Book Review: America and the Production of Islamic Truth in Uganda

Book Review: America and the Production of Islamic Truth in Uganda (by Yahya Sseremba, Routledge, 2023).

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Book Review: America and the Production of Islamic Truth in Uganda (by Yahya Sseremba, Routledge, 2023).

Every year, Americans commemorate September 11 – the attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre. While many would have predicted military retaliation by the US in the aftermath of these attacks, the idea that 9/11 would be the defining event of a new era was quite unthinkable. What the US came to define as its "war on terror" became a discursive intervention rationalising US hegemony through a series of coordinated global interventions packaged as responses to 9/11. Sseremba's point of entry in this book, i.e., the American project to reform Islamic education (Madrasa) in Uganda, is part of this broader American global intervention project.  

However tempting it may be to read this book as a critique of violent extremism and how to counter it, such a (mis)reading risks oversimplification. Sseremba's broader thematic interest is in "power and subjection to power, not violent extremism and how to it is countered" (9). In this broader plot, the US Madrasa reform project in Uganda, and the broader War on Terror (WoT), provided him with an entry point. It is this point of entry, conceived within the book's broader thematic interest, that renders intelligible Sseremba's consistent quest for the transformation of the (postcolonial) state in the age of the US's global WoT. And it is within this broader framework that Sseremba summons a wide range of material (mainly archival and interview material), the analysis of which enables him to think in terms of various relevant scholarly traditions – from Michel Foucault to thinkers on modernity/coloniality/decoloniality and, most notably, the scholarship of Mahmood Mamdani.

If America and the Production of Islamic Truth in Uganda is to be read as a general attempt to illuminate the question of power and subjection to power from a postcolonial perspective, it is also important to note that at the heart of the book's account is not the generic colonial or postcolonial subject, but a particular kind of subject: the Muslim subject. This figure, specifically the Salafi Muslim, has been singled out by the Americans for being over-exposed to extremist ideas and thus supposedly more susceptible to perpetrating violent extremism (127-158).

In every Ugandan Salafi Muslim, the United States see a potential terrorist. It would prefer that we receive its proposed madrasa reform as aimed at civilising Uganda’s Salafi Muslims, as an antidote to their potential extremism. Sseremba rubbishes these claims and suggests that we place American prescriptions in a broader historical and political context. 

In this book, Sseremba dismisses as obsolete the assumptions that underpin the US’ madrasa reform project in Uganda, and the WoT more broadly – such as the laughable idea that Muslims extract violence straight out of religious texts. Yet he thinks that’s beside the point. He argues that our critical energy should be invested in making sense of what to the service of which generally discredited primordialist and culturalist assumptions are being deployed to serve: the justification of full-scale state intervention in every sphere of society.

These reform proposals, including the idea of homogenising the hitherto diverse madrasa curricula (97-109), aim to control the production of Islamic truth. While the Americans have implemented similar ideas elsewhere, in Uganda they are still at the proposal stage. In this sense, Sseremba's book is an early critical intervention in the development of these ideas in Uganda. It boldly presents itself as an indispensable critical discursive resource for a society-based resistance to these proposals.

The WoT's claims notwithstanding, the US is fully aware that to control the content of what is taught, how it is taught and who teaches it is to capture and control the process of truth/knowledge production. This book suggests that not even the colonial state achieved total control over knowledge production processes, pointing to the relative existence of 'epistemic freedom' under colonialism. While this may be understandably controversial in decolonialist academic circles, Sseremba is generous with his sources. Moreover, following Mahmood Mamdani, Sseremba doesn't see true epistemic freedom as possible without political (institutional) freedom. For him, the postcolonial decolonial project requires a double movement: epistemic and institutional (181).

The book's innovative historical and political approach (14) enables Sseremba to see what is actually new in the American proposals. He emphasises that none of the previous historico-political formations were able to achieve total domination of society. He challenges with evidence the claims of political centralisation in late pre-colonial Buganda, to which Islam is often cited as a critical factor. For how is centralisation conceivable in the absence of the institutional apparatus of the modern state and its surveillance activities, he asks. And how could Islam support centralisation when its logic embodies a critique of homogenising and centralising tendencies (29)? Sseremba notes that claims of late-precolonial centralisation of political power, whether supposedly aided by Islam or other factors, may only be meaningful in light of the current scholarly trend and its questionable politics: the politics of looking for precolonial origins of all postcolonial problems.

If claims of late pre-colonial centralisation are questionable, Sseremba argues that even the modern colonial state, with its transformative governmentality, could not achieve total domination of the colonial subject. He cites the example of how Muslims were governed under colonialism. According to Sseremba, colonialism in Uganda seems to us to have embodied quite modest ambitions when it came to governing the Muslim: it seems to have been satisfied with shaping the subjectivity of Muslim leaders through whom it governed the Muslim population. It never managed to put in place a political technology through which it could shape the subjectivity of the entire Muslim population. All successive post-colonial political elites have been content to create patronage and clientelist networks with some Muslim leaders whom they expected to deliver various sections of the Muslim population. Only Idi Amin, in the early 1970s, attempted to centralise the production of Islamic truth through the creation of the Uganda Muslim Supreme Council - which, according to Sseremba, remained supreme in name only after the fall of Idi Amin (122).

Sseremba argues that America's proposals seek to transcend all previous (colonial and postcolonial) political modalities of Muslim governance in Uganda: they seek to shape not only the subjectivity of Muslim leaders, but of the entire Muslim population through a centrally managed and civil-society controlled process of Islamic truth production. In short, American prescriptions seek to complete the project begun by the colonial state.

It is such politically transformative possibilities embedded in American prescriptions that motivate Sseremba's bold claim: while Mahmood Mamdani's concept of bifurcation retains explanatory power today, and with it the concept of the postcolonial state, the logic of the political designs mobilised around the war on terror is to 'unify rather than bifurcate the state structure' (104). With the US Madrasa reform project, despite its inherent colonial character (for it seeks to 'civilise' the Muslim), state domination of society becomes more centralised and unified – beyond its colonially inherited bifurcation (80).

Overall, this book does two broad things. On the one hand, it tells a story of how the idea and practice of power and subjection to power have been transformed after 9/11. In doing so, Sseremba insists that when we think about the modern state from a postcolonial perspective, we should take new developments and dynamics seriously – for some of these, such as the US-led WoT, demonstrate the capacity to reshape that state in significant and disturbing ways.

On the other hand, this book tells the story of agency: the agency of Ugandan Muslims engaged in a critical endeavour against American prescriptions. But if the dangerous potential of these prescriptions lies in their ability to deepen state domination of society, the general blind spot of Muslim critical agency lies in its total inability to target this structure – the state. They frame their critique within this very problematic structure. In Sseremba's decolonial sense, "[to] interrogate the structure is to strike at the root of the problem" (152). Here, of course, a critical reader may wonder whether this general blind spot of critical Muslim agency does not spell doom for the ongoing resistance to American prescriptions. This may be partly the case. But only if we do not see this book as part of the resistance itself – as a critical discursive resource for the resistance.