I took up Talal Asad’s “On Suicide Bombing” accidentally. At first, I misjudged Asad as a man with a rough grasp of English and having strange notions on anthropology. However, after reading his book, I have certainly gained some significant, anthropological perspectives on jihad and terrorism.
The introduction to his book provides us a brilliant understanding to the topic at hand. Like many people in the US and around the world, Asad experienced the events of September 11, 2001, through media stings and newspaper headlines. Surprisingly, he describes such projections and presentations as being ‘all about emotion’, mainly because of their lack of clarity of analysis and neutral assessment.
Asad is an anthropologist and an exalted figure in Arab Muslim-American academia. This work offers anthropological perspectives and accounts, after having placed the problem of terrorism within the framework of the ‘problem of liberal democracy’. This book, consisting of three chapters, is essentially a collection of three lectures which he delivered in 2006 – namely “Terrorism”, “Suicide terrorism” and “Horror at suicide terrorism”.
For his smooth analysis, he comes up with a question that is foregrounded in some moral conceptions regarding the differences between terrorist violence and state-sponsored violence. He asks to what degree and extent these two categories differ. While this may seem problematic at first, he uses anthropological tools of analysis to address this issue.
The book (and its title) criticises the prejudicial conceptual stereotype (among non-Muslims) that a suicide bomber is the icon of the Islamic culture of death. Asad also lampoons the idea of religiously-motivated terrorism.
He starts his analysis by giving adequate evidences of and historical backgrounds to the political atmosphere. He refers to the attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. Asad then cites President’s Bush reaction to the incident – “They were acts of war. This will require our country to unite in steadfast determination and resolve” – and also highlights Bush’s and the US media’s obsession with the phrase ‘war against terrorism’.
For Asad, our realm of thoughts are radically preoccupied with the idea of ‘moral responses’, which are largely born out of and coexist with sectarian, biased and fixed places of limited morality. He clarifies this by reminding us that war is legal violence – legitimated and recognised by international laws – and terrorism (for sure) has no legal underpinnings. He scrutinises the idea of ‘moral legitimacy’, as described by liberal philosophers – the state is the guardian of political community; it has the responsibility of securing security and safety by any means necessary, including modes of violence. Asad also refers to Michael Walzer who argues that a political community may act immorally, but only at the last minute and under absolute necessity.
Asad then addresses the problem with liberal assumptions. It resides in a place where the excesses of war, especially those due to terrorism, are considered to be grave and immoral. However, liberal thought also legitimately recognises the permissible possibility of employing political violence during the foundation of a new nation-state, for the purpose of accommodating a new political community that has particular political preferences. This was the only reason for the refusal of the International Criminal Court to include terrorist acts as punishable offences.
After having precisely illustrated the idea of ‘purposeful death’, Asad highlights some instances from Judaism and Christianity. In references to Judaism, the example of Samson is evident. He was a mythical hero who killed himself to kill a large number of his enemies for the cause of the State. Later, his commitment to the cause is regarded as an act of nationalistic self sacrifice. In Christianity, too, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ can be viewed as something purposeful for the redemption of sinful community.
In the last chapter, he cunningly makes some observations about the Western liberal humanitarian approach, which borrows a few characteristics from the over-arching humanitarian principle. For instance, the so-called western liberals are not excessively troubled when armed men kill unarmed brown people, or when armed brown men kill unarmed people. Their moral outrage peaks only when brown or black people become the subjects or actors, as parts of selective, politically-loaded responses.
In short, this book deals with some difficult questions and precisely criticises liberal assumptions on terrorism and suicide bombing. Above all, it is an insightful and meaningful academic analysis, which led someone to briefly review the book as one which you wouldn’t want to read on a plane.