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Between the Decolonial and the Postcolonial: An Interview with Mahmood Mamdani

Mamdani’s latest book defends the promise of decolonization against the ongoing nationalist violence of modernity. Rafael Vizcaíno sits with the renowned Ugandan intellectual to discuss postcolonial and decolonial scholarship, the reform-revolution debate, anti-racism, and the example of South Africa.

This interview opens Political Theology Volume 22, Issue 5. The issue also features a roundtable discussion of Karen Kilby’s book God, Evil, and the Limits of Theology, and a round robin book discussion on recent work about law, religion, and the paradoxes of sovereignty.

Traditional narratives of the emergence of the modern state locate the decisive moment at the 1648 Peace of Westphalia which resolved the last major religious conflict in European history, the Thirty Years’ War. In so doing, these narratives understand the principal role of the modern state to be keeping secular peace by means of religious tolerance. For Mahmood Mamdani, the renowned Ugandan scholar, this is an intra-European narrative that underestimates, if not outright ignores, the colonial roots of the modern state apparatus. After all, the Peace of Westphalia settled intra-European conflicts in a way that facilitated the colonial expansion of European powers abroad. Religious tolerance at home was thus a promise for colonial sovereignty abroad. A process of secularization here goes hand in hand with the development of the global project of colonization.

In his latest book, Neither Settler nor Native, Mamdani explicates the coloniality of the state and its associated notions of belonging and community. Indeed, the Westphalian story begins conveniently late. Mamdani instead pins the emergence of the modern state project to 1492 when twin events took place. On the one hand, the Spanish Empire was involved in ethnic cleansing against Moors and Jews that year. On the other hand, the Spanish Empire encroached into what would soon be known as the Americas. Both events point towards an alternative understanding of political modernity: it is as much about conquest as it is about a secular project of religious tolerance. For Mamdani, the events of 1492 inaugurated the processes that would be consolidated in post-Westphalian Europe. Nationalism and global colonialism are thus “co-constituted” aspects of modernity (2).

Neither Settler nor Native pursues this link between nationalism and colonialism to delve into the continuous colonial violence of the state project today. Taking the United States as the “model modern colony” (4) on which other cases have been based (such as Germany’s Third Reich and South Africa’s apartheid), Mamdani assesses the atrocities of modernity as following from the origins of modernity in the ethnic cleansing of 1492. Not unlike what Aimé Césaire asserted seven decades ago in his seminal Discourse on Colonialism, Mamdani argues that the nationalist violence of modernity is not a criminal deviations from the norm. Instead, it is an expected part of a political system built on brutality and genocide. On this front, Neither Settler nor Native offers an important “decolonial” contribution from a major figure in postcolonial studies.

The core of this contribution lies in the careful analysis of five case studies in settler colonialism: The United States, Germany, South Africa, Sudan, and Israel, each of which sheds light on the fundamental problem of modern/colonial political violence in the 21st century. Mamdani’s main claim is that understanding the extreme nationalist violence associated with these case studies solely through the lens of criminal justice fails to address the political character of their atrocities. The case of Germany is paradigmatic here. In exclusively applying a criminal justice approach (as in the Nuremberg trials), the project of denazification singled out individual perpetrators, consequently missing the institutions and social structures that made Nazism possible. Recalling Césaire’s argument on fascism again, Mamdani shows that the Nazi atrocities were not nonpolitical deviations from modernity but exposed the essentially genocidal roots of political modernity.

Unlike Germany’s all-too-short-lived affair with denazification, South African apartheid was dealt with by South African civil society not only as a criminal matter, but also as a political one. In other words, instead of just finding individuals guilty of criminal wrongdoing, the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa (from the Black Consciousness Movement to the labor and student movements, all the way to the Convention for a Democratic South Africa) furthermore sought to ground an entirely new political order where everyone could participate beyond the grammars of the apartheid political order. As complex as such process has been, riddled with compromises and conflicts, it is indicative of the promise of decolonization.

Neither Settler nor Native closes with a call to decolonize the political process today, meaning transforming both conceptions of community and institutional mechanisms of power, agency, and representation. Without such decolonization, any criminal justice approach seeking to redress inequality would leave intact the problematic structures and institutions that facilitated nationalist violence. There is fundamentally no justice without decolonization in a modern world constituted by colonization. “The challenge facing anti-colonialists,” Mamdani concludes, “is to reimagine political community without colonial categories and reform polities on this basis” (328).

On this point, Mamdani again turns to South Africa, highlighting the notion of “survivor” in that context as a means to step beyond the guilt/innocence binary of the criminal justice approach. The “survivor” of modern/colonial violence is here “neither settler nor native.” As Frantz Fanon might have put it, this is the “real leap” of invention and creation needed in the struggle for decolonization.

In the spring of 2021, I interviewed Mahmood Mamdani, Executive Director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research (Kampala, Uganda) and Herbert Lehman Professor of Government in the Department of Anthropology and Political Science and the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University (New York City).

Rafael Vizcaíno: First of all, thank you for agreeing to talk with the readers of Political Theology.

I found your periodization of political modernity to be very refreshing and a crucial intervention into postcolonial theory. From my own perspective as a Latin American philosopher, this periodization coincides with one of the central criticisms of postcolonial theory raised by recent Latin American decolonial scholarship: that modernity is a phenomenon that is partially constituted by the colonial project that emerges first with the events of 1492. In making this theoretical move in Neither Settler nor Native, I take it that you are effectively closing the gap between postcolonial and decolonial approaches – a gap that has been the source of much recent discussion.

More pointedly, you conclude Neither Settler nor Native with a call to “decolonize” our understandings of political community. How do you conceive of your intervention in relation to the current wave of “decolonial” scholarship that has emerged primarily as a critique of the limitations of “postcolonial” theory? I ask in particular because you are also very critical of a certain brand of decolonial theory that you argue “gets decolonization backward” (34), as well as a certain “anticolonial thought” for its naivete (347). Could you expand on what you mean by these criticisms?

Mahmood Mamdani: I am sympathetic to decolonial theorists when they say that post-colonial theory is based on a shallow historical foundation, one that excludes the American experience. I also agree that modernity is co-constituted by the colonial project that emerges in 1492. As I put it: nationalism and colonialism are two sides of the same coin. That said, I have two concerns with the narrative put forward by decolonial theorists.

One, their understanding of colonialism is limited to direct rule, defined by the ‘civilizing mission’ that understood the colonial experience as turning on a single division: race. What is missing is the turn to indirect rule following the crisis of empire from the mid-nineteenth century on. This turn involved a shift from ‘civilizing mission’ to ‘conserving tradition’, one that completed and thus reinforced the racial division by politicizing native culture and further dividing natives along lines of ‘tribe’ and other culturally-defined identities.

This, in my view, gives rise to a second limitation, which is the marginalization of the North American experience in the decolonial narrative. The North American reservation is where the key institutions of indirect rule were forged: the tribal homeland, customary law, and customary authority. This is the missing link in the decolonial narrative, the one that provides the thread between the (North) American experience and the experience in Africa and Asia. This link is not limited to settler colonies but also shapes indirect rule in African colonies, extending to ‘tribal’ areas in the Asian colonies.

Rafael Vizcaíno: That is very well put. It seems to me then that the decolonial historical and geopolitical emphasis on the Conquest of the Americas may thus constitute a double-edge sword: On the one hand, it is a needed correction to the exclusion of the American experience in prior models of postcolonial analysis. On the other hand, such emphasis seems to have come, at least thus far, at the expense of more nuanced understandings of subsequent formations of colonization all around the world, beyond the concept of the “coloniality of power” that seems to be the sole link between these two formations in the decolonial approach.

Switching gears, allow me to zoom in on your understanding of decolonization, without getting into too prescriptive territory, which you wrote is not the aim of your book. Nonetheless, in terms of conceptual framing, it seems that your understanding of decolonization is on the side of reform in the old reform-revolution debate. Whether or not I am correct in this reading, I want to push you to say more about how decolonization traverses reformist and transformative political processes.

My worry is that a reformist understanding of decolonization will prioritize the form of present structures and institutions in a way that will co-opt radical critique. In other words, reformism (at least in the way that I am conceiving of it) could ultimately end up doing the dirty job of the criminal justice approach that you so powerfully criticize in the name of political decolonization. So how radical or transformative do you think decolonization is or ought to be?

Mahmood Mamdani: My understanding of decolonization calls on us to sublate the binary between reform and revolution. I seek to do this in my discussion of the political and the social. Political movements grow out of the social and not outside it. At the same time, the social cannot be transformed without reforming the political. Without the reform of the political, a mobilization for social transformation will risk reproducing the political community that colonialism crafted, complete with its internal divisions, whether race or tribe or other.

My discussion of decolonization is developed in the context of the debate on the South African transition of 1994: Is the glass half-full or half-empty? I have in mind the xenophobic violence that followed 1994. To understand why this violence was aimed at the tribal stranger (and not the racial stranger) we need to begin with the limits of the political reform that was 1994. It stopped at addressing the politicizing of race, but presumed the politicization of tribe as something natural. A mobilization beyond 1994 will need to be informed by the gains and weaknesses of 1994. Otherwise, the outcome will be just what you fear, not only a reform without a transformation of existing structures and institutions, but also a likely negation of what was achieved in 1994. My aim is to provide an analysis that will provide an analytical bridge between reform and transformation.

Rafael Vizcaíno: I see now. I would certainly argue that renovating that old binary between reform and revolution is one of the burning problems of today.

Returning to the context of the United States, I found your discussion of antiracism and decolonization (93-100) to be a much-needed reminder of how coloniality perversely absorbs criticisms to preserve itself under new arrangements. You argue, for instance, that any antiracist practice that leaves untouched the “Indian question” essentially sustains the settler-colonial project at the foundation of American society – I would say, what Quijano and Immanuel Wallerstein called “Americanity.”

I find this point to be so crucial today because I believe that we are currently witnessing the promotion of superficial “antiracist” efforts by neoliberal corporations and institutions that seek to assuage criticism from social movements demanding radical reforms and transformations in the wake of the racist violence that has always been a part of the U.S. state apparatus –incessant police brutality is only one example. You remind us that decolonization is indeed a much broader and more complex project that only partially overlaps with antiracism.

Lastly, I think a crucial intervention of your work is to reconceive political modernity beyond the scope of secular tolerance. Besides the question of colonization, your intervention begs the question of the critique of secularity itself. As you can imagine, our readers in Political Theology would want you to comment on how the politico-theological question crisscrosses your critique of political modernity. In more general terms, how do you understand the relation between religion and secularity in the task of decolonizing politics?

Mahmood Mamdani: Your readers will be right in raising this question. But I am not the right person to answer it, at least not at this point. I do not really deal with secular tolerance in this book. My discussion is partial, limited to race and ethnicity. Perhaps a future project will allow me to go beyond it. That project will have to take Israel as one starting point: Who is a Jew? Who is a Palestinian, and an Arab?

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