remember he came to the US and telephoned me and told me that he was going back to Nigeria to become a President and I knew the soldiers wouldn’t’ let him become a President, so I said, ‘Chief, but the soldiers would not let you become President so why would you attempt,’ and he said, ‘Well, see you at the inauguration ceremony.’ Then he went back to Nigeria and declared himself a President as per the outcome of the elections, but apparently the soldiers locked him up and he died in the prison. That affected the project of the Reparations, but I and other members of the committee decided to keep it alive, that reparations issues are discussed at African conferences. Moukhtar Mbow, who used to be the Director-general of UNESCO, is still technically the co-chair of Reparations Committee. Mrs. Mandela is also a member of the committee, but these days she tells us to be Nelson Mandela’s wife is a full time job, so although she is a member with us, she gets busy with Nelson Mandela. But all the same we are trying to keep it alive.
The biggest academic conference these days is the African Studies Association in the US, so every year we formulate conferences that touch on issues of African Reparations, slavery and issues of servitude and compensation, and we have a panel. This year the meeting will be in San Francisco, but it was held in Washington, New Orleans. It is a tough one because Jews take reparations very seriously and got paid, but when it comes to black people, they are too forgiving, and they don’t have much confidence among black people themselves, so that also becomes a bit of a problem. In general, one of our tasks is to arise enough confidence among black people because that’s a fight we have to undertake. We are owed a debt by history and economies have been built on the backs of black people, but they are still underprivileged. So it starts in the educational process. Then I come to Africa, I have been linked to African Universities doing lectures and research work, in Nigeria much more recently, the Head of State of Kenya, President Mwai Kibaki, had appointed me to be the Chancellor of Jomo Kenyata University of Agriculture and Technology, that brings me more often to home. Then we are very pleased to see South Africa open up, and I go to South Africa every year and they are very keen to hear from me, and I get lots of invitations from them and they honored me with a Doctorate or two. So the world continues, sometimes all is well and sometimes you get into trouble either with governments or extremist groups.
There is this book, which was published about the 101 most dangerous professors in the US, putting me as one of those most dangerous academics. David Horowitz, who is a militant right-winger made all sorts of nonsense analysis to sell his book tarnishing the academics who in one way or the other talk openly and criticize the US Imperialism or Israeli Zionism. But the world continues and we shall continue struggling.
SSI: What criteria do you think Prof. David Horowitz used to put (list) you in the category of the most dangerous academies in the US? What part of your work or involvement made you qualify to be one of the ‘most dangerous professors?’
Prof. Mazrui: Actually he took a position on the reparations issues, I don’t think that is the primary reason behind his hostility, but for some years now he has been arguing that Black people do not deserve reparations as their descendents (of the African- Americans) are better off than what they could have been if they had remained in Africa. So he uses this kind of rubbish, cheap and nonsense arguments and says that Africa is underdeveloped, full of poverty and so those who have been taken as slaves are better off so they don’t deserve reparations. I have taken him on in an exchange of writings, but I think he is much bothered about American foreign policy and arguments about Israel. He was particularly offended by a paper I wrote entitled ‘Is Israel a danger to American democracy,’ and the arguments were that of the US’s critical support to Israel, which happened to have angered the rest of the world, especially the Arab and the Muslim world, that results in all sorts of violent actions and makes the Americans begin to dilute their own democracy. It is more dangerous to criticize Israel in the United States than to criticize the United States. I know friends who were denied tenure at universities because of their pro-Palestinian views. Those are all threats to American democracy.
And also because I have been a participant in Muslim organizations in the United States, like the American Muslim council, and I was a chairman of a body called ‘Center for the study of Islam and democracy’ and also in the ‘American Muslim alliance,’ which promoted policies at elections. They support candidates which they regard more Muslim friendly. And they are aspiring to promote candidates who are Muslims in major American institutions. So Horowitz uses all this and says that Ali Mazuri is in cahoots with Al-Qaeda and some of the things in his paper are just inventions. He says that I was the spokesperson of a terrorist organization called Al-Mahajiroon. I have never had any dealings with them; I do not know where that came from in his mind. But because I am outspoken about both African issues and issues of Muslim-west confrontations, I have had unpleasant experiences. My house had been pelted with raw eggs, my e-mail has been bombarded with abusive spam and the governor of the state of New York and president of my university have received letters stating that I should be dismissed. Militant right-wingers and others who are ready to hound and hunt critics of either American foreign policy or Israeli behavior.
SSI: How do you protect yourself from violent groups who know you and would try to attack you? What security and safety nets do you use to protect yourself when you travel in places, like in airports?
Prof. Mazrui: We have not assigned bodyguards, as most of the attacks on me have been electronic, without a sense of impeding danger that I might be beaten up. I was detained for many hours at Miami Airport very surprisingly because I have been coming into the United States in and out for a quarter of a century, and every year at least I enter four times. And all of a sudden this one day I am pulled aside and start to be questioned on whether I believed in jihad and what I understood about jihad.
I said look I am a professor, I can give you a course on Jihad 101, in armed Jihad, intellectual Jihad, personal Jihad and collective Jihad. Three sets of interrogators subjected me to all these examinations, including asking a lot of questions about what Muslim organization I belonged to, etc. I was given one phone call to make, which I made to my home. My wife was not there but we finally got her. When she realized it was a major problem she reported to the university. My adopted children, fortunately one of them works for the federal government of the united states and one of them is a distinguished law professor in the University of Virginia, so they started acting on that. So the three sets of interrogators by that time I assume they had discovered who I was and became much more respectful and courteous, but they still wanted to interrogate me and explained to me that they were members of the anti-terrorism task force. They gave me their card and they were very sophisticated and well informed. I was particularly impressed when they asked me about Trinidad and Tobago, which was where I was coming from. More than a decade ago a black Trinidadian Muslim called Abubakir held hostage the entire Government cabinet of Trinidad in the parliament building. It was then a very big world news at the time. So these guys at Miami asked me if I met him. I said no I did not meet him but I tried to. When asked why I said look in one university I teach Islam in world politics, I teach in another university Islam among Black people, and it is my business to look for Abubakir and find out more about him. So that particular episode ended well because they told off the previous interrogators and that they should have been sensitive and they asked if I needed a glass of water and if I needed something to eat and then they were told to book me on the next flight to New York, since my plane had already gone. They also paid for my stay in Miami and finally gave me 25 USD. I think the money was to make sure that I was fed. I really wondered when they held me whether I would be allowed back into the US. I was getting increasingly pessimistic about those guys allowing me to enter the country. I was reviewing my entire future where do I go from here? Kenya? Nigeria? South Africa? Or do I return to Uganda where I was working as a professor. And then when they released me I started worrying if there would be another interrogation. So I assume whatever they have found out from the interrogations have been sufficiently reassuring with their security concerns. They have never bothered me in that sense again. Whether they are monitoring me I have no way of knowing now. We know there are things like listening in on phone calls. They might be monitoring me, [but] they are wasting their time. I am not part of any terrorist organization.
..........................................Continued in next week’s issue
Source: Sub-Saharan Informer 14 Apil 2006