In the midst of a debate on anti-Semitism A brilliant thinker

Achille Mbembe
Photo (detail): Daniel Bockwoldt © dpa

For Jörg Häntzschel, Achille Mbembe is one of the most brilliant thinkers of the present day and one of the most prominent intellectuals of the African continent, who sees himself equally at home in African and European - including Jewish - traditions of thought.

By Jörg Häntzschel

Recently, Johannesburg-based historian and political scientist Achille Mbembe received a message that left him speechless. It stated that in Germany he is accused of anti-Semitism. The FDP politician Lorenz Deutsch claimed to have found indications of this in Mbembe's writings. Felix Klein, the German government's anti-Semitism commissioner, concurred. Both were appalled that Mbembe was to give the opening lecture of the Ruhrtriennale and demanded that his invitation be cancelled.
 
Achille Mbembe is one of the most brilliant thinkers of the present day and one of the most prominent intellectuals of the African continent, who sees himself equally at home in African and European - including Jewish - traditions of thought.
 
Mbembe, who has frequently taught in Germany and been distinguished with important awards here, such as the Geschwister Scholl Prize of the City of Munich, will not be coming for another reason: the Ruhrtriennale has been cancelled. But the accusations persist nonetheless. In recent days, critics have been seeking further evidence for their assessment that Mbembe relativises the Holocaust, is an Israel-hater and supports the anti-Israeli movement BDS.
  
Mbembe, who was born in Cameroon in 1957 and earned his doctorate at the Sorbonne, gained prominence through his collection of essays De La Postcolonie, essai sur l'imagination politique dans l'Afrique contemporaine (On the Postcolony), originally published in 2000, in which he deals with the devastating after-effects of colonialism on Africa. Most German readers, however, only discovered him through his celebrated volume Critique de la raison nègre (Critique of Black Reason). In it, he expands his perspective from Africa to the world and from the era of colonialism and post-colonialism to the entire modern era.
  
Racism, thus Mbembe, is the very foundation of capitalism and globalisation. The “invention” of black people as inferior human beings legitimised the exploitation and enslavement of Africa and other parts of the world by the West. This exploitation has continued after the end of colonialism, only now it cannot be located geographically. Mbembe speaks of the “becoming negro” of the world. Colonial principles are at work everywhere. Racism lives on, but Mbembe also counts among the “negroes” oppressed people of other skin colours: wage slaves, refugees, the persecuted.
  
In his latest book, Politiques de l'inimitié (i.e. the politics of enmity) (2017), he continues to trace the colonialist and racist currents in our society. Nationalism, terror and war are spreading not only in the specific crisis regions, but in the West as well. According to Mbembe, many of their variants and methods have their origins in the colonial era.
  
Neither the Holocaust nor Israel is at the centre of his work, yet both play an important role in his history of “enmity”. It is precisely these passages that Mbembe's critics hold against him: “The logic of the concentration camp,” he writes, for example, took its start with the British occupying forces in South Africa; the “planned mass murder” of the Jews had previously been tried out by the Germans with the Herero people. And what Israel is doing to the Palestinians today is “worse than the comparatively primitive measures” of the South African apartheid regime. These are radical judgements, but is this really anti-Semitism?
 
Mbembe has denied this in Die Zeit. He has long since distanced himself from the BDS. He accuses his critics of trivialising anti-Semitism with their attacks on him. He contrasts his sombre analysis with a utopia entitled: “Die Welt reparieren” (i.e. repairing the world). The debate about the Ruhrtriennale is not new. It would be a disaster if this African thinker of reconciliation were to fall victim to this German discourse on relations with Israel or the BDS.

This article was first published in the Süddeutschen Zeitung of 25.04.2020.