He is such an amiable, open, roly-poly sort of man, with a smile as wide as the Equator and a deep rumbling laugh, that it is hard to imagine him the focal point of controversy.
Yet here is Ali A. Mazrui, at a conference table at KCET, still another stop on his journey crisscrossing the nation, defending his work.
The work is the nine-part PBS series “The Africans,” debuting Tuesday night, which has so outraged the National Endowment for the Humanities and its chairwoman Lynne Cheney that the NEH has not only withheld $50,000 it had promised for publicity, but also fought for and got its name removed from the credits.
“Within the project,” grinned Mazrui--writer and narrator of “The Africans"--"the joke is, we asked for $50,000 and she gave us so very much more.”
The endowment had already given $600,000 to “The Africans,” a gargantuan four-year, three-continent, 18-country, $3.5-million project co-sponsored by PBS Washington station WETA-TV and the British Broadcasting Corp.
But when she “finished viewing all nine hours,” Cheney erupted. A recent Reagan appointee whose husband, Rep. Richard Cheney (R.-Wyo.), used to be chief of staff for former President Gerald Ford, the NEH chairwoman fired off a letter to Ward B. Chamberlin Jr., president of WETA. She called the series “narrow, politically tendentious.” And Cheney concluded: “Worse than unbalanced, this film frequently degenerates into anti-Western diatribe.”
A writer and editor with a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Michigan, Cheney also said the series “extols the virtues of Moammar Kadafi. . . . Anybody in this country can, of course, produce film with any bias he or she pleases. But when you seek funding from the NEH . . . then standards of balance and objectivity are demanded.”
Last Friday, when asked if she had second thoughts about giving “so very much more” publicity to “The Africans,” Cheney, a former writer and editor at the Washingtonian, asserted: “I’m a former journalist, so I’m well aware of the reaction to the stand I took. The endowment is not in the business of funding political polemics. We hold very firmly to our guidelines, and expect grantees to abide by them. . . . And especially since it is being used as an educational tool, as a college course, but also children in grade school are being assigned to watch the film, it is very important (that it be stated) it’s not balanced and objective.
“I’m very pleased PBS has truth in labeling,” Cheney added. “They’re calling this a commentary, in information they’re supplying. And there is a possibility the whole series will be labeled as commentary when it airs.”
It will. Ruth Kaplan, a vice president for WETA, said that after the title “The Africans,” there will be a subtitle, “A Commentary by Ali A. Mazrui.” She said she doesn’t remember when that was inserted, “but it was not in response” to Cheney. “We were discussing this with PBS early in the summer.”
Meanwhile, Mazrui, a native Kenyan and U.S. resident since 1974, appears to be taking the storm in stride, even relishing it. After all, this professor of political science at the University of Michigan, research professor at the University of Jos in Nigeria, and professor-at-large at Cornell, is accustomed to controversy. “I had to leave Uganda because of Idi Amin,” he said with a laugh.
“The thing is, the series was supposed to be all along the view from the inside, so I wasn’t invited to be professorial. I was invited to be African. And the implication was that I should be speaking as a participant- observer, not a detached observer. So for them to be astonished that I don’t sound American at the end of it seems to be"--he paused--"absurd, you see.
“It’s a pity,” Mazrui continued, as amiability became severity, “that the NEH will never support projects which involve interpretations of other societies by members of those societies. Silly, since many studies by foreigners have sometimes missed important trends that it’s in the interest of the United States to learn from other societies and about other societies, instead of asking later, ‘Why did we lose Iran?’ or ‘Why did we lose Cuba?’
“One thing about freedom of speech I want to say: It’s most unfortunate that this coincides with the Nicholas Daniloff affair. The Soviet Union says, ‘We don’t want foreigners to talk to our people.’ That’s the message the Soviet Union is conveying. I think Mrs. Cheney is dangerously near saying to PBS, ‘We don’t want foreigners to talk to our people.’ ”
Mazrui’s Third World theme in “The Africans,” spoken in a rather British accent, is that the continent is the product of a “triple heritage": what is indigenous; what has been contributed by Islam, and what has “been imposed or acquired” from the West.
“I’m a walking triple heritage,” says Mazrui, who was born in Mombassa, Kenya, 53 years ago, and received his undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degrees at Manchester University, England; Columbia University, N.Y., and Oxford University, England, respectively. “I’m African, and my native language is African--that’s Swahili. My religion is Islam, and my education has been Western. The first teacher that taught me about the triple heritage was my life itself.”
Mazrui wanted to call the series, “We, the Africans,” but that title was rejected because it sounded too much like “black power"--though black power themes and images, involving black Americans as well, also appear in the series.
In the broad sweep of “The Africans,” Mazrui deals with issues of birth control--and what he calls “death control.” Or as the series states: “What African mothers need is a supply of clean water, not a supply of contraceptive pills.” He discusses religion. “The greatest danger to Islam in Africa is not Western Christianity, it is Western secularism . . . the ecstasy of modernity.”
“The series, if it has a bias, is pro-African, as opposed to anti-Western,” Mazrui insisted. “But there are aspects of Africa’s relations with the West which were very unhappy. . . . The actual subject matter (of Part Four) ranges from the slave trade to unequal economic conditions today.”
Part Four, Cheney wrote to PBS, “strives to blame every technological, moral and economic failure of Africa on the West.” She said its thesis is “so overdrawn that at times it becomes ludicrous. When Master Sgt. Doe’s henchmen brutally execute former Liberian leaders, the blame is cast on . . . the guns used by the executioners rather than on the Africans pulling the triggers.”
"(In) this particular sequence,” Mazrui explained, “I’m talking about the coming of the gun trade with the slave trade . . . and I’m holding an old rifle, and I said, ‘The legacy of the gun trade continues today’ and (I show) how today’s head of state of Ghana is teaching his office staff how to shoot rifles. Immediately after that we show what I call ‘Carnage by the Sea,’ which was the execution of a previous government by a new regime.”
The segment’s thesis, Mazrui said, is that “the transfer of technology from the West to Africa has been very shallow. And then I show things which don’t work. Television, water taps, door knobs. The West takes a lot of resources that are relevant for its own development, such as chrome, cobalt, coal or whatever, and the West sometimes claims it brings in know-how. The only form of technology which seems to have more effect is the West’s technology of destruction. The only forms of technology which work, because we buy large-scale arms, are the weapons.”
In Part Nine of “The Africans,” Libyan leader Kadafi is shown playing with children and making speeches. Footage shot after the American raid on Tripoli shows Kadafi making bedside visits to the wounded and patting the alabaster corpses of two infants.
Kadafi “saw himself as political heir” to the late President Nasser of Egypt, the program notes. “Because of his support for the Palestinian fighters, he also inherited from Nasser the Western world’s hatred. To the West, Nasser was Hitler. Kadafi was seen simply as a terrorist. . . . Two supreme ideals seem to have inspired Kadafi’s adventures: to turn Africans and Arabs into masters of their own destiny. And to transform them into major actors on the world stage. Kadafi is another example of how it is not enough just to stop being pawns in the games of the powerful. We must become global players in our own right.”
Asked to comment on that interpretation, Mazrui said: “You must remember you are dealing with one minute of Kadafi, in nine hours of watching television. This particular program talks about Africa’s ambition to move from being a pawn in other people’s games to being a player on the global chessboard.” (In actuality, the segment gives 2 1/2 minutes to Kadafi.)
Does Mazrui like Kadafi’s way of playing? “You don’t have to like the way he plays. . . . The real reservation we have is that he’s unstable. Brilliant but unstable. His loyalties and allegiances are not constant. He’s a bit fickle.”
The program does not express that view. “The entire media are constantly bashing Kadafi. Why should I waste an additional minute doing what every other American institution is doing?” Mazrui asked.
Asked if he considers Kadafi a terrorist, Mazrui replied sharply: “Only in the sense Reagan is. That is both subsidize instruments of violence. Congress has just reconfirmed support to the Unita movement in Angola . . . and support to the contras is the same. One man’s terrorist is another man’s liberation fighter, you see.”
That comparison, made in the original production aired in Britain last spring, was “softened because of American sensibilities--the American side of the production,” Mazrui said. “I’m saying there is a heroic side to Kadafi, that he has established his credentials on the world stage, and there is a bad side, the fickleness, not the fact that he supports radical Palestinians.”
Is it good that Kadafi supports the radical Palestinians? “That depends on whether you agree with the movement,” Mazrui replied. “He supports the radical Palestinians, the IRA (Irish Republican Army), some of these causes are worthy. . . . I don’t like terrorism in places other than the battlefield.”
But haven’t radical Palestinians been terrorizing outside battlefields, Mazrui was asked?
His voice rose slightly: “We don’t know that. We just have the United States’ word for it. I don’t take American evidence. I don’t take that as gospel truth.”
“The film,” Cheney wrote, “moves from distressing moment to distressing moment.” After Kadafi, “pictures of mushroom clouds fill the screen and it is suggested that Africans are about to come into their own, because after ‘final racial conflict’ in South Africa, black Africans will have nuclear weapons.”
Does Mazrui consider that good?
“It’s not something that can be contradicted by Mrs. Cheney,” he replied. “The 1990s will prove whether I was right. . . . Actually, I’m against nuclear bombs, but I’m against them in the hands of anybody, not just blacks. I’m very uneasy Reagan can start a nuclear war, or (Soviet leader) Gorbachev. I want black Africa to have the bomb to frighten the system as a whole.”
While Cheney claims that in the original proposal “many, many” interviews were promised with Africans of competing views, Mazrui disclosed that “a very solemn decision” was made not to have interviews in front of cameras. “Interviews,” he said, “are inherently artificial events; we happen to be there. (And) we had interviews for research.”
He contends that the humanities endowment should have known about his point of view “at the very beginning.”
“At the time the application was submitted (in 1984 while Secretary of Education William J. Bennett was chairman) anybody who didn’t know my views didn’t want to read. I’ve written 15 books, hundreds of articles, including articles in the leading academic journals of the United States, American Political Science Review, World Politics. I gave lectures for the BBC, which were published here, and many of these same issues were articulated.”
Toward the end of the series, Mazrui is shown teaching in a classroom at Michigan, and a student is asking: Who are the Africans, would the colonials be considered African too? Mazrui’s answer is a definitive no.
“Living in a country doesn’t make you a part of that country, doesn’t make you belong,” Mazrui said. “It wouldn’t matter even if, theoretically, I lived a thousand years in this country,” he would be, “psychically, a Kenyan"--an African.