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The Humanism of Ali Mazrui

Ali A. Mazrui the great humanist joined the ancestors on Sunday October 12, 2014 in Binghamton, New York where he had lived since 1989. He had been living with his family and working as the Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities and Director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies at Binghamton University, State University of New York. Mazrui led a life that was controversial for the establishment and the boldness of his outlook was reflected at the prayers that were held for him at the Mosque in Binghamton on Monday afternoon at 5pm.

The controversy for some was that at the prayers held over the mortal remains of Ali Mazrui, three women were speakers at this mosque. After the performance of the Salat al-Janazah by the Imam and the men in front standing in three rows, the three women were called forward to speak. The speakers were Professors Betty Wambui, Professor Ousseina Alido and Professor Florence Margai. After the second female speaker paid tribute to Mazrui and his contribution to the struggles of women, the host, Professor Ricardo Laremont had to comment that although there were many in the prayer who were  raising eyebrows about the departure from the  ‘tradition,’ this mixed gender prayer was consistent with what Ali Mazrui stood for.

There are now many tributes pouring in from all over the world for Professor Ali Mazrui whose mortal remains will be interred at the  historical monument of Fort Jesus in Mombasa, Kenya this weekend.   Ali Mazrui was born in Mombasa, on February 24, 1933 and he will be buried next to his family. Ali was a prodigious writer who was the author or coauthor of more than 35 books, numerous book chapters, and hundreds of scholarly articles, magazine and newspaper commentaries and the host of the TV series the Triple Heritage. Mazrui toiled as an international scholar in every continent and he can be claimed as a great Pan Africanist, a great African, and a great East African, but for this tribute I want to hail Ali Mazrui as a great humanist.

In my recollection of Ali Mazrui over the past 42 years from the period at Makerere University in 1972, one could say a lot about his dedication to the cause of Africa and his service as one of the eminent persons of the OAU making the reparative claims. In this Tribute, I want to remember Ali Mazrui as unflinching in his support for justice for Walter Rodney and his service with the international commemoration committee for Walter Rodney and our trip to Georgetown Guyana in June 2005. Many older East Africans will remember that great debate between Walter Rodney and Ali Mazrui at the Main Hall of Makerere University in 1970. The fact was that then, Walter Rodney and Ali Mazrui were on different sides of the political divide about the nature of imperialism. By the time Ali Mazrui had relocated to North America in 1972 and began his service at Stanford University, the University of Michigan and then at Binghamton University, there was no doubt where Ali Mazrui stood on the crucial issues of the fight for social justice and the anti-imperialist struggles. For this, those who justified the oppression of the Palestinian peoples vilified him and sought to diminish him, but Mazrui was not afraid of these forces that stood against academic freedom in the United States.

I want to salute the courage and humanism of Ali Mazrui. By humanism, I mean the philosophical and ethical stance that he took which emphasized the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively. Importantly, this humanism of Mazrui was based on the dignity of all human beings regardless of race, religion, region, sexuality or gender. The humanism of Mazrui was linked to the quest for reparative justice, peace, self-determination, the rights of women, secularism and prosperity for all. As the son of the Khadi of Mombasa, Mazrui was a scholar of Islam and yet, he married twice, both times to women who followed a different faith. In this tribute I want to highlight the support of Mazrui for Amina Wadud and Ingrid Mattson and the question of the equality of women in the Mosque. In his newsletter of 2005, Mazrui wrote of his difference with the conservatives in the Mosque in Cape Town South Africa in 2004 when the religious leaders were opposed to Amina Wadud leading the prayers. Then Mazrui said that, “In post-apartheid South Africa, Amina Wadud and I witnessed the historic dialectic of Islam between the veiled face and the vision of openness.”

Ali Mazrui, the early years and the journey to openness

The books and articles on Ali Mazrui will trace his life from his birth in Kenya and much of the biographical details can be found in books such as Africanity Redefined: Collected Essays of Ali A. Mazrui, edited by Ricardo René Laremont, Tracia Leacock Seghatolislami and Michael Toler. The other major source of the biographical details can also be found in the annual Newsletters that were published by the Institute of Global Cultural Studies at Binghamton and the Annual Mazrui Newsletter was published by Ali for over 40 years. Nearly every writer in East Africa will remember the place of Mazrui in Makerere University where he became the Head of the Department of Political Science and the Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences.

The fertile intellectual climate of East Africa during the years of the transition to independence meant that the Universities were a magnet for scholars from all parts of the World. Makerere University had been opened in 1922 and as a youth Mazrui yearned to be part of this institution. He was recruited from Oxford University after he completed his doctorate to teach at Makerere. Rajat Neogy, the Ugandan-born founded the Magazine- Transition, worked very hard along with Ali Mazrui to make this magazine the flagship for independent thinking and academic freedom.  This magazine became influential in Africa, and the magazine Transition was read quite widely beyond the University. It was in this period that Mazrui could be termed a liberal in his outlook in so far as he gravitated to the principles of the market, private property, individualism and the other shibboleths of western democracy. It should be remembered that Ali Mazriui had studied western political science at the height of the Cold War when Lockean principles of liberty and the Walt Rostow ideas of modernization were in vogue. It was in this intellectual milieu that Ali Mazrui wrote on “Kwame Nkrumah as the Leninist Czar” and wrote about ‘Tanzaphalia,’ in reference to the experimentation with another form of economy in Tanzania under Julius Nyerere. Kwame Nkrumah who was then still alive and had read the essay on Nkrumah the Leninist Czar said the essay was penned by one with a colonial mind. Later in his life Ali Mazrui became one of the most steadfast proponents of the Nkramahist vision of African Unity and liberation.

The fact that Mazrui was cut off from the principal struggles for self-determination that were then raging in Kenya can be grasped from his own self portrait, “Growing Up in a Shrinking World: A Private Vantage Point” and “The Making of An African Political Scientist” (International Social Science Journal No 25, 1973). There is scarcely any mention of the struggles of the Land and Freedom Army in Kenya and the ideals of independence. In those days, Ali Mazrui wanted his name to be associated with US realist scholars such as David Apter, Hans Morgenthau, Aristide Zolberg, David Easton and the other leading lights of the US political science establishment. The courses of Makerere University reflected this orientation and hundreds of students passed through the halls of Makerere learning about the merits of western investments and the European enlightenment.  This was when Mazrui was writing about  the “Left and the super left in Africa.”  Mahmood Mamdani who was exposed to Ali Mazrui in East Africa in that period did point out that in the liberal traditions that Mazrui sought to associate himself with, “the young Ali stood for a tradition of free speech and critical inquiry.”

For ten years when Ali Mazrui was at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda the social questions of the paths towards independence and transformation could not be kept out of the University. Ali Mazrui was supposed to be a master of the English language and was hailed as the best debater in East Africa. In the face of the intellectual and political choices that were then placed before the society by the liberation struggles in Africa, there was a grand debate between Walter Rodney and Ali Mazrui. In the book edited by Al Amin Mazrui and Willy Mutunga, they said that, “the debate between Walter Rodney and Ali Mazrui pitted two giants of the intellectual divide.” The debate was televised live in Uganda, and caused a stir among both academics and politicians on and off campus in Uganda and beyond.

For many, this would have placed Walter Rodney and Mazrui as ideological opponents, but as we will see as Mazrui  matured on his journey to the vision of openness, he became one of the most unflinching supporters of Walter Rodney and spoke out against the government of Guyana when they refused him employment in Guyana. When Mazrui later travelled to Guyana in 1988 as a guest of President Desmond Hoyte, Mazrui made a public appeal for the restoration of Walter Rodney’s name to “national legitimacy.” The appeal was made in the president’s presence and was broadcast live. Walter Rodney had been assassinated in 1980 and Mazrui was always at the forefront of the call for an inquiry into the assassination of Walter Rodney.

Face to Face with Racism in the USA

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 America 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. Mazrui left Uganda after Idi Amin acceded to power in 1971 and taught at Stanford, Michigan and in 1989, he was appointed to the faculty of Binghamton University, State University of New York as the Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities and the Director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies (IGCS). Prior to taking up the appointment at Binghamton there were demonstrations by those supporters of the state of Israel who believed that Mazrui was unworthy of being chosen as a distinguished Professor. Mazrui was not afraid to speak out about the degrading conditions of the occupation of Palestine and wrote and spoke out against the conditions of the Palestinian Peoples. In his book Cultural Forces in World Politics, Mazrui compared the logic of Zionism with the logic of apartheid. Mazrui wrote very early about the racism and discrimination that existed in the capitalist world and was one of the first to write on Global Apartheid.

If Ali Mazrui was the darling of western liberals when he was in Uganda, by the time he became active in the African Studies Association (ASA) in the USA as a supporter of the anti-apartheid struggles, Mazrui was no longer held up and he was no longer gracing the pages of the mainstream political science journals. In fact, in the academic world, his status as a political scientist was being questioned by the mainstream departments of political science. This questioning of his scholarship intensified after Mazrui became a clear advocate of reparations for the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade.

Mazrui and the Reparations Debates

At a the height of the struggle against apartheid, there was the international struggle to declare slavery a crime against humanity. The mobilization in the Pan African World had reached such a level by the end of the eighties that the Organization of African Unity  (OAU) appointed an Eminent Persons Group  to mobilise and organize about educating Africans at home and abroad about reparations and reparative justice. The original Chair of the Group was the Nigerian politician cum  businessman, Chief Bashorun M. K. O. Abiola, who was later elected President of Nigeria. Other members were the Nigerian historian J. F. Ade Ajayi; Professor Samir Amin of Egypt; US Congressman R. Dellums; Professor Josef Ki-Zerbo of Burkina Faso; Mme Gracha Machel, formerly First Lady of Mozambique and later wife of Nelson Mandela.  Others were Miriam Makeba ; Professor M. M’Bow, former Director-General of UNESCO; former President A. Pereira of Cape Verde; Ambassador Alex Quaison-Sackey, former foreign minister of Ghana; and the Jamaican lawyer /diplomat Dudley S. Thompson. Of these twelve eminent persons, the three who were the most active and attended international meetings and conférences such as the World Conference against Racism were J. F. Ade Ajayi, Ali A. Mazrui, and Dudley Thompson. Earlier this year in August, J. F. Ade Ajayi joined the ancestors. He was one of the pioneers of the modern discipline of the study of Africa. This reparations campaign was so feared by the international powers to the extent that when the chairperson of this group, M. K. O. Abiola was elected President of Nigeria in 1993, he was prevented from taking office. He was to die in custody in Nigeria 5 years later in 1998.

Mazrui and the Walter Rodney Commemorative Events

Ali Mazrui was a public intellectual who travelled extensively and supped with Presidents and Prime Ministers all over the world, but the Mazrui that stood out for us in the International Walter Rodney Commemoration Committee was the service and support of Ali Mazrui when we were working to memorialize Walter Rodney in 2005, twenty five years after the assassination of Walter Rodney.

Reference has already been made to the public statements of Ali Mazrui before President Hoyte in Guyana in 1988. Ten years later Mazrui accepted the position of Walter Rodney Professor Chair at the University of Guyana. Mazrui was a humanist in the tradition of Walter Rodney who wanted to transcend racial boundaries. Walter Rodney had been a foremost Pan African scholar and activist and he dedicated the last years of his life fighting for the rights of the Indian and African workers of Guyana and the Caribbean.

Ali Mazrui had been recruited to serve as a patron of the Walter Rodney Committee and he gave generously of his time and resources to the work to remember Walter Rodney. Mazrui travelled with many of us to Guyana to these commemoration events. Members of this commemoration activities included Tajudeen Abdul Raheem, Professor Micere Githae Mugo, Patricia Rodney, Asha Rodney, Kanini Rodney, Raffique Shah, Selma James, Humberto Brown, Michael West, Nigel Westmaas, David Johnson, Sara Abraham, Alissa Trotz, Cecelia Greene, David Hinds, Wazir Mohammed, Lincoln Von Sluytman, Rodney Worrell,  David Abdullah, Nalini Persram, George Lamming and others who worked hard to keep the name of Rodney alive. What is significant about the names of the persons mentioned was that Mazrui would have been the one not considered on the left, but the principled position of Mazrui and his leadership was evident throughout the events in Guyana. Mazrui was one of the main speakers at the opening event on June 10 2005 and was at every activity, including the early morning pilgrimage to the grave side of Walter Rodney on the morning of June 13. This stood out in my mind because when many could not wake up or were tiring of the intense activities, Mazrui the elder was always there.

Mazrui as a person of faith and mixed gender prayers

When Mazrui reached Guyana, he went to Friday prayers in Georgetown with Wazir Mohammed and Tajudeen Abdul Raheem. At the mosque, the leaders, knowing of his fame asked Mazrui to come to speak. As was his practice, Mazrui had travelled with copies of the Annual Mazrui Newsletter. In this 2005 newsletter, Ali Mazrui had written a statement in support Professor Amina Wadud, an African American Muslim scholar, and author of a book on The Qur’an and the Woman. She took a major initiative in March 2005 to lead prayers in New York City. This initiative had caused such a stir in Islamic circles that Ali Mazrui had issued a clear statement supporting the right of Amina Wadud to lead in prayers. In his statement of support, Mazrui said inter alia,

“Is Amina Wadud the Rosa Parks of modern Islam? On the bus of Islamic destiny, is Amina refusing to take a back seat as a female passenger? Rosa Parks’ defiance helped to ignite the Montgomery bus boycott and the civil rights movement in the United States! Is Amina Wadud’s defiance the first shot in a Muslim Reformation on the gender question? She led a gender-mixed congregation in Friday prayers in defiance of traditions of male leadership.

It is too early to assess the historical significance of a Jum’a prayer, in New York City on March 18, 2005, led by a single Muslim woman in a Christian Protestant Church. But we know this is not the first time that Amina Wadud has shaken a Friday Muslim congregation.”

Mazrui then recounted in the newsletter, his visit to South Africa in 2004 and the struggles between the conservatives in Cape Town over Amina Wadud’s right to lead prayers. In his statement Mazrui stated,

“In post-apartheid South Africa, Amina Wadud and I witnessed the historic dialectic of Islam between the veiled face and the vision of openness.”

When Mazrui was invited to speak to followers of the Islamic faith in Georgetown, the driver who was sent to fetch him was instructed to tell him that he should not speak about the efforts of Amina Wadud.  Mazrui then told them that it had not been his intention to speak on Amina Wadud and mixed gender prayers, but since they specifically requested him not to speak about the rights of women in Georgetown, Mazrui then informed them that he would be speaking about the struggles of Amina Wadud and her quest to lead mixed gender prayers.

Islam and the humanism of Ali Mazrui

Ali Mazrui was reared as a follower of the Islamic faith and he was a spiritual person. Yet, he was a secular person who as a believer wanted all people to have their rights and dignity. Mazrui was not a proselytizer. Mazrui like most followers of Islam felt the deep persecution and harassment of the USA after the Islamophopbia craze was fuelled by the neo-conservative forces. Mazrui himself was stopped and held at the airport in Miami and questioned about his connections to international terrorism. It was at this point where Mazrui was carving out a space for decent humans everywhere. Mazrui was an outspoken critic of extremism and fundamentalism of all sorts and he was critical of both the US imperial war on terror and those extremists such as Boko Haram and other Jihadists. Because of his challenge to the conservatives his writings were not liked in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf where the Wahabists were using their billions of dollars to foment hatred and divisions.

From his struggles to affirm the voices of women in Islam such as Ingrid Mattson and Amina Wadud, Ali Mazrui supported the view that, “The issue of gender equality is a very important one in Islam, and Muslims have unfortunately used highly restrictive interpretations of history to move backward.” When she was seeking to make history in New York Amina Wadud stated, “The voices of women have been silenced by centuries of man-made traditions, and we’re saying, ‘No more.’ ….We’re going to move from the back of the mosque to the front of the mosque.”

Within the Global Pan African movement, Ali Mazrui became one of the champions of the full unification of the peoples of Africa and of the transformation of the conditions of the peoples of Africa. Even while he was failing in health, Mazrui joined in meetings and conferences to oppose the NATO destruction of Libya and the assassination of Gaddafi. Ali Mazrui opposed extremism of all sorts and in the USA.  His writings became clearer and clearer as he opposed war and militarism. He was a foremost critic of the wars against the peoples of Iraq and vociferously opposed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Ali Mazrui became an activist scholar among followers of Islam in the USA and at the prayers for Mazrui on Monday one of the Imam leading the prayers described Ali as someone whose support for diversity was also his support for unity. It is this ability to work across all peoples that will distinguish Ali Mazrui for generations to come.

From the Newsletters of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies there will be a treasure trove of the writings and thinking of Ali Mazrui.  On the part of this writer, I want to pay tribute to the generosity of spirit of Mazrui and his willingness to support and nurture those younger scholars of all races, genders and social backgrounds. In this, Ali Mazrui left his mark as someone who stood for fairness and who believed that everyone deserved an opportunity. He worked hard in upstate New York in the African and Islamic communities and was never too proud to go to community meetings all over the region, when invited. As he is now with the ancestors, Mazrui has left a solid tradition of decency. I share the view that was posted in the official obituary by the family,

“Those close to Mazrui loved him for his character and personal qualities. His warmth was enveloping and his laughter was infectious. He was endlessly generous toward family, close and extended, and to people in less fortunate circumstances. He was gracious to all, including strangers and intellectual adversaries. The hospitality of Mazrui and his beloved wife, Pauline, drew hundreds of visitors to their Vestal, New York home from across town and the world. He also kept in touch with relatives, friends and colleagues in far off places with a personal newsletter that he wrote annually for nearly forty years. He enjoyed learning from people from all walks of life and cultures. An egalitarian and humanitarian, he endeavored to treat all people with respect, dignity and fairness. At the same time, he valued spirited debate about political, economic and philosophical ideas. Mazrui modeled integrity and decency.”

Ali Mazrui was 81 years old when he passed on to the other world. To Pauline and the family we extend our deepest condolences.  I will agree that Ali Mazrui has left a vision of openness and peace for us to follow in these challenging times.

Horace Campbell is Professor of African American Studies and Political Science, Syracuse University. He is the author of Global NATO and the Catastrophic Failure in Libya, Monthly Review Press, 2013.