BOOK REVIEW: Yahya Sseremba: America and the Production of Islamic Truth in Uganda.

Type of Publication
Link to Publication
Main Author
Adventino Banjwa
Journal Name
Journal of Religious History
Wiley Online Library

Broadly, America and the Production of Islamic Truth in Uganda is a study on “power and subjection to power, not violent extremism and how it is countered” (p. 9). To this endeavour, the US's global war on terror (WoT) and its corresponding interventions, in this case the Uganda Islamic education (Madrasa) reform proposals, provided Yahya Sseremba with an entry point. In Uganda, the US proposes numerous reforms, among them the idea of homogenising the hitherto diverse Madrasa curricula (pp. 97–109). Sseremba argues that at the heart of these reforms is the desire to control Islamic truth production (p. 104).

Most importantly, this book is a study on power and subjection to power, and contemporary Islamic thought and reform, from an African postcolonial vantage point. Unlike Afrocentric responses to Eurocentrism, Sseremba does not seek to Africanise or Ugandanise any of these phenomena. For him, “there is nothing particularly Ugandan or African about making subjects” (p. 11). In an important theoretical contribution, Sseremba insists that Africa be engaged as a conceptual model (pp. 159–175), which means “not only to study Africa on its own terms, but also to look at the world from Africa” (p. 162).

Of specific interest to this book is the status of the postcolonial state, and of postcolonial agency in truth production, in the wake of America's global WoT projects. Sseremba asks: “What do such interventions reveal about the ways in which the state in Africa is metamorphosing and redesigning its domination of society?” (p. 1). If, thanks to American prescriptions for reforming Uganda's Madrasas, the state is set to assume direct “regulation of the production of Islamic truth” in Uganda, “where does this leave the agency of the Muslims?” (p. 6). Within this broader framing, Sseremba summons a wide array of material (primarily archival sources and interviews), the analysis of which enables him to think withdifferent relevant scholarly traditions, from Michel Foucault to the Modernity/Coloniality/Decoloniality scholarly collective, and, above all, the scholarship of Mahmood Mamdani.

Because America's reform proposals target Uganda's Islamic education, at the heart of this book is the postcolonial Muslim subject. According to Sseremba, the Muslim figure, specifically the Salafi Muslim, has been singled out by the US for being over-exposed to extremist ideas, and thus supposedly more susceptible to perpetrating violent extremism (pp. 127–158). Sseremba dismisses the assumptions behind this claim (such as the idea that Muslims extract violence straight out of religious texts) as obsolete and laughable. In the face of such primordialist and culturalist assumptions, Sseremba asks: “What are the circumstances in which the Muslim interprets the text to justify violence?” (p. 73). What purpose do otherwise discredited primordialist and culturalist arguments serve? (p. 78). He argues that American prescriptions should be placed within a broader historical and political context.

The book's innovative historico-political approach (p. 14) enables Sseremba to see what is actually new in the American proposals. He emphasises that none of the previous political formations (precolonial, colonial and postcolonial) were able to achieve full-scale domination of society. Citing the example of the colonial governance of the Muslim (p. 53ff), Sseremba argues that even the colonial modern state, with its transformative governmentality, could not achieve total domination of society. According to Sseremba, colonialism, in its governance of the Muslim, could only shape the subjectivity of Muslim leaders, through whom it governed the Muslim population. With the example of Muslims' control of the education of Muslims, the book even points to a potential epistemic space under colonialism in Uganda, one through which the Muslim population could participate in the production of Islamic truth. While this point might raise understandable controversy in some decolonial scholarly circles, Sseremba is generous with his sources. Moreover, following Mahmood Mamdani, Sseremba does not consider genuine epistemic freedom as possible without political/institutional freedom: the postcolonial decolonial project, for Sseremba, calls for a double movement, both epistemic and institutional (p. 181).

In this context, Sseremba argues that America's proposals seek to transcend all previous (colonial and postcolonial) political modalities concerning the governance of the Muslim in Uganda: they seek to shape not just the subjectivity of Muslim leaders but of the entire Muslim population! This political transformative possibility is what motivates Sseremba's observation on the status of the postcolonial state in an era of American global WoT: the logic of political designs mobilised around the WoT tend to “[unify] rather than [bifurcate the state] structure” (p. 104). Despite their inherent colonial nature, the general tendency in the US's Madrasa reform proposals is to centralise and unify (p. 80) state domination of society — beyond its colonially-inherited condition, earlier theorised as bifurcation by Mahmood Mamdani.

All in all, this book makes two broad interventions. First, it tells a story of how the idea and practice of power and subjection to power has been transformed after 9/11. As a result, Sseremba insists that in thinking the modern state from a postcolonial vantage point, we ought to take seriously new developments and dynamics — for some of these (above all the American-led WoT and neoliberalism) demonstrate capacity to reshape this state in significant and more troubling ways.

Second, it tells the story of agency: the agency of Ugandan Muslims engaged in a critical endeavour against American prescriptions. Yet, if the dangerous potential in 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 aim at this structure — the postcolonial nation-state. They frame their critiques within this very problematic structure. In Sseremba's decolonial sense, “[to] interrogate the structure is to strike at the very foundation of the problem” (p. 152). Does not this general blind spot of critical Muslim agency spell doom to all responses against American prescriptions? That may partly be the case. But only so if we do not think of this book as, in itself, a part of society's response — as a critical discursive resource for society's response.