Mahmood Mamdani is Herbert Lehman Professor of Government, Department of Anthropology and School of International Affairs, Columbia University, New York. Here are some salient extracts from his piece called “Inventing political violence” in a publication named Global Agenda, which also boasts Kofi Annan, Karen Armstrong, and Seif al Islam Qaddafi among its authors. (Thanks to RG for the link.)
I was in New York City on 9/11. In the weeks that followed, newspapers reported that the Koran had become one of the biggest-selling books in American bookshops. Astonishingly, Americans seemed to think that reading the Koran might give them a clue to the motivation of those who carried out the suicide attacks on the World Trade Center. Recently, I have wondered whether the people of Falluja have taken to reading the Bible to understand the motivation for American bombings. I doubt it.
Astonishing indeed, that the editors (and presumably the readers) of Global Agenda still think this is a cogent argument. Astonishing that Americans would read the Qur’an to discover the motivation of men who cited the Qur’an repeatedly in their communiques and justifications for their actions. Astonishing that Mahmood Mamdani would think that Fallujans reading the Bible was an appropriate reductio ad absurdum to dispose of this, despite the readily demonstrable fact that for all the dark suspicions about Bush’s Christianity, American policy has never proceeded according to Biblical or Christian precepts, either explicitly or implicitly. The contrast with Osama bin Laden’s Qur’an-quote-filled messages should be immediately obvious — except to all who don’t wish to see it, or who wish to obscure it.
The post-9/11 public debate in the US has been inspired by two Ivy League intellectuals — Samuel Huntington at Harvard and Bernard Lewis at Princeton. From Huntington’s point of view, the Cold War was a civil war within the west. He says the real war is yet to come. That real war will be a civilizational war, at its core a war with Islam. From this point of view, all Muslims are bad.
No, Mahmood. To point out Islam’s political agenda, which jihadist groups are pressing forward with acts of violence worldwide today, is not to say “all Muslims are bad.” Here your Cold War reference is actually useful: in 1956, it was not saying “all Russians are bad” to say that Communism was a totalitarian system with an expansionist agenda. However, both must be resisted in order to defend human rights and human dignity.
Their differences aside, Lewis and Huntington share two assumptions. The first is that the world is divided into two — modern and pre-modern. Modern peoples make their own culture; their culture is a creative act and it changes historically. In contrast, they assume that pre-modern peoples have an unchanging, ahistorical culture, one they carry along with them; they wear their culture as a kind of badge, and sometimes suffer from it like a collective twitch. The second assumption is that you can read people’s politics from their culture. I call these two assumptions Culture Talk.
All this is just academic jawing. Mahmood, you’re just setting up a straw man. The problem with Islam and jihad is not about being modern and pre-modern. The jihadists, as I have pointed out here many times, have no trouble using modern technology to achieve their ends. The problem is that they are fighting — by their own account — to impose Sharia wherever they can, and Sharia denies basic rights to non-Muslims and women. That’s why they must be resisted, not because they’re “pre-modern.”
The aftermath of the Iraq War has turned into a crisis for theory. It is increasingly clear that the designation of some Muslims as good and others as bad has little to do with their orientation to Islam, and everything to do with their orientation to America. Simply put, good Muslim is a label for those who are deemed pro-American and bad Muslims are those reckoned anti-American. Culture Talk is not only wrong, it is also self-serving. How convenient it is to see political violence as something wrong with the culture of one party rather than an indication that something has gone wrong in the relationship between two parties.
Once again, Mahmood, you’re in denial (or practicing deception). A “bad Muslim” is not by definition one who is anti-American, although that will likely be the case these days. A “bad Muslim,” in the view of anyone who believes that women should not be chattel and non-Muslims should not be relegated to despised second-class status, is one who believes the dictum of the Pakistani Islamic leader Syed Abul Ala Mawdudi that non-Muslims have “absolutely no right to seize the reins of power in any part of God’s earth nor to direct the collective affairs of human beings according to their own misconceived doctrines.” If they do, “the believers would be under an obligation to do their utmost to dislodge them from political power and to make them live in subservience to the Islamic way of life.”
Actually, in light of the Qur’an, Hadith, Islamic law, Islamic theology, and Islamic history, one who believes that Mawdudi (whom Mahmood mentions below) is right would be a “good Muslim.” But whatever one wishes to call him, he is the foe of the equality of dignity of all people.
Contemporary, modern political Islam developed as a response to colonialism. Colonialism posed a double challenge, that of foreign domination and of the need for internal reform to address weaknesses exposed by external aggression.
Early political Islam grappled with such questions in an attempt to modernize and reform Islamic societies. Then came Pakistani thinker Abu ala Mawdudi, who placed political violence at the centre of political action, and Egyptian thinker Sayyed Qutb, who argued that it was necessary to distinguish between friends and enemies, for with friends you use reason and persuasion, but with enemies you use force.
The terrorist tendency in political Islam is not a pre-modern carry-over but a very modern development.
Radical political Islam is not a development of the ulama (legal scholars), not even of mullahs or imams (prayer leaders). It is mainly the work of non-religious political intellectuals. Mawdudi was a journalist and Qutb a literary theorist. It has developed through a set of debates, but these cannot be understood as a linear development inside political Islam. Waged inside and outside political Islam, they are both a critique of reformist political Islam and an engagement with competing political ideologies, particularly Marxism-Leninism.
Of course, none of this takes into account the fact that Hassan Al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 as a direct response to the abolition of the caliphate in 1924. “The terrorist tendency in political Islam” may not be a “pre-modern carry-over,” but political Islam itself is. Of course, that depends on what Mahmood means by “the terrorist tendency.” Islam was political from the time of the Hijra. For centuries Muslims pressed forward an agenda of conquest and subjugation, which modern terrorist groups have taken up today. Mahmood breezily dismisses the possibility of any continuity, but offers no evidence of this beyond bare assertions.
Why does this point matter? Because if modern political Islam is really a reaction to colonialism and an engagement with Marxism-Leninism, etc., then presumably it will disappear as soon as the elements that Mamdani no doubt considers neo-colonialist — Iraq, Israel — themselves disappear. His entire paper is designed to elicit that conclusion. But the 800-pound gorilla in the living room is the presence of pre-colonial political Islam: its existence, and the repeated invocation by jihadists today of a continuity between it and what they are doing now, indicates that if the so-called neo-colonialism that Mamdani detests really did disappear, the jihad would not.
That said, we are confronted with a singular question: How did Islamist terror, a theoretical tendency that preoccupied a few intellectuals and was of marginal political significance in the 1970s, become part of the political mainstream in only a few decades?
The real answers: Saudi oil money and the success of Khomeini.
But Mamdani instead recites a litany of dubious historical value, recounting “American terror” and its roots in the Reagan Administration.
The Afghan war was the prime example of “rollback”. In the history of terror during the last phase of the Cold War, the Afghan war was important for two reasons. First, the Reagan administration ideologized the war as a religious war against the evil empire, rather than styling it a war of national liberation such as that it claimed the Contras were fighting in Nicaragua. In the process, the CIA marginalized every Islamist group that had a nationalist orientation, fearing that these groups might be tempted to negotiate with the Soviet Union, and brought centre-stage the most extreme Islamists in a partnership that would “bleed the Soviet Union white”.
Second, the Reagan administration privatized war in the course of recruiting, training and organizing a global network of Islamic fighters against the Soviet Union. The recruitment was done through Islamic charities, and the training through militarized madrasahs. Unlike the historical madrasah, which taught a range of subjects, secular and religious, from theology and jurisprudence to history and medicine, the Afghan madrasah taught a narrow curriculum dedicated to a narrow theology (jihadi Islam) and gave a complementary military training.
The narrow theology recast Islam around a single institution, the jihad; it redefined the jihad as exclusively military and claimed the military jihad to be an offensive war entered into by individual born-again devotees as opposed to defence by an Islamic community under threat. The jihadi madrasahs in Pakistan trained both the Afghan refugee children who were later recruited into the Taliban and the Arab-Afghans who were later networked by the organization called al-Qaeda (“the Base”). If national liberation wars created proto-state apparatuses, the international jihad created a private network of specialists in violence.
America did not create right-wing Islam, a tendency that came into being through intellectual debates, both inside political Islam and with competing secular ideologies, such as Marxism-Leninism. America’s responsibility was to turn this ideological tendency into a political organization — by incorporating it into America’s Cold War strategy in the closing phase of the Cold War.
Before the Afghan jihad, right-wing political Islam was an ideological tendency with little organization and muscle on the ground. The Afghan jihad gave it numbers, organization, skills, reach, confidence and a coherent objective. America created an infrastructure of terror but heralded it as an infrastructure of liberation.
This all sounds convincing, but once again it is historical fantasy. “Before the Afghan jihad, right-wing political Islam was an ideological tendency with little organization and muscle on the ground”? Apparently Mamdani has not heard of a fellow named Khomeini. And the Afghan madrassas did not redefine the jihad “as exclusively military”; Al-Banna had argued that jihad was primarily, if not solely, military decades before the Afghan jihad began. He pointed out the fact that the spiritual “greater jihad” was based on a weak hadith, and thus could not take precedence over military action.
Much more than Ronald Reagan or the Afghan jihad, it has been the Saudis who have given mujahedin worldwide “numbers, organization, skills, reach, confidence and a coherent objective.” Mamdani also misstates and exaggerates the extent of American support for the Afghan jihadists. But the bottom line is that as long as the “ideological tendency” remains, this threat will recur, for new powers will always find new excuses to encourage it. That is the core of the problem.