Written in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Mahmood Mamdani’s 2005 book Good Muslim, BadMuslim historicizes the violence of terrorism. It extricates terrorism from the narrow morality that arises from the convergence of ethics and national interest, and instead locates terrorism “first and foremost as unfinished business of the Cold War.”1 “Good” and “bad” Muslims, terms borrowed from former U.S. President George W. Bush,2 are descriptions not of religious adherence, but of utility to U.S. foreign policy. As yesterday’s allies become today’s antagonists, the labels change to morally denigrate American foes.
Reintroducing history to the violence, the book begins by tracing the broad contours of the relationship between nation-state modernity and violence. Mamdani rejects violence as a pre-modern phenomenon, asserting instead that there is an inextricable relationship between violence and modernity.3 This is the book’s central theoretical framework: violence is political, not cultural.
A recent feature article published in the McGill Daily--my alma mater’s independent newspaper--recounted the detainment of Islamic Studies PhD student Pascal Abidor during a trip home to New York from Montreal via Amtrak. Abidor presented his passport to the border patrol officers as the train entered the United States, and when asked where he lived and why, Abidor explained that he was a PhD candidate in Islamic Studies at McGill University.
This was enough to arouse the suspicion of the officers, who then looked through files on his laptop and found images of Hamas and Hezbollah rallies. Abidor explained these were a part of his research on Shiism in contemporary Lebanon. Abidor was then removed from the train, handcuffed, detained, and interrogated.
Last Friday, the Israeli Air Force killed two members of the Palestinian Resistance Committee in Gaza, who were believed to be planning an attack on Israel from the Egyptian Sinai some time in the following days. This sparked an onslaught of rocket attacks from Gaza into Southern Israel, and Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, with civilian and militant casualties on both sides. In the wake of the attacks, Israeli journalist Larry Derfner, in an article in +972 Magazine, chose to address a common justification for military violence by the state of Israel, that “Palestinians have no right to lift a finger against our control of their lives and land,” and called for a rejection of the idea that “we [Israel] will always be totally innocent, while they will always be totally guilty.”
Derfner’s article led me to think further about common discourses of morality, war, and terror. Anthropologist Talal Asad asks: “how is the difference between terrorism and war defined in contemporary public discourse?”1 It is commonly understood that war is “a legal activity when it fulfills certain conditions,” and that international law protects certain acts of war.2 Conversely, terrorist violence is considered morally worse because of its illegality. In other words, terrorism kills innocent civilians, whereas war kills “only those who are legitimately killable.”3 This means that states that legally wage war can determine who can and cannot be killed. This kind of power has serious implications particularly in the so-called War on Terror: take the common assumption that Muslims or Arabs are perpetrators of terrorism because of a culturally ingrained tendency towards violence – does that imply that Muslims or Arabs as a group are legitimately killable when the West decides to wage a “moral” war against terror?