Bad Mamdani

Saturday I caught the end of an Ann Arbor lecture by Mahmood Mamdani, Columbia’s Herbert Lehman Professor of Government. (It was carried by BookTV.) Mamdani is the author of a book, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, which is a recitation of the usual shibboleths. He’s another extremist, a 1970s-vintage Marxist, who’d taught in Uganda and South Africa until he somehow managed to slip past the somnolent gatekeepers at Columbia. I suspect Edward Said had something to do with it, and he certainly helped to place Mamdani’s book with Pantheon, Said’s commercial publisher. Good Muslim, Bad Muslim has sold well probably, as Mamdani admits, because it has a stealth title. (People think it’s some sort of guide to who the terrorists are. John Esposito pulled the same marketing trick some years back with a book titled The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?)

Mamdani is an entirely derivative thinker, so his book and public lectures naturally begin with the ritual stoning of Bernard Lewis. There isn’t anything here that isn’t from the standard-issue kit. But in his Ann Arbor talk, he broke new ground, and my jaw dropped. Here is Mamdani, responding to a question: “Bernard Lewis is not really a historian. To the extent he is a historian, he is a historian of Turkey, but not of the Middle East.”

This is a statement of blazing ignorance, practically unparalleled in post-Orientalist annals and that’s saying a lot. Mamdani obviously hasn’t a clue about the place of Lewis in the historiography of the Middle East, which suggests to me that he’s flying on empty when it comes to Middle Eastern history generally. So for his edification, I link to an assessment of Lewis as a historian, by R. Stephen Humphreys, published fifteen years ago in Humanities.

Ah, the mediocrity of it all.