According to Anthropologist Mahmood Mamdani, author of the book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, Americans are trapped in “Culture Talk,” a way of framing the problem of terrorism which assumes that culture was made
only at the beginning of creation, as some extraordinary, prophetic act. After that, it seems Muslims just conformed to culture. According to some, our culture seems to have no history, no politics, and no debates, so that all Muslims are just plain bad. According to others, there is a history, a politics, even debates, and there are good Muslims and bad Muslims. In both versions, history seems to have petrified into a lifeless custom of an antique people who inhabit antique lands. Or could it be that culture here stands for habit, for some kind of instinctive activity with rules that are inscribed in early founding texts, usually religious, and mummified in early artifacts?
There are two versions of Culture Talk: the crude view that Islam as the enemy civilization, and a more subtle view of Islam as divided within itself (although this division is seen as unchanging over the course of Muslim history since the middle ages). Mamdani ascribes the first view to Samuel Huntington, whose 1993 article, “The Clash of Civilizations,” is widely cited by proponents of this view. However, Mamdani argues that Huntington’s article was little more than a caricature of Bernard Lewis’s 1990 “The Roots of Muslim Rage.” This earlier article forms the basis of the more nuanced version of Culture Talk.
Lewis both gestures towards history and acknowledges a clash within civilizations. … But Lewis writes of Islamic civilization as if it were a veneer with its essence an unchanging doctrine in which Muslims are said to take refuge in times of crisis.
Lewis ignores the important political and historical contexts of fourteen hundred years of history when he writes:
The struggle between these rival systems has now lasted for some fourteen centuries. It began with the advent of Islam, in the seventh century, and has continued virtually to the present day. It has consisted of a long series of attacks and counterattacks, jihads and crusades, conquests and reconquests.
Once the world is divided into good and bad Muslims, the label most commonly applied to most bad Muslims is that of “fundamentalism.” Mamdani also attacks this concept. First, he points out that the term arose in the 1920s and was first used to describe American Protestants. (See here for a full excerpt of this discussion.) Then he distinguishes between the political and religious aspects of the phenomenon generally discussed as “fundamentalism.” Arguing that terrorism should be seen primarily as a political phenomenon, Mamdani prefers to use the term “political Islam.”
Can we so easily reduce terrorism to a purely political phenomena? This is not what Mamdani intends to do. He writes
My aim is to question the widely held presumption – even among critics of Culture Talk – that extremist religious tendencies can be equated with political terrorism. Terrorism is not a necessary effect of religious tendencies, whether fundamentalist or secular. Rather, terrorism is born of a political encounter.
It isn’t that ideology isn’t important, but that ideology alone cannot explain why religion becomes linked to political violence. Mamdani argues that the link between religion and political violence a product of the Cold War. Here is an excerpt from a (believe it or not) New York Times article about Mamdani’s book (they hid it in the “Arts” section).
The real culprit of 9/11, in other words, is not Islam but rather non-state violence in general, during the final stages of the stand-off with the Soviet Union. Using third and fourth parties, the C.I.A. supported terrorist and proto-terrorist movements in Indochina, Latin America, Africa and, of course, Afghanistan…
“The real damage the C.I.A. did was not the providing of arms and money,” he writes, ” but the privatization of information about how to produce and spread violence — the formation of private militias — capable of creating terror.” The best-known C.I.A.-trained terrorist, he notes dryly, is Osama bin Laden.
Mamdani is particularly persuasive when he discusses the case of Africa.
Mr. Mamdani asserts, for example, that the United States policy of constructive engagement with apartheid in South Africa helped sustain two proto-terrorist organizations — Unita, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, and Renamo, the Mozambican National Resistance — that were armed and trained by the South African Defense Force. Renamo became what Mr. Mamdani calls Africa’s “first genuine terrorist movement,” a privatized outfit that unleashed random violence against civilians without any serious pretension to national power.
Although it doesn’t detract from his main argument, I was quite disappointed with Mamdani’s discussion of Afghanistan, where he downplays the role of the Soviet Union in engineering the initial coup, and the subsequent policy of genocide waged against the Afghan people. At times, Mamdani leaves one with the impression that the United States was the only side fighting in the Cold War.
There is no doubt that Mamdani has done a great service by recovering this neglected history of terrorism during the Cold War, but is politics alone are sufficient to explain the rise of terrorism?
Recently blogger Kevin Drum pointed to some fairly convincing evidence that Mamdani is not far off. University of Chicago professor Robert Pape has collected some valuable empirical data, constructing a database of every suicide terrorist attack since 1980. In his book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, Pape concludes that “the data show there is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any of the world’s religions.” In Anti-War.com’s Michael Scheuer’s review, he quotes Pape as saying:
what nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from the territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland. Religion is rarely the root cause, although it is often used as a tool by terrorist organizations in recruiting and in other efforts in service of the broader strategic objective.
While this is all quite convincing, it still seems to fall short of explaining the recent London bombings, which were executed by second-generation immigrants. This was the point of a recent New York Times op-ed by Olivier Roy. Roy points out that
What was true for the first generation of Al Qaeda is also relevant for the present generation: even if these young men are from Middle Eastern or South Asian families, they are for the most part Westernized Muslims living or even born in Europe who turn to radical Islam. Moreover, converts are to be found in almost every Qaeda cell: they did not turn fundamentalist because of Iraq, but because they felt excluded from Western society (this is especially true of the many converts from the Caribbean islands, both in Britain and France). “Born again” or converts, they are rebels looking for a cause. They find it in the dream of a virtual, universal ummah, the same way the ultraleftists of the 1970’s (the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Italian Red Brigades) cast their terrorist actions in the name of the “world proletariat” and “Revolution” without really caring about what would happen after.
Earlier this year Mamdani reviewed Roy’s book, Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah for Foreign Affairs. He was fairly favorable towards the book. After all, they both share a view of political Islam as a product of modernity, rather than simply a reaction to it. Roy also sees jihad as a primarily European, and secular phenomenon.
For Roy, neofundamentalist Islam is “born-again Islam” and strictly a product of the diaspora. Islamic religious debate is no longer monopolized by the learned ulema (teachers); as they have turned to the Internet, the neofundamentalists have also become tulaab (students). As a result, “religion has been secularized, not in the sense that it is under the scrutiny of modern sciences, but to the extent that it is debated outside any specific institutions or corporations.” With the traditional ethnic community left behind, “the disappearance of traditional values … [has laid] the groundwork for re-Islamisation,” which has largely become an individual project. “Islamic revivalism goes hand in hand” with a modern trend: the “culture of the self.”
The growing individualization of religious practices has prompted believers to create a new community that transcends strict geography. The consequences of these changes have been contradictory. Those who have succeeded in reconciling the self with religion have tended to embrace a “liberal” or “ethical” version of Islam; those who have not have been prone to embrace “neofundamentalist Salafism.” Meanwhile, the quest “to build a universal religious identity, de-linked from any specific culture,” has come at a price, because such an Islam is “by definition an Islam oblivious to its own history.” As a result, “the quest for a pure Islam [has] entail[ed] also an impoverishment of its content,” Roy writes, and the ironic consequence of this quest is “secularization, but in the name of fundamentalism.”
He points out that since 1996 violence related to Islam has been decreasing in the Middle East, even as it is on the rise in the West. However, Mamdani faults Roy for using different standards in analyzing Middle Eastern and European Islam:
Curiously, although Roy traces the transformation of Islamist parties in Muslim-majority Middle Eastern countries to political rather than sociological conditions, he attributes the rise of jihadist Islam in the Muslim diaspora in the West only to sociological causes. Ultimately, Roy’s argument cannot explain why jihadist Islam, an ideology of marginal political significance in the late 1970s, has come to dominate Islamist politics…
But can any purely political explanation answer this question? Mamdani believes so. His answer is that the “The influence of the Afghan jihad cannot be overstated.”
In the 1980s, the Reagan administration declared the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and set aside the then-common secular model of national liberation in favor of an international Islamic jihad. Thanks to that approach the Afghan rebels used charities to recruit tens of thousands of volunteers and created the militarized madrassas (Islamic schools) that turned these volunteers into cadres. Without the rallying cause of the jihad, the Afghan mujahideen would have had neither the numbers, the training, the organization, nor the coherence or sense of mission that has since turned jihadist Islam into a global political force.
This point is missed by Roy in his recent op-ed. He writes:
if the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine are at the core of the radicalization, why are there virtually no Afghans, Iraqis or Palestinians among the terrorists? Rather, the bombers are mostly from the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, Egypt and Pakistan – or they are Western-born converts to Islam. Why would a Pakistani or a Spaniard be more angry than an Afghan about American troops in Afghanistan? It is precisely because they do not care about Afghanistan as such, but see the United States involvement there as part of a global phenomenon of cultural domination.
The argument isn’t simply that they are responding to attacks on those countries, but that a policy of promoting globalized political Islam as opposed to secular anti-imperialism, together with the building of an institutional apparatus of training and recruitment for terror, both sponsored by the United States, where the conditions which precipitated the spread of global jihad.
There is also the question of whom we are talking about when we refer to Muslim terrorists. In our typically Eurocentric fashion, we may be over-emphasizing the attacks on New York, Madrid, and London (does anyone remember Bali?), ignoring the fact that, as Pape has show, most suicide bombers have been involved in regional battles over control of territory, such as the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.
If all of this is fairly convincing, and I think it is, does that mean that there is no place for understanding Islam in ideological terms? Is Islam, as a system of religious beliefs, purely incidental to an anthropological explanation of jihad? Of course not. Political Islam is necessarily different from Political Christianity, or Political Judaism. (Here, for instance, is an interesting Weberian take by my former sociology professor, Mark Gould, on the role of Jihad in Islam.) However, there is nothing in Islam itself that can explain the rise of terrorism as a political strategy. As Mamdani says in his book:
The question we face today is not just why a radical state-centered train of thought emerged in political Islam but how this thought was able to leap from the word to the deed, thereby moving from the intellectual fringe to the mainstream of politics in large parts of the Islamic world.