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On Suicide Bombing

Originally published in Dawn (Books & Authors)

Is there a crucial difference between someone who kills in order to die and someone who dies in order to kill? – [Talal Asad]

Alasdair MacIntyre – while making a ‘disquieting suggestion’ in the beginning of his chef-d’oeuvre ‘After Virtue‘ – hypothesized that what we chiefly possess as a vocabulary of morality can best be understood as ‘simulacrum of morality’ rather than the actual and true morality. He argued that we are so confident of the absolute objectivity of this contemporary moral paradigm, which guides and constitutes our language, reasoning and transactions, that any transposed hypothesis would most certainly seem utterly implausible, at least at first glance. In short, that we are being betrayed by the very language we use is a proposition that is not acceptable to us.

In these heavily nuanced Welleck Library Lectures on Suicide Bombing, Talal Asad not only vindicates MacIntyre’s thesis but also contributes in reshaping the ongoing narrative regarding terrorism and war. Asad’s discourse centers around the paradoxes presented by the modern sensibilities regarding morally justified and unjustified violence and the responses that are essentially triggered by these sensibilities. As the ruminations move from terrorism to suicidal terrorism and speculations regarding dynamics of horror associated with the latter, Asad aims to disturb his audience with arguments and counter arguments – at times phenomenological and often historical or textual – questioning modern notions of clash of civilizations, war ethics and various assumptions regarding what motivates suicide bombings including religious significance of sacrificial suicide.

Coming from someone who has identified religion as an anthropological category, Talal’s take on modern ethics governing kinds of violence and delimiting its extent is perhaps the most assertive part of his musings. The idea of clash of civilizations, in his view, is based on a false premise that Jihad is a ‘culturally distinctive expression of Muslim intolerance’. Moreover, selective history-making often tends to insinuate – albeit inadvertently at times – that civilizational values are evolved and transformed in undifferentiated societal compartments. “There is no such thing as clash of civilizations”, he contends,”because there are no self-contained societies to which fixed civilizational values correspond”. False premises thus lead to fallacious arguments which in turn supply vocabulary to the modern discourses that contain subjective and oversimplified entities to base conclusions upon.

Asad’s choice of texts – from left as well as right – is appropriate as he chooses the ones that are recent, foundational in respect to philosophical problematics and encompassing. Among these, his critique of Michael Walzer’s ‘Arguing About War’ is most profound. He does not see Walzer’s reiteration of war being a legally sanctioned activity as problematic; what he instead sees questionable is Walzer’s ingenuity with which he gives an absolute mutually exclusivity to ‘war’ and ‘terrorism’ and the manner in which he differentiates both on the basis of legality, vulnerability and fear of social disorder: Even a just war, in Asad’s opinion, infuses insecurity in public sphere and intrudes fear into private life. On the question of various motivations and intentions of suicidal terrorists, Asad looks objectively at wide range of western commentators as well as theorists and analyzes critically their explanations. In Asad’s view, all these explanations – whether theological, political or psychological – tell us more about ‘liberal assumptions of religious subjectivities and political violence’ rather than what is ostensibly being explained. Pointing out the kind of violence embedded in liberal thought, he writes,

More difficult is the question of the role of mortal violence in the continuing maintenance of the good political life. For in liberal secular society, one that apparently abjures political metaphysics, the morally autonomous individual has the right to choose his own life, and the sovereign state has the right to use violence in defense of the conditions for the good life.

In effect, Asad consistently contests the idea that an absolutely objective comment on the individual motivations of suicide bombers is possible. Obviously in line with the argument itself, the question of motive has to be left open ended as he develops his thesis; but he does enough to attain a shift in the central point around which the contemporary debates about individual acts of suicidal terrorism revolve. “The uniqueness of suicide bombing”, Asad opines, “resides elsewhere. It resides, one might say, not in its essence but in its contingent circumstance.”

In my opinion, the book achieves its primary purpose; that is to shift the contemporary discourse from the moral interpretations of individual acts of suicidal terrorism to the realization that these interpretive attempts are always limited by the inherent political, philosophical and historical subjectivities. Moreover, it raises an altogether new question: Why the individual acts of suicidal terrorism do impress us with far more horror than the brutalities that are committed by modern states; further more, what gives the kind of morally justified and civilized sensibility to the modern war while generalizing most of the other conflicts as terrorism.

The book can be misread and misunderstood, as Asad points himself but after all, it is a ‘disquieting suggestion’; the kind of transposed hypothesis that must seem implausible in order to be closer to truth.


15 thoughts on “On Suicide Bombing

  1. What did you think about his attempt to locate the response to suicide bombings? I thought it was the most controversial aspect but it is easy to go over one’s head (I had to read that chapter several times.)

    A friend described Asad as ‘politely subversive’. I think that is a very good description.

  2. As you mention in your review, Asad reminds us of fragile difference between state- and non-state sanctioned “death dealing”, and explores why suicide bombing is particularly reviled. He traces the Christian roots of secular liberalism and its redemption of violence through the achievement of freedom, often at the expense of others deemed (“prescriptively reclassified”) as non-liberals. In this context, he suggests that suicide bombing produces feelings of horror because it cannot be easily fitted into any post-Christian notion of redemptive sacrifice. In other words, the effects of state- and non-state sanctioned violence may be very similar, but the former may be explained (and therefore justified) by referenct to this secularised notion of redemptive violence.

    Do you agree with this link made between horror and what is prescriptively seen as non-redemptive violence?

    Wa s-salam, Yahya

  3. That was a great review. It’s been a while since I read the book, so I need to go back to it. One thing I do remember, though, is that I thought his “politely subversive” exposition on this was a good thing and definitely got the mind thinking on a number of issues. I know that for myself, it really made me think about how much my own view of the world is conditioned by historical experiences and a type of subjectivism that I am generally unaware of. And on top of that, that other nations must also have their own, which is why attempting dialogue is interesting.

    It reminded me somewhat of a concept Ghazali raises in his “faysal al-tafriqa” – that sometimes two people/groups may be talking about the same thing, but in a sense over each other because definitions and inherent experiences may differ between each other. The issue Yahya raised above is a case in point; things definitely get a bit fuzzy and gray around the edges when unaware of history and how history influences us today.

  4. Salaams, Aasem

    I have not yet read this book, lazy poser that I am, but I found your analysis very stimulating and and as always elegantly put.

    In a similar vein, what is Modern (in the sense of Modernity) political life but a constant parade of supposed absolute values being demoted and recategorized when they become inconvenient (or the converse, a value that otherwise was not prominent being made an article of faith, as this anti suicide discourse does)?

    Is free trade an absolute? Sure, so long as it benefits politically connected industries in First World countries. Rule of Law? Absolutely, unless it might cramp the style of a rogue state that serves our (alleged) shorterm political interests, or establish a criminal court that could hold our soldiers accountable for their occasional atrocities. Mass murder wrong? Of course, unless you’re in a war and you want to send a message to the Soviets that you have this incredible new weapon, the A bomb. Torture? Totally beyond the pale, unless, well, you’re dealing with people who’ve been declared uncivilized.

    I don’t want to overly idealize traditional cultures, but I think there is really is something to criticisms of absolutes being fuzzy in Western political life. They seem built on the most objective of criteria (e.g., utilitarianism), but secular absolutes are very subject to the vagaries of public opinion.

    That’s not to say that religiously based systems are immune to such problems, but it certainly calls into question Western triumphalism.

    There’s a whole lot of contingent, geopolitical and cultural preferences being held up as absolute values. Though that’s probably human nature, to universalize one’s own desires and whims. Few other cultures do so while insisting quite so adamantly *not* to be doing just that, though.

    Back to the misery of my woefully overdue thesis.

  5. Thank you brothers for your comments.

    thabet and Yahya,

    I have contemplated a lot about Asad’s speculations regarding horror at suicide bombings while reading that last chapter and I am still trying to gather everything together. Interestingly, I became aware of my own subjectivities as his attempt didn’t strike me as controversial, at least on the first quick go through. After all, no amount of reading the written word can broaden my ken to accommodate the inherent subjective complexities of a so-called western mind. I think I am trying to say that what is understood as ‘polite subversiveness’ in one part of the world can be taken as a perfectly traditional attempt somewhere else.

    However, one thing that keeps coming back to me is the subtlety with which Asad concentrates on ‘western’ responses to suicide bombings. I mean how would he articulate the response of a person whose identity is not rooted in western tradition of liberalism. For a second, if we agree to drop generalities, how would Asad differentiate between my response to a bombing in Lahore and say, some Christian or Jew’s response to a bombing in Tel Aviv. Perhaps, it completely goes over me but I see a kind of space here that needs to be filled.

    I understand that Asad is pointing towards that extraordinary obsession with which the West respond towards suicidal terrorism, but at the same time he [totally] neglects the response from the orient. Of course, Asad’s indulgence seems relevant if we keep the state perpetrated terrorism and war mongering by the west in the backdrop, as brother Yayha rightly contextualized.


  6. but at the same time he [totally] neglects the response from the orient.

    Very briefly (as I am meant to be heading out of the door right now), I don’t think this is an oversight by Asad. I think it is quite deliberate. I think he would baulk at telling the ‘oriental’ how to think, feel and behave in response to suicide bombing or any other event, especially not in his writing. ‘OSB’ should, in my view, be related to some aspects of ‘Genealogies of Religion’ and especially ‘Formations of the Secular’, which are aimed to help his provocative* attempt to write an anthropology of the secular West.

    To me people like Asad (and Said et al.) when engaged in ‘deconstructing the West’ are basically telling the Oriental to write, narrate, deconstruct (or whatever) their own histories. I wonder what would happen if orientals (Muslims, Arabs in this case) initiated a similar approach to Muslim histories, knowledges etc. Arkoun tried it, but perhaps he was too Francophone.

    Another book worth pursuing here, which is somewhat related, is Dipesh Chakrabaty’s ‘Provincializing Europe’.

    *provocative for Westerners that is who are assured of the superiority of their rationality and beliefs; perhaps not so provocative for ‘non-Westeners’ who met the Enlightenment facing the barrel of gun and have their human rights bombed to smithereens for the sake of someone else’s ‘national security’.

  7. Pingback: » Hanging Odes reviews Talal Asad’s On Su … Talk Islam

  8. Chakrabaty’s work is a good lead, thabet; I would insha’allah read it someday. Haven’t read ‘Formations of the Secular’ yet but it would surely be fruitful to read OSB in light of some of Asad’s contentions in Genealogies of Religion.

    Please do expound more when you have time.

  9. AS

    Aasem Bakhshi,

    The heart of every Muslim is filled with love for the last Prophet Muhammad and this love of the Messenger of Allah is an asset for him. Love and respect of a person depends on the benefits we get from him. As the Prophet is the greatest benefactor of humanity, every Muslim has deepest love for him. Every deed of his life is to be followed by every individual of the Muslim Ummah. Highest love for the Prophet is made a test of our Faith. Allah is the All-Mighty has described and explained the status of Muhammad in the Qur’an: “Say (O Muhammad to mankind): If you (really) love Allah then follow me (i.e., accept Islamic monotheism, follow the Qur’an and the Sunnah), Allah will love you…” (3:31)

    Love of Allah’s Messenger is a part of our Faith. There is a Hadith (tradition) of the Prophet who said: “None of you has Faith unless I am dearer to him than his father and his son and all mankind.”

    In the early period of Islam, many books were written on the life of the Prophet. In the Qur’an itself, the best example of the life of Muhammad has also been mentioned. The Qur’an says: “And verily, you (O Muhammad) are on an exalted standard of character.” (68:4)

    Someone asked ‘Aishah about the noble character and manners of the Prophet. She answered: “Have you not read the Qur’an? His character is a complete explanation of the Qur’an.” It means that whatever is commanded and prohibited in the Qur’an, its practical example is present in the manners of Muhammad. In other words, the ideal and perfect example of good manners and character which the Qur’an demands from mankind, was present in the person of Muhammad in its highest degree.

    Scholars of Ahadith (traditions) and writers of the biography of Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah, have explored his life from every angle and aspect from birth to death. Every event, every incident of his life has been described and narrated, but none had claimed that he has given his life’s recording its full rights. Hundreds of books have been written on the life of Muhammad and this endeavor will continue till the Day of Resurrection.

  10. Agree the statment of “Love of Allah’s Messenger is a part of our Faith. There is a Hadith (tradition) of the Prophet who said: “None of you has Faith unless I am dearer to him than his father and his son and all mankind.””

  11. Pingback: An Open Letter to Karen Armstrong (III): Of Possibilities | Hanging Odes

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