A Tribute: Ali Mazrui, Ghana, & The World (1)

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Tue, 21 Oct 2014 Source: Kwarteng, Francis

Africa and the world lost one of its most influential, cherished, and well-known scholars, Prof. Ali Al’amin, on October 13, 2014, in the United States, after a short illness. Prof. Ali Al’amin Mazrui, famously known around the world as Ali Mazrui, was born on February 24, 1933 in Mombasa, Kenya, into a well-known Moslem family, a very powerful family in pre-colonial times. Mazrui’s father was the Chief Qadi of Kenya, the highest legal authority on Islamic Law (See Hatem Bazian’s “An Intellectual Giant: Ali Mazrui, 1933-2014). Mazrui had been a popular professor of history, a political scientist, a critical proponent of North-South relations, a prolific author, documentary filmmaker, an essayist, among others. Again, according to Bazian, Mazrui served the BBC in a capacity as political analyst while still a doctoral student at Oxford University.

Ali Mazrui began his education in Kenya, going on to acquire a B.A. (University of Manchester, 1960, UK), an M.A. (Columbia University, 1961, USA), and a doctorate (Oxford University, 1966, UK). Mazrui soon left for Kenya after graduating from Oxford Univeristy. In Kenya he became a member of Uganda’s Makerere University in two reputable capacities as Chair of the Political Science Department and as Dean of the Arts and the Social Sciences. In 1973 Mazrui moved to the United States where he spent the rest of his life in involuntary exile until his untimely passing. Then, in 1974, a year after his relocation to America, he joined the faculty of the University of Michigan and, consequently, elected to the directorship of the Center for Afro-American and African Studies, serving in that capacity from 1978 to 1981.

Also in 1989 Mazrui became a faculty member of Binghamton University, USA. There he performed his professorial duties in his capacity as the Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities and as the Director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies (IGCS). These important appointments may have positioned his professorial career on a steady path to global acclaim, pitting his proliferant psychology against some of the world’s best. Could Idi Amin whose tyrannical predilections had driven out Mazrui into exile, as far back as 1973, have been the origination of divine countenance? Let us not get bogged down in the deepening labyrinth of transcendental mystery or dabble in sterile speculation, for Mazrui, a dedicated progressive Moslem, balanced religious pragmatism with scientific objectivity, a profound thinker not given to the emotionalism of religious affectation and idle speculations.

He was an intellectual behemoth whose greatness earned him a noble station among the pantheon of great thinkers of the 20th century, a reputable craft of men and women as influentially authentic and as intellectually fecund as Maya Angelou, Noam Chomsky, Cheikh Anta Diop, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ama Mazama, W.E.B. Du Bois, Wangari Maathai, Molefi Kete Asante, Chinua Achebe, Ama Ata Aidoo, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Wole Soyinka, Kofi Awoonor, Kwame Nkrumah, Leymah Gbowee, and so on. Indeed, Mazrui’s was a bold effort aimed squarely at disinfecting Africa with vigorous critique of Eurocentric depiction of the continent as Lockean tabula rasa, a sort of blank slate in the epochal advent of Western psychology, exercised through intellectual de-colonization of the Eurocentric enterprise.

Furthermore, a scholar-activist in the same league as Ama Mazama, Cornel West, Marimba Ani, Ayi Kwei Armah, Abdias do Nascimento, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Shadrack Gutto, Molefi Kete Asante, Noam Chomsky, Wole Soyinka, and so forth, Mazrui’s brand of fiery intellectualism ushered in the much-needed cathartic critique, a somewhat transforming oversight of intellectual conceit and human hypocritical capacity for perfection, required to immure Eurocentrism in the moral dentition of internal self-assessment, although his good sense met the unconscious frustration of self-denial directly resulting from his total self-immersion in the one-eyed paradigm of Eurocentrism. Of course, Eurocentrism has been a major obstacle to intellectual freedom and racial globalization, a paradigmatic hegemonism of which the likes of James W. Loewen, Chinua Achebe, Toni Morrison, Edward Said, Ama Mazama, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Peter Tosh, Marimba Ani, Steve Biko, Fela Kuti, James M. Blaut, Cheikh Anta Diop, Thabo Mbeki, Bob Marley, Samir Amin, and Martin Bernal morally and philosophically resisted for the better half of the 20th century.

In one sense, therefore, Mazrui saw Eurocentrism as a potential enemy of compromise and consensus in the collective enterprise of human and race relations, thus operationally undermining the conditionality of globalized harmony in the disparate enclaves of racial, religious, and ethnic prejudices, since the psychology of de-colonization and promotion of human and race relations remained central to his comprehension of the philosophy of social psychology. Yet Ali Mazrui’s intellectual greatness did come with a progression of painful controversies, some positive, others negative. Nevertheless, this suite of controversies cannot be held against his influential bequest because the epistemology of perspective and context, two important formulations, with its deeply-held compartmentalized oversight of internal critique makes for serious analytic provocation, a situation potentially translatable to Mazrui’s externalized vigorous defense of his internal contradictions.

Correspondingly, this hovering sense of internal critique equally reflected in a charged environment of external critique, precisely as embodied in the philosophical resistance of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s Wole Soyinka’s, and Molefi Kete Asante’s intellectual vigilance to Mazrui’s contentious scholarship. One advertent commentator made the following observation (See Alamin M. Mazrui’s and Willy Lutunga’s edited volume “Debating the African Condition: Race, Gender, and Culture Conflict”) worth quoting:

“It is of course the hallmark of deep and visionary thinkers that they provoke controversy; but I am sure that Ali Mazrui himself is quite used to his writing and lectures provoking some controversy. But the truth is that most authentic deep thinking Africans and non-Africans genuinely interested in understanding the reality as against the perceived notions of African affairs have always valued his contributions even when they do not share his views (Chief Emeka Anyaoku, Q-News (London), July 2003: 23).”

Indeed Mazrui was an atomic bomb of intellectual provocation and a fat divisive definition of controversies. A special case in point was the divided international response to his televised series based on the book “The Africans: A Triple Heritage,” a scholarly work partly influenced by Kwame Nkrumah’s “Consciencism: Philosophy and Ideology for Decolonization” and Edward W. Blyden’s “Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race.” The Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), the BBC, and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) collaborated on this thoroughly researched project, the three showing it to the world. However, Asante criticized the book for its selective approach to historiography on ancient Africa and her external relations, questioning, among other things, why Mazrui had not applied his “triple methodology” to Europe’s historical relationship with ancient Africa from the standpoint of Western epistemology. Asante’s measured critique of “The Africans” closely resembled the critique that would be fiercely mounted against Kwame Anthony Appiah’s influential work “In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture.”

Then, from there, Mazrui’s position in the American academy, one interesting event followed another, more so upon the global success of televised series. In fact Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s own “Wonders of the African World,” a televised series with a successful book accompaniment of the same title, benefited immensely from Mazrui’s expertise, his rigorous approach to scholarship, and vision. As expected of critical and open-minded thinkers, Mazrui heavily criticized Gates for de-emphasizing Islam’s role in the formation of Africa’s moral, historical, and cultural personality, even referring to Gates as “Black Orientalist.”

The concept “Orientalism” probably gained intellectual rebirth and epistemological influence in the Western academy, especially America’s, after Prof. Edward Said, the late Columbia University comparative literature professor and classical pianist, published a book of the same title. Orientalism basically addresses the question of Western intellectual tendency to objectify and negativize Eastern and Southwestern Asian cultures, with Said offering a vigorous critique of the model which he essentially saw as racist.

Here is what another writer has to say about “Black Orientalism”:

“Ali Mazrui was probably the first person to use the term Black Orientalism in his critique of the PBS documentary ‘Wonders of the African World’, produced by Henry Gates, an African-American professor. According to Mazrui, Gates is a Black Orientalist because he made condescending, paternalistic, ideologically selective, superficial, and uninformed depictions of Africa. He also suggests that Gates’ emphasis on black Africans’ participation in the Atlantic Slave Trade ends up exonerating the West. Just as Western Orientalist scholarship was used to justify and promote colonialism, Gates’ work is an apology for European colonization and domination of the African continent.”

On the other hand, Black Orientalism, a direct intellectual scion of the Western epistemological methodology “Orientalism,” approaches the Islamic world with epistemological condescension given the shameful legacy of the Arab Slave Trade in general and Arab racism in Africa in particular. Besides, Orientalism is a strand of Eurocentrism. Ironically, Mazrui’s critique of Gates would accommodate pointed allusions to Gates’ Christian bias in “Wonders of the African World.” On another level, others like Asante, Chinweizu, and Soyinka persistently criticized Mazrui for being disquietingly less critical of Islamic excesses, a direct reference to the excesses of Political Islam. Mazrui, in contrast, also boasted that he did not make a dime from his televised series, ostensibly a connotative reference to making the series exclusively for purposes of educating the public without any motives for financial profit, while taking strong exception to Gates’ commercial orientation of his television series, “Wonders of the African World.”

Mazrui also went on to criticize Gates for shifting the underlying reasons for his television series from a purely educational documentary, documentary field, to one of travel documentary (travelogue) as criticism of “Wonders of the African World” intensified. Serious questions relating to identity crisis also surfaced in the midst of the controversy, with Mazrui taking Gates to task for inferentially faulting those Black Africans in his series who had essentially made a beeline for a different racial identity, Arab Africans. Mazrui offered a counterargument in which he addressed the identity controversy, explaining that unlike African-Americans who had been socially and historically programmed to accept their genetic Africanness while denying other non-African genetic elements that may have drifted into their biologic constitutions, continental Africans with multiple racial constitutions could not be held to the same rigid standard of identification.

Meanwhile, Mazrui’s critical response to Gates on the identity question related to America’s so-called one-drop rule, a political formulation with grave legal and sociological implications for race relations in the United States. Mazrui may however have been partly right for obvious reasons with regard to Gates, for Gates has never, to date, resisted the impulse to lay claim to his Irish ancestry in public at the slightest opportunity while comfortably keeping mute on his Yoruba ancestry, of course a double standard in the minds of many. Equally important and yet controversial, Ali Mazrui saw himself primarily as African Arab, a linguistic cognate of Afro-Arab or Black Arab. Even Wole Soyinka also, Gates’ professorial advisor at Cambridge University, took Gates on in aspects of his historical misrepresentations on Africa in his televised series. Wole Soyinka’s critique of Mazrui’s work is captured in a critical essay, titled “African and Black Orientalism: Orientalism, African Literature, and Criticism, authored by Ahmed S. Bangura.”

Nevertheless, regarding the controversy of Gates’ skewing his documentary historiography away from Western commercial dominance in and as initiator of the European Slave Trade towards Africa’s exclusive culpability, it is important to acknowledge here that Mazrui saw things differently, arguing forcefully in favor of reparations on behalf of Africa. Wole Soyinka on the other hand did something different, something quite remarkable, though, by appearing before the World Bank and other Western financial institutions to ask for debt cancellation on behalf of Africa. These examples go to show how these two intellectual fighters made Africa and humanism the centerpiece of their scholarship. Mazrui’s work with the Organization of African Unity (OAU), now the African Union, cannot be glossed over, so can no one possibly deny Soyinka’s signal contributions to African humanism, democracy, and human dignity. It could also not be ignored that Mazrui worked closely with Chief M.K.O. Abiola, then Chair of the OAU-appointed Eminent Persons Group tasked with the advocacy of seeking international consensus on slavery as a crime against humanity, whose suspicious death in prison is believed to be linked to the reparations project.

Thus Mazrui’s humanism and selfless advocacy on behalf of the downtrodden made him a precious gift of humanity. He fought for reparative justice and reparations even while Gates insidiously opposed them. Likewise, Mazrui’s television series, like Gates’, pricked the activist nerves of African-American militants who initially perceived the series as a threat to race relations, fearing that the series had great potential to further poison the already fragile relationship between Whites and Blacks. The series further pitted conservatives against liberals, with Lynne Cheney, Dick Cheney’s wife, condemning it in no uncertain terms (See “Mazrui Newsletter No. 30,” “Public Intellectuals in Africa’s Experience,” Spring 2006). In the end Mazrui met with those African-American militants in question and allayed their fears, taking the opportunity to elucidate his reasons for making the documentary in the first place and what he had hoped to achieve with it. Both subsequently agreed the coverage should proceed.

“Importantly, this humanism of Mazrui was based on the dignity of all human beings regardless of race, religion, sexuality, or gender,” notes Horace G. Campbell. “The humanism of Mazrui was linked to the quest for reparative justice, peace, self-determination, the rights of women, secularism and prosperity for all (See “The Humanism of Ali Mazrui”). Mazrui married twice to women who pursued different faiths. And he took a moral fight to the doorstep of the Guyanese presidency, imploring it to make formal acknowledgement of Walter Rodney’s contributions to Guyanese politics and her international image by memorializing him. Mazrui then went on to accept the position of Walter Rodney Professor Chair (University of Guyana; see Horace G. Campbell). “Of the fifty years of Ali Mazrui as a public intellectual, more than forty of those years were spent in the terrain of the North American academy and it was in the face of the day to day racism and chauvinism that Mazrui became clearer politically and became most outspoken against all forms of oppression,” adds Prof. Campbell.

“Nevertheless, Idi Amin’s Uganda became less and less safe for a person like me who tended to be outspoken on policy matters,” Mazrui once wrote. “Eventually, Uganda as my professional Eden on the Nile was no longer safe for me. Kenya as the land of my birth, would not hire as a professor because of my reputation as a political risk-taker (See “Mazrui Newsletter No. 32,” “From Obote to Obama: Stages Towards a 75th Anniversary, Spring 2008”). While still on the controversial topic of Islam, terrorism, and the excesses of Political Islam, what is there to say about Ali Mazrui exactly, a courageous Kenyan scholar, passing on in his adopted country, America, and about Kofi Awoonor, a brilliant poet and courageous political strategist, passing on in Kenya, Mazrui’s birthplace, at the hands of Al-Shabab?

Is it any wonder that Ali Mazrui and Kofi Awoonor would serve on the same editorial board for the Transition, now Harvard University’s Transition Magazine?” What a strange coincidence! Given Kofi Awoonor’s violent death at the hands of Islamic terrorists, do we wonder, perhaps, why Wole Soyinka’s criticism of Islam, of religious extremism, has been so fierce and scathing over the years?

We shall return…

Columnist: Kwarteng, Francis