Red and Green Danger
A Discussion about the Distortion in the Perception of Islam after 1989
With Jihan El Tahri, Manthia Diawara, Mueni Wa Muiu, Andreas Eckert
Jihan El Tahri
I’m going to start with a sentence from Thabo Mbeki’s speech. He gave this amazing speech when the constitution of South Africa was signed called 'I’m an African'. He said – as improbable as it might sound – Africa will prosper. So my angle is one of general optimism, but when you get down to the detail there is quite a bit of pessimism there whether we like it or not.
We’ve all been talking about the effects of the fall of the Wall, and I want to take it from a different angle: how, officially, Africa has not dealt with its effects. Basically the Wall fell and officials in Africa dealt with it as though it’s some normal happening; there was no major change in policy. But the world was no longer a bipolar one. And that meant for Africans, especially those who were seeking democracy, there was no longer this option of turning elsewhere. So in many countries it was very clear that there’s only one way to go and it was this one way that became the route to take. And I’m not going to focus on one country, I’m going to actually hop about a little bit, and for me one of the most important moments is the Congo. As Frantz Fanon said, 'Africa is like the shape of a gun and the Congo is its trigger.' And what happens in the Congo a lot of the time gives an indication as to where the rest of the continent is going. When Mandela was being elected president, the genocide was happening. But the fall of Mobutu sort of happened as though nothing happened; he just left and that was it. Nevertheless it was a major transformation economically, politically and socially that had repercussions throughout the continent. And those who got rid of Mobutu were, let’s say, two major characters from Uganda, Rwanda, and Laurent Kabila from the Congo, and they had been named as the new breed of African leaders by US Foreign Advisor Susan Rice. Basically the idea was this is the kind of Africa we are going to support, an Africa that was ready for an open door policy which didn’t necessarily mean the development of the country’s infrastructure, but opening to the commerce in raw materials, so basically the whole cycle repeating itself but in a very different form.
I’m going to jump from there to Angola, because to win that war against Mobutu the Angolans were the main factor as they had a trained army, and it was in many ways thanks to Angola that Mobutu fell. And Angola is a pure example of what the Cold War was all about: a country that got its independence in 1975 – and was very quickly divided into three movements; one that was very clearly Communist-orientated, another one that was very clearly supported by the Americans and the European powers, and Savimbi’s UNITA, a complete fabrication of the Cold War; and this war lasted for 27 years. When Savimbi was killed, twenty-seven years of war ended overnight. That was what bipolarity was about; it was the capacity to maintain a conflict whether it had its origins and its roots in that country or not. Of course with time every group would have its supporters, but the reality was that it didn’t really have an effect.
And I’m going to go from Angola up north – for me, the biggest effect of the end of bipolarity, Algeria. To understand that we have to move even further, to Afghanistan and what happened there. The whole wave of support for the anti-Russian movement came mainly from the mujahideen; the mujahideen were the core of the rise of Muslim jihad, which today is not being regarded in the same context. It’s as though Muslim extremism came out of some bottle that isn’t related to the rest of the events on the continent. What happened with the fall of the Wall was that these mujahideen who were being supported by the American government against the Russian government suddenly were politically and strategically useless, so each of them had to go back to their country. So, from the late Eighties to '94 this wave of Muslim mujahideen – we called them Afghans but they’re actually of sixty different nationalities – returned to all these North African countries and started establishing a whole different dynamic, which is a post-Cold-War dynamic. And in these countries that recreated a new option. Before it was either the West or nothing, but now it was either the Western option or the Islamic option. So this new dynamic showed itself mainly in Algeria when the FIS won the municipal elections by democratic vote. Suddenly the whole world started to panic. The Red scare, which was during the Cold War, was replaced by the Green scare, which is the Muslim fundamentalist issue.
I guess, to wrap up, what I was trying to do was to pick up different elements of how these issues of post-Cold-War have not been dealt with officially. So what is democracy for us today? And when I say 'us' I’m talking about the African continent. Is it just Western-style democracy? And if it is, what kind of Western style democracy is it – American democracy? And if so, when we go to places like Palestine, when the Hamas officially won by the ballot box, it was not an acceptable democratic outcome. In which case, what does democracy mean for us today?
Jihan mentioned Rwanda as one of the countries looked upon by the West as one of the 'new breed', when actually just there the ethnic factor turned out to be the most fatal. Would anyone respond to that?
Mueni Wa Muiu
Ethnic hatred had always been around but not on that scale. Rwanda was the first time that it was well organised and they used the radio to incite people to kill each other. It’s okay for people to consider themselves part of an ethnic group, but when it is politicised then it becomes a very serious issue. Ethnic hatred has driven some of these countries fifty years back from where they were before, and it is this issue that has to be dealt with if there’s going to be a sense of any nationhood. Unless people create something they believe in, something they see as theirs, they will always consider it as a foreign concept and they will use ethnicity against each other.
Andreas Eckert brought up this ironic moment when South Africa came to symbolise the African renaissance - that which was constituted through apartheid has become the basis for the African renaissance - whilst Rwanda, the 'Switzerland' of Africa, became the heart of African tribalism; Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, in a way.
I wanted to make this comparison just to make clear that the developments in Africa cannot be reduced to saying that the Western path will eventually lead to democracy. In a way the Rwandan genocide was a very modern war, a very modern genocide; I mean the strategic use of ethnicity and the way it was proclaimed. We have to think about the kind of options African states had after 1960, the way they used options and the way there were also ways which were blocked very soon. I think it doesn’t make sense now to use this kind of dichotomy between on the one hand a colonial heritage, on the other hand this kind of a total construction - 'The Africans are like this'.
I am sceptical about labelling: what is American democracy or European, what is African democracy? Does something like this exist? What could be an African State? I want to look carefully at the kind of options people have, because you mentioned the end of bipolar world. I think new dichotomies or new options are coming; you mentioned the Muslim option, and of course Africa is now kind of divided again. Those areas which are important for the war against terror and those which are not, those areas which have raw material and those that have not. Those where the Chinese are and those where they are not. Africa is reorganised and this offers options, different from the kind of Cold War option, West or East. Many people thought, 'Now it's over,' and now people in the West could say, 'We only give money to those who are politically correct and who will restore democracies.' But now the Chinese are around, and Western governments are much more prepared to jump in.
Jihan el Tahri
I am not saying there’s a form of African democracy, but it’s necessary for Africa to aspire to its own indigenous form of governance, each country for itself. And I’ll say something at the risk of shocking you all concerning this whole issue of ethnicity and tribalism. South Africa is a good example of that. The family structures, the way the tribal society was organised, had its own relevance: tribalism isn’t just ethnic groups killing each other, though today we think of it as such. Who says ethnicity equals bad, and why? What’s the problem if I feel close to my people, as long as it is not violent, as long as it's not hate speech? I think we’re at a juncture today where a lot of the old formulas are breaking down.
Mueni Wa Muiu
I want to return to the notion of African democracies and what is the alternative. There actually is a form of African democracy and aspects of it are in existence today in Botswana, where everything is based on consensus, you consult each other, you iron issues out. In today’s what is called the Republic of Somaliland – which is ironic because this is not recognised by the international community, and it is actually more peaceful than Somalia where you have 250,000 refugees in Kenya now – they are following an indigenous system based on consensus, based on consulting each other. It is also the case that was used in Sudan, the women who’d stand between the warring parties and make sure that the conflict ended, and they’d also refuse to go into business with their friends and husbands until they settled their conflict. So there are forms of African democracy and there are aspects of an indigenous system that can be used to build a state that Africans learned for themselves. The arrogance or power is the one that forces Africans to be pushed into a system that they don’t even understand and they don’t even care for. Imagine you’re all sitting here and someone comes and starts teaching you all in Chinese or in Arabic or in Swahili. Do you accept it? Do you go to school and learn Swahili? You would fight it no matter what, because there’s a German way of doing things. There’s also an African way of doing things.
Coming back to the topic of 1989, Timothy Garton Ash said in his keynote speech said that he agrees with Francis Fukuyama’s thesis of the 'end of history' insofar as we no longer have two serious ideologies contesting each other for ruling the world, economically, politically, and so on. He mentioned Islam but he maintained that it’s really not that kind of ideology. What is your perspective on that?
Jihan el Tahri
I can say one thing about revolution and Islam. My film Cuba – An African Odyssey was initially entitled Requiem for Revolution. The Cubans of course were very unhappy with this title and every time I went to interview someone they kept asking, 'Why Requiem for Revolution?' One of the main founders of the African policy in Cuba said to me: 'I understand your point, but revolution is not dead.' I said, 'Give me an example?' He said, 'Muslim fundamentalism,' which really took me aback. He said: what was revolution about? It was defending your own principles, the way you see your own indigenous culture, and fighting for it. So he made that connection, which of course is, I think, a bit extreme, but there is a point to that.
To be honest I think this talk about the end of history is nonsense. Even though maybe you can argue that there are not these two big options, look at the recent efforts of the State to take over all the banks. It is something which, in a way, is much more according to a model of socialism than to a model of Chicago capitalism. Speaking about history, I want to come back to another point. For thirty years we have had this debate about ethnicity, about tradition and modernity. I think Africans do not have to be forced into modernity, because they are in modernity, as everyone is.
Jihan el Tahri
Of course Africa’s modern, but it doesn’t mean that the values that you stick to are equivalent to European ones. There is an indigenous way of doing it locally. You were talking about South Africa. One of the first things the South Africans did, they refused to be members of the IMF and the World Bank, which was a different angle on the whole question of how to develop. So, yes, we’re part of modernity, but doing it differently in a way that suits best each individual country.
is an author and film director. Since 1990 she has been making documentary films about political and social issues. El-Tahri has also published a biography of Yassir Arafat, The Nine Lives of Yasser Arafat (1997), and a book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel and the Arabs (1998).
is Professor for Comparative Literature and Film Studies and chair of the Africana Studies Department at New York University. His book about contemporary African cinema will be published in the spring of 2010.
Mueni wa Muiu
is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina, USA. Her book A New Paradigm of the African State: Fundi wa Afrika, written with Guy Martin, was published by in January 2009.
is Professor for African History at the Humboldt University in Berlin, Institute of Asian and African Studies. His most recent publication is Vom Imperialismus zum Empire – Nichtwestliche Perspektiven auf die Globalisierung [From Imperialism to Empire - Non-Western Perspectives on Globalisation], edited with Shalini Randeria, 2009.
From the book 1989 / Globale Geschichten [1989: Global Histories], edited by Susanne Stemmler, Valerie Smith und Bernd M. Scherer. © Wallstein Verlag, Göttingen 2009.
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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