Statement on the Controversy about Achille Mbembe

As researchers and current or former fellows of the Käte Hamburger Kolleg / Centre for Global Cooperation Research (KHK / GCR21) we believe in the value of including multiple perspectives from all continents when thinking about new solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. This shared commitment requires us to take a stance in the ongoing debate in Germany about Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe, arguably one of the most prominent intellectuals in Africa today. Mbembe was invited to deliver the opening address at the Ruhrtriennale arts festival in August 2020. However, certain politicians, public officials and journalists in Germany demanded to withdraw the invitation, arguing that Mbembe is “relativizing” the Holocaust and that he supports the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. The ensuing heated public debate included accusations that not only Mbembe, but the entire field of postcolonial studies were “anti-Semitic”, even as many prominent Jewish and Israeli scholars such as Daniel Boyarin, José Brunner, and Sidra Dekoven Ezrahi openly sided with Mbembe.

We are deeply concerned about the fallout of this ordeal and other cases of political interference in the autonomy of cultural and academic institutions in Germany, in particular how it can impact the global networks on which they rely. We already notice a chilling effect among colleagues in Germany who do not dare publicly to defend Mbembe. We also fear damage to the relationships between research institutions in Germany and the global South, particularly in Africa. In response to the accusations against Mbembe, leading international scholars such as Lila Abu-Lughod, Arjun Appadurai, Judith Butler, Wendy Brown, Etienne Balibar and Natalie Zemon Davis, among others, have announced that they are no longer willing to serve on award committees, in conference preparations or academic evaluations in Germany if they feel that their decisions may be subject to political interference (see https://nopoliticallitmustests.wordpress.com/pledge-opposing-ideological-or-political-interference-and-litmus-tests-in-germany/).

Without uncritically endorsing all of Mbembe’s positions, we believe that his argument that powerful agents and mechanisms are forcing growing numbers of human beings into a “Black condition” (condition nègre) deserves a serious discussion – in the Global South, in Europe and elsewhere. We therefore encourage scholars from the Global South to continue to apply for fellowships and to engage freely in open discussions in Germany. At the same time as condemning anti-Semitism, we will continue to explore postcolonial power relations, to defend academic freedom and the right to disagree, and to invite scholars and public speakers from all over the world who help us better to understand – and improve – the world we live in.

 

Volker M. Heins (Member of the Executive Board)

Siddharth Mallavarapu (Member of the Scientific Advisory Board)

Wouter G. Werner (Member of the Scientific Advisory Board)

Matthias Schuler (Executive Director)

Frank Gadinger (Research Group Leader)

Nina Schneider (Research Group Leader)

Christine Unrau (Research Group Leader)

 

Frank Adloff (Universität Hamburg)

Amya Agarwal (Fellow KHK/GCR21)

Galya Ben-Arieh (Northwestern University)

Morgan Brigg (University of Queensland)

Lothar Brock (Goethe Universität Frankfurt)

Stephen Brown (University of Ottawa)

Ayse Cavdar (Marburg University)

David Chandler (University of Westminster)

Hongming Cheng (University of Saskatchewan)

Larry Crump (Griffith University)

Claudia Derichs (Humboldt Universität Berlin)

Gianluca Grimalda (Kiel Institute for the World Economy)

Pablo Holmes (Universidade de Brasília)

Joseph Hoover (Queen Mary University of London)

Ina Kerner (Universität Koblenz-Landau)

Kai Koddenbrock (Goethe Universität Frankfurt)

Bettina Mahlert (Universität Innsbruck)

Marianne H. Marchand (Universidad de las Américas Puebla)

Stephen Pierce (University of Manchester)

Shirin Saeidi (University of Arkansas)

Klaus Schlichte (Universität Bremen)

Katrin Seidel (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology)

Deepshikha Shahi (University of Delhi)

Joanna Simonow (Fellow KHK/GCR21)

Margret Thalwitz (ICARDA)