One of the infrequently mentioned rewards of academic life is the opportunity for friendship with extraordinary persons, and no one I have known, better exemplifies the human potential to please mind, body, heart, and soul of others than Ali Mazrui. His death in October of this year was an occasion for widespread mourning but also of rejoicing through recalling the satisfaction of having had the benefit of Ali’s warmth and friendship over such a long span of years. If memory serves, as it rarely does these days, we met during his period of academic residence at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda toward the end of the 1960s. It was an early gathering of participants in the World Order Models Project (WOMP). Ali presided over the meeting in his triple role as African director of WOMP, Dean of the Makerere’s Faculty of Social Science, and Chair of its Political Science Department. He was already at that early age a prominent intellectual, internationally known as an outspoken champion of human rights and freedom of expression in the authoritarian atmosphere of Uganda. This situation would soon worsen when the murderous Idi Amin took over the government, making life impossible for Ali and forcing his departure from Uganda. As is evident to all who knew Ali, he never left in spirit or engagement the Africa whose people and culture he loved with his whole being.
As a speaker and thinker Ali was in a select class of his own. I remember encountering him at an African Studies Association a few later. He calmly told me that he was pressed for time because he was on the program eight separate times! Only Ali could have claimed such an absurdity without provoking a bemused smile, but Ali had so much to say that was valuable about so many topics that it made sense that numerous colleagues would implore him to join in their efforts. His speaking feats became legendary, especially in Africa, where heads of state invited him to speak on special occasions to crowds of thousands. Throughout his career Ali was honored and acknowledged with many awards, honorary degrees, and leadership positions in professional associations.
The reverse side of Ali’s virtuoso performance ethos was illustrated by a 1970s event in Montreal at McGill University. It was billed as a public meeting to exhibit the WOMP approach on global issues, and Ali was to be the featured speaker. We had a dinner prior to the event hosted by university dignitaries in a private dining room, and then walked to the nearby auditorium. To our astonishment and the dismay of the local conveners, the huge arena was completely empty. It turned out that the Canadian organizers of the event had completely forgotten to advertise the lecture, and we few at the dinner were the only ones present. It is still vivid in my mind that an undismayed Ali confronted the cavernous emptiness with dauntless composure, delivering his talk with accompanying flourishes as if he were addressing a hall filled with hundreds of attentive and adoring listeners.
I felt that Ali drew strength on that occasion, as in other challenging situations, from his noble Mombassa background that endowed him with that rare resource of unflappable poise in situations where most of us wilt shamefully. Having said this, it is also relevant to appreciate that Ali, as with most great persons, did not take himself nearly as seriously as others took him. He always enjoyed laughing at his own over the top exploits, not with a polite drawing room chuckle, but with a robust and contagious laugh that trumped whatever difficulty or tease he might experience.
When I first met Ali he was a brilliant product of an Oxford education with an outlook and elocution that might be associated with latter day disciples of John Stuart Mill and other liberal notables of the nineteenth century. He spoke eloquently, yet with a certain detached intellectuality. I never remember Ali being at a loss for words or ideas, but also not in these early years engaged socially and politically beyond his passionate commitment to maintain academic freedom enabling the work of the mind to go forward unimpeded along with an instinctive distaste for the sort of dictatorial ruling style that he was then encountering in Uganda.
In subsequent years Ali confronted some difficult family challenges, and experienced what others might describe as an ‘ideological midlife crisis’ culminating in a turn away from the West, an embrace of Islam as his empowering cultural foundation, and a fierce civilizational nationalism that bespoke his African identity, although coupled with his belief that Africa might serve as the stepping stone for the emergence of a genuinely global culture. I have many memories of this period. Listening to Ali speak with fervor in private about the propriety of banning Salmon Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in deference to the sensitivities of Muslim communities where his satiric treatment of Mohammed and Islam were being received as blasphemy, giving rise to violent reactions. I mention Ali’s views on this delicate matter because it represented such a sharp turn away from the kind of liberal openness to uncensored thought that had seemed his signature trait when we met in Kampala.
Then there was Ali’s unembarrassed cooperation with the academic activities of Reverend Moon’s Unification Church, which had struck many progressive folk, including myself, as well beyond the pale of acceptable collaborative work. Ali did not welcome being given political advice from his Western friends about the boundaries of academic propriety. He insisted on his independence and individuality, and declared that he would not sever the connections he had with the Moon operations, also contending, which was true, that he was left free to say and do what he thought when participating in events under their auspices. As warm as Ali was, he was defiantly willing to swim against the tide of political correctness wherever it might land him. In the case of the Unification Church Ali actually counter-attacked his critics, observing that Western missionaries had long penetrated non-Western societies, often in furtherance of crude colonialist interests without being berated for their cultural insensitivity, yet when religious figures from the non-West dare reverse the process, it’s no-go. He supported, in principle, such efforts as those of the Unification Church under the rubric of what he called ‘counter-penetration,’ what some more recently call counter-hegemony. In this instance as in others, whether one agreed or not, Ali understood well the whys and wherefores of his controversial stands.
Along similar ideological lines I would also mention Ali’s Reith Lectures in 1979 on the BBC, a prestigious platform that Ali used to shock the audience by putting forth the heretical notion that the countries in the West would only consider seriously giving up nuclear weapons when such weaponry fell into the hands of African and other Third World governments. [published in 1980 under the title The African Condition]. In effect, he was advocating nuclear proliferation as the only realistic path to nuclear disarmament, which was a total inversion of the Western consensus. It was not a popular position to adopt, and made never made an impact on the policy outlook in the West that had accommodated itself to nuclear weapons in the possession of the permanent members of the Security Council (and a few others), while remaining ready to risk a shooting war to keep nuclear weapons from falling into the ‘wrong’ hands. For Mazrui, and for me, any hands are the wrong hands. The justification for the 2003 Iraq War and the threat diplomacy to which Iran had been exposed for many years were expressions of this anti-proliferation alternative to nuclear disarmament. In effect, Ali saw through this Western approach as an effort to keep the Third World under its thumb in the post-colonial era. What made Ali so valuable was his capacity and willingness to articulate in lucid language such ideas that went against the grain of mainstream conventional wisdom in the West, making all us of think freshly about issues we had previously put aside as settled.
In a similar provocative vein, Ali even had some good words to say on behalf of the militaristic leadership (despite his own personal problems in Uganda) that had become so prevalent in post-colonial Africa, interpreting this phenomenon as a healthy reassertion of black male personhood in the aftermath of centuries of colonial demasculinization and racism imposed on African communities. Our grasp of the recent developments in Ferguson are illustrative of the parallel persistence of racism in America long after it had been legally abolished and would have surely benefitted from Ali’s commentary. I am confident that Ali’s take on these sordid events would have exhibited his originality, and rejection of the liberal platitudes of the day, but dug deeper into the cultural soil of fear and hatred that helps explain recurrent police violence, black victimization and anger, and public bewilderment.
This evolving political consciousness shaped Ali’s contribution to the WOMP process where he maintained a steady and lively presence, always the most articulate person in every conversation, and certainly the one among us with the greatest gift of conceptualization. In the WOMP context Ali’s enduring contribution was his wonderful and quite prophetic book A World Federation of Cultures (1976). The main contention of the book is the ‘postulate’ that “the transmission of ideas and their internalization are more relevant for world reform than the establishment of formal institutions for external control.” [p.2] This is a crucial starting point that goes directly against the grain of most thought about global reform that is devoted to the advocacy of feasible or desirable structures of governance. What Ali believes will improve the human culture is the establishment of a world or global culture. Again his words are illuminating: “At first sight the evolution of a world culture seems to be even more distant than the evolution of a world government. But a closer look at human history so far would dispel this misconception. In reality, we are no nearer a world government than we were a century ago, but we are much nearer a world culture.” [p.2]
In apprehending Ali’s approach, we should realize that it is rather complex and sophisticated, and difficult to apprehend all at once. While acknowledging Westernization as providing some of the foundations for global culture, Ali is clear about the need for a prior regional assertiveness in the form of regional autonomy. He posits a special role for Africa, achieving post-colonial independence by way of affirming regional and civilizational identity, ridding Africa of structural and cultural dependency, while at the same time reaching out beyond itself. In his view, regional self-esteem must precede empathy for the human species, the most essential ingredient of the transition from a collective sense of self at the regional level to a universalization of outlook. Ali is fully conscious of the difficulties of at once making use of his education and socialization in the West and the imperative of ridding political consciousness in Africa of crippling ‘cultural dependence.’
As he puts it, “[t]ranscending both the cultural Euro-centricism and political Afro-centricism of this book is the larger ambition of a more viable world order for mankind as a whole.” [p.14] The fuller presentation of the Mazrui worldview would show how nuanced and relevant his construction of the future remains almost 40 years after the book was published.
Ali’s ideas set forth in the WOMP context sprung to life in the 1990s, especially thanks to Samuel Huntington’s inflammatory version of cultural differences as historically revealed for him to be ‘a clash of civilizations.’ This view was given great credence in the thinking and behavior of neoconservatives in America, encouraged by the more interventionist applications of Huntington’s favored by Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami. These custodians of the American global state represented everything that Ali opposed—renewal of Western intervention based on a presumed cultural superiority and a callous disregard of non-Western cultural values. We still have much to learn from the Mazrui way forward, which incidentally is also currently professed by the Prime Minister of Turkey, Ahmed Davutoğlu [e.g. see Davutoğlu’s foreword to Civilizations and World Order, ed. By Fred Dallmayr, M. Kayapınar, and İsmael Yaylacı (2014)].
The last time I saw Ali was in the Spring of 2011 at the Intellectual Forum of the UN Conference on Least Developed Countries held in Istanbul. He was clearly diminished physically, having notable difficulty to move around, but his mental energy and conceptual agility were as dazzling as ever. There was about him then the aura of greatness that his death has not diminished.
Beyond the marvel of his oral gift and the instructive provocations and explorations of his thought, Ali remains vivid for me as a friend who relished long talks lasting deep into the night, which were invariably enlivened by the joys of unblended scotch whiskey. In a search for comparisons of talent and imaginative power, I can only think of James Baldwin, whom I admired from a distance for these same qualities of mind and heart that I found so captivating in Ali Mazrui. Perhaps, my most precious memory of all was the realization that when listening to Ali I was not only hearing an authoritative voice of Africa but also the universal voice of humanity. RIP.