Culture Talk

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.

15 thoughts on “Culture Talk

  1. Pingback: Keywords
  2. Kerim,

    I really appreciate this post — especially the way you bring together key points from many commentators.

    However, I wonder about letting this statement stand alone:

    “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, were the conditions which precipitated the spread of global jihad.”

    I read it, and think, right on. But I’m also wondering, hmm, shouldn’t there be a next sentence, about Israel? And then some sentences after that, about Iraq? I mean, it’s not like what we are seeing today is solely the result of policy errors set in motion during the 80s by the U.S. (and I’d disagree with your characterization of the Soviet Union’s role in Afghanistan). “Blowback” from those policies is hugely important. But they are not the only factors that have contributed to the awful outcomes we are seeing today.

  3. Ozma, I see what you are saying. I think the reason I left out Israel and Iraq is that I am trying to distinguish between local battles over specific territorial disputes on the one hand, and the rise of global jihad on the other. Of course, the two are related, but historically groups like Hamas have been reluctant to take their battles outside of the specific national context in which they occurred. (This is Roy’s point. As well as Pape’s.) I think it does a disservice to our understanding of these phenomenon if we lump them all together. Both the jihadists and Bush’s chickenhawks want us to think of the war on terror as a single global battle because it is profitable for them to frame it in those terms. So while I agree that there are important links, I’m deliberately trying to find a different way of framing the issue. Its a work-in-progress I suppose…

  4. I’ll be the aggressive, uncultured luddite.

    I have some serious issues with the arguments and assumptions in this post.

    First, differention between religion and politics. Why? Religion IS politics.

    Take Roger Pape’s comment that nearly all suicide terrorism has a secular goal of expelling foreigners from a purported homeland. Where did the word secular jump in there? Why is that a secular goal? When a foreign fighter travels across a national border into Iraq, and engages in suicide terrorism there, isn’t the fact that he views this as a homeland (he doesn’t actually live there…) a religious view? Its born from his view of Iraq as muslim land. That’s a religious claim. And the fact that foreign fighters do this at least ought to place some doubt on the presumption that domestic insurgents are acting nonreligiously.

    Second, it seems to me that a lot of these arguments subtly change the question from “does islamic ideology cause (in the sense of being a but-for contributing factor) the current problems with terrorism” to “is islamic ideology the single necessary and sufficient cause of terrorism” and then handily dispatches the latter question. Of course the latter question is trivially false. Ideology of any sort necessarily interacts with the outside political world to influence people’s actions. No one thinks that a bunch of happy, prosperous muslims sitting in safe, comfortable homes completely absent any form of imperialism, historical or modern, would still go strap bombs to themselves and blow up marketplaces because their religion said so. Obviously ideology can only inform action within a context.

    I feel like there is somewhere further I can go with this, but I’m not sure about how to do it. I feel like the last few posts on this weblog have made similar logical leaps. First, noting that something is not the only cause of a particular effect, then moving towards arguing that it is therefore a trivial cause, or a cause not worth much investigation, without much in between.

  5. Patrick. I can’t help but feel that you didn’t read the very last paragraph…

    Also, I disagree that it is a question of religion vs. politics. I would state it as a view of religion as culture vs. a view of religion as politics. It is possible that since you already agree with the latter position you fail to appreciate that the former view is actually quite wide-spread (and hence fail to see what I’m arguing *against*)?

  6. Hmmm, it seems a single muslim has gotten whinni the Pooh banned in public places in the UK. Is this Religion, or Politics?

    I saw a program on BBC a few weeks ago. Upper Middle-class, nicely dressed muslims were celebrating a celebrtiy suicide bomber. It seems that most Muslims accept the concept of Suicide/Homicide bombers, as a noble act. Is this religion, or politics?

    Osama Bin Laden was taken to task for not getting ‘permission’ to attack the US on Sept 11. It is public knowlege that he has gotten permission from a Saudi (Imam) to use Nuclear weapons. He wants to do it within the confines of his religion. I dont know of any Muslim Imams that have condemed the action of using Nuclear weapons against the US. Does anyone here?

    As always, thanks =8)
    ——————————————–

    Winnie the Pooh, the Piglet and The Three Little Pigs must be among every child’s favourite cartoon and comic characters, but workers at a council office in UK have been asked to remove all traces of pigs from the office, lest it offends Muslim staff.

    Workers in the benefits department at Dudley Council, West Midlands, were told to remove or cover up all pig-related items, including toys, porcelain figures, calendars and even tissue boxes featuring Winnie the Pooh and Piglet, reports The Sun.

    Reports said that the Council passed the decision after a Muslim complained about pig-shaped stress relievers delivered to the council in the run-up to the festival of Ramadan, the host month of fasting that precedes Eid.

    Though some have expressed surprise, many have backed the ban.

    “It’s a tolerance of people’s beliefs,” said Mahbubur Rahman, a Muslim Councillor who has backed the ban.

    (Posted on October 3, 2005)

  7. “It seems that most Muslims accept the concept of Suicide/Homicide bombers, as a noble act. Is this religion, or politics?”

    Certainly not religion. I was in Turkey when the London bombings took place and anybody was very embarassed watching the news on the TV. Most people even rejected these act as being a sin in the Muslim sense.

    Politics I don´t know. Maybe the BBC policy of creating a public Muslim image.

  8. Hmm, in Turkey, honour killing is still accepted. This is still a sticking point with them joining the EU.Some may be embarrased, but looking at that BBG video, I was rather sickened by these ‘people’ laughing and celebrating suicide bombing. Maybe its a class thing? The BBC is very pro-Muslim, at least in comparison to anti-muslim sites like little greenfootballs, Fjordman, VDARE, etc…

    They were not bashing muslims, they were showing them for who they are…remember, they are not Christians, or Budhists!

    I think most of the middle east will celebrate when we get nuked, dont you?

  9. “Think only happy thoughts, there is no darkness in the world”

    I think the teaching of modern Anthroplogy has the same elements of religion, or a cult. The study of human differences is not allowed, although they clearly exist. Considering that Anthropologists are supposed to be the vanguard against religion, I find this anti-intellectual tendency rather depressing.
    =8(

  10. Wait a minute..

    1. Yes, the killing of honour is accepted in Turkey – In a few social groups. The reason clearly does not lie in Religion, since the Qu´ran does not in any form prescribe them (or recommend) violence, as long as it is not in the context of the jihad, which in turn can be and was interpreted in many different ways throughout history. But jihad has been discussed extendedly above.
    Killings of honour in turn rather origin in clan tradition, as kinship plays an eminent role there.

    “Think only happy thoughts, there is no darkness in the world”: Anthropology is not about that. To do so would be absolutely moronic and I think everybody would agree with that. Anthropology is not about closing the eyes in front of “bad things” and cheer if you see “nice things”. Keep a cool head and think about what you see and take a time to question your sources too.

    I dont know of any Muslim Imams that have condemed the action of using Nuclear weapons against the US. Does anyone here?” No, since I simply don´t know any Imams personally, do you? And if yes, who told you about them?

    “They were not bashing muslims, they were showing them for who they are…remember, they are not Christians, or Budhists!” Let me be polemical: Photographs of klansmen show white protestants, don´t they? Are they showing them for who they are? Remember, they´re not Muslims or Jewish! What I want to say is, that a generalization like this is absolutely pointless, since I cannot believe that a behaviour like celebrating terrorist acts cannot be passed on by religion. I grew up in a catholic context, so do I have to subscribe to the Crusades maybe? Or to pogroms on Jews?

    BAdMonkEy, I think you´re mixing everything up big time and see everywhere the blood thirsty muslim that keeps his fireworks in the closet for the day, the West will be buried under its rubble. It might be true to some and maybe to many more, sad enough. I understand that you´re angry seeing those scenes on the TV, but believe me, it makes many more people angry to be identified as a terrorist all the time. I don´t know the whole middle east. But Turkey certainly would not celebrate. I´m not speaking of a good Muslim/bad Muslim scheme, but let the people be what they are: bad people/good people and the many gradients in between.

  11. correction: “since I cannot believe that a behaviour like celebrating terrorist acts cannot be passed on by religion.” – Should be: “…can be passed on by religion.” – Sorry.

  12. [Rather than deleting offensive comments I have chosen to render them into Elmer Fudd speech. BadMonkey is now officially a Troll - please do not feed! - kerim]

    Muswims awe by natuwe, vewy vewy cwan owiented.About 1/2 of muswims mawwy a fiwst ow second cousin, because of this inate tendency towawd cwanism. As you stated, the Kowan does NOT condone suicide bombing, so why awent thewe mowe Immams comming out against it? Actuawwy, they did come out a few months ago aftew the bombings in Wondon to decwaiw that they wiww not “Modewate” Iswam. Again, if you dont go to sites wif this type of infowmation, then you wont know about it…! De Kwan numbews about ‘2000’ fwom estimates Ive seen, uh-hah-hah-hah. But wif wising ethnic tensions, because of highew pwopensity fow CWIME (bwacks, hispanics), and highew intowewance towawd CWIME (whites), you wiww see the Kwan becoming mowe active wif the hispanic invation that is taking pwace aww ovew Amewica. As one Bwack man put it on wast nights Fwontwine about OJ Simpson, : “He may have been guiwty, but it was the wight vewdict.” Aftew watching aww the bwacks cheew the OJ vewdict, and then watch bwack ‘bawbew shop ’ men tawk about how they aww thing he was guiwty, and the one guy say “but it was the wight decision”, I am now at ends wif what I have just witnessed. Aftew seeing fwontwine wast night, I dont thing many Pwotestants who wouwd be fowced to wive amongst bwacks wouwd dissagwee wif the Kwan at aww. De onwy weason we dont have extweem waciaw viowence in Amewica is because whites and minowities sewf-sepawate. Again, as an anthwopowogist, evewyone shouwd know about wace in Amewica. Muswims stongwy bewive that ” A fwiend of my enemy is my enemy”. Dat is why they WIWW NOT SIDE WIF WESTEWN Wibeaw vawues any time soon, in wawge numbews. Oh, dat scwewy wabbit! As Bwitish awe swowwy fowced to adapt to this bizzaw cuwtuwe, we can see that what is happening is cweawwy a disintegwation of one peopwe fow anothew. Dis infowmation is aww ovew the web. It is qwite obvious that fow some weason, peopwe have adapted powiticaw cowwectness as a phiwosophy, as it is stwongwy sociawy enfowced. To suggest that Muswims, and hence muswim cuwtuwes awe the same, ow eqwaw to Westewn Wibewaw cuwtuwes is a fowm deniaw that is so intewwectuawwy vacuous,and dangewous, that it meawwy fowces a new fowm of psycowogicaw deniaw. Deniaw of humanisms supewiowity ovew cwan owientation, and wegwessive wewigious vawues. Oh, dat scwewy wabbit! In fact, it is puwe wacism not to see peopwe as they awe (hence on an eqwaw basis fow compawison) wathew than a type of psuedo-chwistianity (Powiticaw Cowwectness) we awe aww the “same”, hence we awe aww eqwaw. Again, isnt cowwege suppose to chawwenge the mind?

  13. Isthay isyay otnay anyay argumentyay. Itsyay ayay atentblay attemptyay atyay ensorshipcay, onyay ayay 6thay adegray evellay, utbay ityay illstay ackssmay ofyay ayay ormfay ofyay intellectualyay ocio-pathologysay. Isthay akesmay ayay eatgray udystay ofyay ensorshipcay onyay anthropologyyay itessay, ecausebay, onay oneyay ouldway elievebay ityay. Itsyay ettinggay eryvay edictablepray… Anksthay =8)

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