Remembering Ali Mazrui (1933-2014)

4 Dec

(Prefatory Note: This second essay of remembrance celebrates another friend and close collaborator in an innovative academic and political project that occupied much of my energies in the period between 1969 and 1990. The undertaking was known by its infelicitous acronym ‘WOMP’ [World Order Models Project], and was conceived and managed by Saul Mendlovitz, yet another friend and co-worker, as a way to explore ‘feasible utopias’ within the rather utopian timeline of what could and should happen by the decade of the 1990s. Scholar/activists from different civilizational backgrounds met though out the world frequently in these years to exchange ideas and visionary conceptions of how to proceed humanely and effectively to realize a series of shared values: peace, justice, ecological stability, development, human rights. It became evident that despite this common ground rooted in ethical agreement, there were strong divergences when it came to expectations about what was attainable and what was desirable. The participants from the West were preoccupied with the avoidance of war, while those from the South focused their hopes and dreams upon development and empowerment, giving emphasis to overcoming the legacies and renewals of colonialism. Such transnational collaboration was attempted in the atmosphere of the Cold War and prior to neoliberal globalization and the more recent realization of the global threat posed by climate change. Present circumstances of challenge would make a new venture along similar methodological lines both illuminating and possibly politically relevant, and certainly of intellectual interest. It is my hope that someone who shares this viewpoint and has that blend of visionary adventurism and entrepreneurial ambition will make a second attempt along similar lines to those pursued too soon by WOMP.] 



Remembering Ali Mazrui (1933-2014)


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.


15 Responses to “Remembering Ali Mazrui (1933-2014)”

  1. truthaholics December 4, 2014 at 5:33 am #

    Reblogged this on | truthaholics and commented:
    He first rose to prominence as a critic of some of the accepted orthodoxies of African intellectuals in the 1960s and 1970s. He was critical of African socialism and all strains of Marxism. He argued that communism was a Western import just as unsuited for the African condition as the earlier colonial attempts to install European type governments. He argued that a revised liberalism could help the continent and described himself as a proponent of a unique ideology of African liberalism.

    At the same time he was a prominent critic of the current world order. He believed the current capitalist system was deeply exploitative of Africa, and that the West rarely if ever lived up to their liberal ideals and could be described as global apartheid. He has opposed Western interventions in the developing world, such as the Iraq War. He has also long been opposed to many of the policies of Israel, being one of the first to try to link the treatment of Palestinians with South Africa’s apartheid.

  2. Jerry "Peacemaker" December 4, 2014 at 5:38 pm #

    Mr. Mazrui seems to have been a very good man and people were fortunate to have been associated with him.

  3. rehmat1 December 4, 2014 at 7:02 pm #

    I wonder how many brainwashed Americans know that Uganda dictator Dada Idi Amin and Panama’s former military dictator Gen. Manuel A. Noriega were trained in Israel?

    “Noriega had gone military and intelligence training in Israel, jumped five times with Israeli paratroopers, and like Uganda’s deposed dictator Idi Amin – proudly wore his Israeli paratrooper wing on his uniform for many years afterward. Although critics say America bought and paid for Noriega, he was also an Israeli creation and a great admirer of the ruthless Israeli way, as was Idi Amin,” wrote Richard H. Curtis (died 2013).

  4. ray032 December 5, 2014 at 5:59 am #

    Dear Richard, I am sorry to learn of the loss of another dear friend in so short a TIME. Even though I did not know them, your eloquent tributes to both of them imparted a sense of their moral and Spiritual development.

    In honouring their steadfastness in doing whatever they could, be it big or small, in trying to bring Judgment and Justice to this world, we can only remain vigilant, and speak/act out against injustice without giving up the struggle. It is a big world, and we, individually, are so small is seems all too often.

    I wanted to share this Haaretz article with you and the others in the Spirit of your dear, departed friends. This is my introduction to it on my Facebook news feed;

    Know the Truth, and the Truth will set you Free! God is a Spirit, and those who worship God must worship God in Spirit and in Truth!

    What is Spirit? Could it be that Life force giving Life to you in your body right now? When that Spirit leaves the body, our bodies return to the dust of the Earth. The TIME we have here is so short in TIME without Beginning or Ending.

    What is Truth? Pilate asked Jesus during the occupation of Judea and Samaria 2000 years ago.

    I, for one, have to recognize much Truth in this Haaretz report, as being revealed by the Living Spirit of Truth concerning the occupation of Judea and Samaria TODAY!!!

    ‘The Jewish-American battle for Israeli democracy stops at the Green Line’
    Why does the nation-state bill offend America’s Jewish establishment more than the occupation?

    • Richard Falk December 5, 2014 at 7:41 pm #

      Thanks, Ray, for this supportive and helpful commentary.

  5. Laurie Knightly December 6, 2014 at 1:32 pm #

    The life of this man appears to be laden with contradictions – which raises inquiry as opposed to judgment. He had a privileged life the son of an Islamic judge in Kenya and was educated in British schools. Compelled to leave Kenya, he is also critical of Uganda’s dictatorial style. What is the culture he still romanticizes?

    Salman Rushdie’s writings are more than insensitive – one should imagine his own religious/esteemed figures satirized in the most disgusting of terms. The UK renounced blasphemy laws only in recent years. The US manages with the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 to exert rules – probably to protect criticism of Israel. Most countries in the world have some form of blasphemy laws. Yes,criticize a religion but not this way; it’s dishonest and not worthy of acclaim.

    We certainly could use reminding of the hypocrisy regarding nuclear weapons. Would that other countries be asked to meet the current demands placed on Iran.

    His views on masculinity, defining post slavery bravado, might bear resemblance to the posturing common to defining manhood that seems to prevail everywhere – regardless of history or culture. Some day we might imagine co-ed cheer leaders for high school
    science majors – and others. And women who don’t feel a deep need to undress in public.

    I had not heard of the series – The Africans, and am interested, but his Reith Lecture is still available on line.

    Thanks for introducing me to this academic – another world.

  6. ceylan December 7, 2014 at 2:30 am #

    Thank you Richard for this most touching posthumous introduction to Ali Mazrui which became even stronger by your comparison to James Baldwin (whom I also admire) who has been a legend in Turkey.

    As I have recently finished reading a study on Baldwin “James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade: Erotics of Exile”, meeting Mazrui is spinning my head 🙂

    • Laurie Knightly December 7, 2014 at 7:51 am #

      “it was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”
      james baldwin

      Albeit technology expanded knowledge into a more diversified world of media, the message is the same.

  7. Gene Schulman December 7, 2014 at 8:02 am #

    Richard, this may be off topic, but I thought your readers might be interested in this:

    I happened upon this article (link below) in today’s edition of Counterpunch. I will not be surprised if I see it again on your blog as your next “New Post”.

    I find it very interesting that the Israel/Palestine conflict is not mentioned as an example of colonialism in your list, which serves as an excellent history lesson for those who have not followed Santayana’s dictum of not remembering history. They are doomed to relive it.

    As Gilad Atzmon claims, Israel is not a colonial power. Colonial powers exploit the indigenous people whose lands they occupy. Israel is ethnically cleansing the indigenes from whose land they are dominating.

    • rehmat1 December 7, 2014 at 12:35 pm #

      Like 9/11, there are so many theories about the creation of state of Israel in Palestine instead of Uganda, Argentina, Chile, China, etc. to name a few.

      On September 16, 2014, Janet C. Phelan, an investigative journalist and author claimed: “To understand the dysfunctional US-Israel relationship which has been plagued with self-deception, betrayal and false intent from its inception. To begin with, one must understand that the state of Israel was in large part created by those who despised Jews.”

      On March 18, 2014, Jerusalem-based The Times of Israel, reported that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu received a ‘scholarly study’ which claimed that the Western Jews occupying Palestine are not from the so-called 12-tribes of Israelites, but children of Mongolian Khazar tribes who adopted Jewish religion and established an empire in Ukrainian part of Russia. The study was done by a team of scholars from leading research institutions and museums.

      • Laurie Knightly December 7, 2014 at 3:32 pm #

        Counterpunch, July 22, 2014 – Why Israel Needs Ant-Semitism, by Diana Johnstone.

      • Gene Schulman December 7, 2014 at 4:30 pm #

        Indeed, Diana Johnstone is one of the best journalists in France. I never miss an article, including this one. Yo may have noticed the manifestations today in France against anti-Semitism. All arranged and provoked by CRIC, France’s equivalent to AIPAC.

      • Laurie Knightly December 7, 2014 at 6:19 pm #

        A typo? Should that be CRIF? Equivalent to AIPAC…….

  8. rehmat1 December 8, 2014 at 4:32 am #

    @Gene Schulman

    Roger Cukierman, president of CRIF, an umbrella organization of over 100 pro-Israel French Jewish groups has claimed that his organization is not linked to Zionist movement or Israel. The Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (Le Conseil Representatif des Institutions Juives de France (CRIF) formed in 1977, is French duplicate of American Israel Lobby (AIPAC).

    CRIF has been calling for years for banning top French comedian Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala from performing in France, Europe and North America. The Afro-French comedian is hated by the Jewish groups for his pro-support for Palestine, Iran and Hizbullah while he makes jokes about Israel and Zionism.

    French daily Le Monde published an article in October 2007 describing the Zionist lobby in France as a non-transparent and deceitful group. From that point, the issue of the Zionist lobby in France and its influence on the country’s foreign and domestic policy has been taken into consideration.

    In November 2014 CRIF campaigned against the token recognition of Palestinian state by French parliament.

    “In France, after the anti-Semitic riots this summer, this declaration will certainly not be interpreted as a peace initiative and risks exacerbating the anti-Semitic tensions which we saw last summer,” claimed the statement.

    As always, blame Muslims for the so-called ‘antisemitism’ – an European term which never existed in the Muslim world before the creation of state of Israel by the Western powers.


  1. Remembering Ali Mazrui (1933–2014) | Reflections - Deepak Tripathi's Diary - December 4, 2014

    […] Richard Falk […]

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