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Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: A Political Perspective
on Culture and Terrorism
ABSTRACT The link between Islam and terrorism became a central media concern following September 11, resulting in new rounds
of “culture talk. This talk has turned religious experience into a political category, differentiating ‘good Muslims” from “bad Muslims, rather than terrorists from civilians. The implication is undisguised: Whether in Afghanistan, Palestine, or Pakistan, Islam must
be quarantined and the devil must be exorcized from it by a civil war between good Muslims and bad Muslims. This article suggests that
we lift the quarantine and turn the cultural theory of politics on its head. Beyond the simple but radical suggestion that if there are good
Muslims and bad Muslims, there must also be good Westerners and bad Westerners, I question the very tendency to read Islamist politics as an effect of Islamic civilization—whether good or bad—and Western power as an effect of Western civilization. Both those politics and that power are born of an encounter, and neither can be understood outside of the history of that encounter. Cultural
explanations of political outcomes tend to avoid history and issues. Thinking of individuals from “traditional” cultures in authentic and
original terms, culture talk dehistoricizes the construction of political identities. This article places the terror of September 11 in a historical and political context. Rather than a residue of a premodern culture in modern politics, terrorism is best understood as a modern
construction. Even when it harnesses one or another aspect of tradition and culture, the result is a modern ensemble at the service of
a modern project. [Keywords: Muslims, culture talk, Islamist politics, political identities, terrorism]
EDIA INTEREST IN ISLAM exploded in the months
after September 11. What, many asked, is the link
between Islam and tenorism? This question has fueled a
fresh round of “culture talk”: the predilection to define
cultures according to their presumed “essential” characteristics, especially as regards politics, An earlieT round of
such discussion, associated with Samuel Huntington’s
widely cited but increasingly discredited Clash of Civilizations (1996), demonized Islam in its entirety, Its place has
been taken by a modified line of argument: that the terrorist link is not with all of Islam, but with a very literal interpretation of it, one found in Wahhabi Islam,1 First advanced by Stephen Schwartz in a lead article in the British
weekly, The Spectator (2001), this point of view went to the
ludicrous extent of claiming that all suicide couriers
(bombers or hijackers), are Wahhabi and warned that this
version of Islam, historically dominant in Saudi Arabia,
had been exported to both Afghanistan and the United
States in recent decades. The argument was echoed widely
in many circles, including the New York Times2
Culture talk has turned religious experience into a political category, “What Went Wrong with Muslim Civilization?” asks Bernard Lewis in a lead article in The Atlantic
Monthly (2002), Democracy lags in the Muslim World,
concludes a Freedom House study of political systems in
the non-Western world,3 The problem is larger than Islam,
concludes Aryeh Neier (2001), former president of Human
Rights Watch and now head of the Soros-funded Open Society Foundation: It lies with tribalists and fundamentalists,
contemporary counterparts of Nazis, who have identified
modernism as their enemy, Even the political leadership
of the antiterrorism alliance, notably Tony Blair and
George Bush, speak of the need to distinguish “good Muslims” from “bad Muslims,” The implication is undisguised: Whether in Afghanistan, Palestine, or Pakistan, Islam must be quarantined and the devil must be exorcized
from it by a civil war between good Muslims and bad Muslims,
I want to suggest that we lift the quarantine for analytical purposes, and turn the cultural theory of politics on
its head, This, I suggest, will help our query in at least two
ways, First, it will have the advantage of deconstructing not
just one protagonist in the contemporary contest—Islam—
but also the other, the West, My point goes beyond the
simple but radical suggestion that if there are good Muslims
and bad Muslims, there must also be good Westerners and
Mamdani • Good Muslim, Bad Muslim
bad Westerners, I intend to question the very tendency to
read Islamist politics as an effect of Islamic civilization—
whether good or bad—and Western power as an effect of
Western civilization, Further, I shall suggest that both
those politics and that power are born of an encounter,
and neither can be understood in isolation, outside of the
history of that encounter,
Second, I hope to question the very premise of culture
talk, This is the tendency to think of culture in political—and therefore territorial—terms, Political units (states)
are territorial; cultuie is not, Contemporary Islam is a
global civilization: fewer Muslims live in the Middle East
than in Africa or in South and Southeast Asia. If we can
think of Christianity and Judaism as global religions—
with Middle Eastern origins but a historical flow and a
contemporary constellation that cannot be made sense of
in terms of state boundaries—then why not try to understand Islam, too, in historical and extraterritorial terms?4
Does it really make sense to write political histories of Islam that read like political histories of geographies like the
Middle East, and political histories of Middle Eastern
states as if these were no more than the political history of
Islam in the Middle East?
My own work (1996) leads me to trace the modern
roots of culture talk to the colonial project known as indirect
rule, and to question the claim that anticolonial political
resistance really expresses a cultural lag and should be understood as a traditional cultural resistance to modernity,
This claim downplays the crucial encounter with colonial
power, which I think is central to the post-September 11
analytical predicament I described above, I find culture
talk troubling for two reasons, On the one hand, cultural
explanations of political outcomes tend to avoid history
and issues, By equating political tendencies with entire
communities denned in nonhistorical cultural terms, such
explanations encourage collective discipline and punishment—a practice characteristic of colonial encounters,
This line of reasoning equates terrorists with Muslims, justifies a punishing war against an entire country (Afghanistan) and ignores the recent history that shaped both the
current Afghan context and the emergence of political Islam, On the other hand, culture talk tends to think of individuals (from “traditional” cultures) in authentic and
original terms, as if their identities are shaped entirely by
the supposedly unchanging culture into which they are
born, In so doing, it dehistoricizes the construction of political identities,
Rather than see contemporary Islamic politics as the
outcome of an archaic culture, I suggest we see neither culture nor politics as archaic, but both as very contemporary
outcomes of equally contemporary conditions, relations,
and conflicts, Instead of dismissing history and politics, as
culture talk does, I suggest we place cultural debates in historical and political contexts, Terrorism is not born of the
residue of a premodern culture in modern politics, Rather,
terrorism is a modern construction, Even when it harnesses one or another aspect of tradition and culture, the
result is a modern ensemble at the service of a modern
Is our world really divided into the modern and premodern, such that the former makes culture in which the latter
is a prisoner? This dichotomy is increasingly prevalent in
Western discussions of relations with Muslim-majority
countries, It presumes that culture stands for creativity, for
what being human is all about, in one part of the world,
that called modern, but that in the other part, labeled
premodern,” culture stands for habit, for some kind of instinctive activity whose rules are inscribed in early founding texts, usually religious, and mummified in early artifacts. When I read of Islam in the papers these days, I
often feel I am reading of museumized peoples, of peoples
who are said not to make culture, except at the beginning
of creation, as some extraordinary, prophetic act. After
that, it seems they—we Muslims—just conform to culture,
Our culture seems to have no history, no politics, and no
debates, It seems to have petrified into a lifeless custom.
Even more, these people seem incapable of transforming
their culture, the way they seem incapable of growing
their own food, The implication is that their salvation lies,
as always, in philanthropy, in being saved from the outside,
If the premodern peoples are said to lack a creative capacity, they are conversely said to have an abundant capacity for destruction, This is surely why culture talk has
become the stuff of front-page news stories, It is, after all,
the reason we are told to give serious attention to culture,
It is said that culture is now a matter of life and death, To
one whose recent academic preoccupation has been the
institutional legacy of colonialism, this kind of writing is
deeply reminiscent of tracts from the history of modern
colonization, This history assumes that people’s public behavior, specifically their political behavior, can be read
from their religion, Could it be that a person who takes his
or her religion literally is a potential terrorist? That only
someone who thinks of a religious text as not literal, but
as metaphorical or figurative, is better suited to civic life
and the tolerance it calls for? How, one may ask, does the
literal reading of sacred texts translate into hijacking, murder, and terrorism?
Some may object that I am presenting a caricature of
what we read in the press, After all, is there not less talk
about the clash of civilizations, and more about the clash
inside Islamic civilization? Is that not the point of the articles 1 refened to earlier? Certainly, we are now told to distinguish between good Muslims and bad Muslims, Mind
you, not between good and bad persons, nor between
criminals and civic citizens, who both happen to be Muslims, but between good Muslims and bad Muslims. We are
told that there is a fault line running through Islam, a line
that separates moderate Islam, called “genuine Islam,
from extremist political Islam. The terrorists of September
American Anthropologist • Vol. 104, No. 3 • September 2002
11, we are told, did not just hijack planes; they also hijacked Islam, meaning “genuine” Islam,
I would like to offer another version of the argument
that the clash is inside—and not between—civilizations,
The synthesis is my own, but no strand in the argument is
fabricated, I rather think of this synthesis as an enlightened version, because it does not just speak of the “other,”
but also of self, It has little trace of ethnocentrism. This is
how it goes: Islam and Christianity have in common a
deeply messianic orientation, a sense of mission to civilize
the world, Each is convinced that it possesses the sole
truth, that the world beyond is a sea of ignorance that
needs to be redeemed.5 In the modern age, this kind of
conviction goes beyond the religious to the secular, beyond the domain of doctrine to that of politics, Yet even
seemingly secular colonial notions such as that of a civilizing mission”—or its more racialized version, “the white
man’s burden”—or the 19th-century U,S, conviction of a
“manifest destiny” have deep religious roots,
Like any living tradition, neither Islam nor Christianity is monolithic. Both harbor and indeed are propelled by
diverse and contradictory tendencies, In both, righteous
notions have been the focus of prolonged debates, Even if
you should claim to know what is good for humanity,
how do you proceed? By persuasion or force? Do you convince others of the validity of your truth or do you proceed by imposing it on them? Is religion a matter of conviction or legislation? The first alternative gives you reason
and evangelism; the second gives you the Crusades and
jihad. Take the example of Islam, and the notion of jihad,
which roughly translated means “struggle.’ Scholars distinguish between two broad traditions of jihad: jihad Akbar (the greater jihad) and jihad Asgar (the lesser jihad),
The greater jihad, it is said, is a struggle against weaknesses
of self; it is about how to live and attain piety in a contaminated world, The lesser jihad, in contrast, is about
self-preservation and self-defense; more externally directed, it is the source of Islamic notions of what Christians call “just war” (Noor 2001),
Scholars of Islam have been at pains since September
11 to explain to a non-Muslim reading public that Islam
has rules even for the conduct of war: for example, Talal
Asad (n.d.) points out that the Hanbali School of law practiced by followers of Wahhabi Islam in Saudi Arabia outlaws the killing of innocents in war, Historians of Islam
have warned against a simple reading of Islamic practice
from Islamic doctrine; After all, coexistence and toleration
have been the norm, rather than the exception, in the political history of Islam, More to the point, not only religious creeds like Islam and Christianity, but also secular
doctrines like liberalism and Marxism have had to face an
ongoing contradiction between the impulse to universalism and respective traditions of tolerance and peaceful coexistence, The universalizing impulse gives the United
States a fundamentalist orientation in doctrine, just as the
tradition of tolerance makes for pluralism in practice and
in doctrine.
Doctrinal tendencies aside, I remain deeply skeptical
of the claim that we can read people’s political behavior
from their religion, or from their culture, Could it be true
that an orthodox Muslim is a potential terrorist? Or, the
same thing, that an Orthodox Jew or Christian is a potential terrorist and only a Reform Jew or a Christian convert
to Darwinian evolutionary theory is capable of being tolerant of those who do not share his or her convictions?
I am aware that this does not exhaust the question of
culture and politics, How do you make sense of a politics
that consciously wears the mantle of religion? Take, for
example the politics of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda;
both claim to be waging a jihad, a just war against the enemies of Islam, To try to understand this uneasy relationship between politics and religion, 1 find it necessary not
only to shift focus from doctrinal to historical Islam, from
doctrine and culture to history and politics, but also to
broaden the focus beyond Islam to include larger historical encounters, of which bin Laden and al-Qaeda have
been one outcome,

Eqbal Ahmad draws our attention to the television image
from 1985 of Ronald Reagan inviting a group of turbaned
men, all Afghan, all leaders of the mujahideen, to the
White House lawn for an introduction to the media.
“These gentlemen are the moral equivalents of America’s
founding fathers,” said Reagan (Ahmad 2001), This was
the moment when the United States tried to harness one
version of Islam in a struggle against the Soviet Union, Before exploring its politics, let me provide some historical
background to the moment,
1 was a young lecturer at the University of Dar-esSalaam in Tanzania in 1975, It was a momentous year in
the decolonization of the world as we knew it, 1975 was
the year of the U,S, defeat in Indochina, as it was of the
collapse of the last European empire in Africa, In retrospect, it is clear that it was also the year that the center of
gravity of the Cold War shifted from Southeast Asia to
southern Africa, The strategic question was this; Who
would pick up the pieces of the Portuguese empire in Africa, the United States or the Soviet Union? As the focal
point of the Cold War shifted, there was a corresponding
shift in U,S, strategy based on two key influences, First,
the closing years of the Vietnam War saw the forging of a
Nixon Doctrine, which held that “Asian boys must fight
Asian wars.” The Nixon doctrine was one lesson that the
United States brought from the Vietnam debacle, Even if
the hour was late to implement it in Indochina, the Nixon
Doctrine guided U,S, initiatives in southern Africa, In the
post-Vietnam world, the United States looked for more
than local proxies; it needed regional powers as junior
partners, In southern Africa, that role was fulfilled by
apartheid South Africa, Faced with the possibility of a decisive MPLA victory in Angola,6 the United States encouraged South Africa to intervene militarily, The result was a
Mamdani • Good Muslim, Bad Muslim
political debacle that was second only to the Bay of Pigs
invasion of a decade before: No matter its military
strength and geopolitical importance, apartheid South Africa was clearly a political liability for the United States,
Second, the Angolan fiasco reinforced public resistance
within the United States to further overseas Vietnam-type
involvement, The clearest indication that popular pressures were finding expression among legislators was the
1975 Clark amendment, which outlawed covert aid to
combatants in the ongoing Angolan civil war,
The Clark amendment was repealed at the start of
Reagan’s second term in 1985, Its decade-long duration
failed to forestall the Cold Warriors, who looked for ways
to bypass legislative restrictions on the freedom of executive action. CIA chief William Casey took the lead in orchestrating support for terrorist and prototerrorist movements around the world—from Contras in Nicaragua to
the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, to Mozambican National
Resistance (RENAMO) in Mozambique7 and National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) in Angola8—through third and fourth parties, Simply put, after
the defeat in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal, the
United States decided to harness, and even to cultivate,
terrorism in the struggle against regimes it considered proSoviet. The high point of the U,S, embrace of terrorism
came with the Contras, More than just tolerated and
shielded, they were actively nurtured and directly assisted
by Washington. But because the Contra story is so well
known, I will focus on the nearly forgotten story of U.S.
support for terrorism in Southern Africa to make my
South Africa became the Reagan Administration’s preferred partner for a constructive engagement, a term coined
by Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Chester
Crocker, The point of “constructive engagement” was to
bring South Africa out of its political isolation and tap its
military potential in the war against militant—pro-Soviet—
nationalism,9 The effect of “constructive engagement”
was to bring to South African regional policy the sophistication of a blend of covert and overt operations: In Mozambique, for example, South Africa combined an official
peace accord (the 1984 Nkomati agreement) with continued clandestine material support for RENAMO terrorism,10
Tragically, the United States entered the era of “constructive engagement” just as the South African military tightened its hold over government and shifted its regional
policy from detente to “total onslaught.
I do not intend to explain the tragedy of Angola and
Mozambique as the result of machinations by a single superpower. The Cold War was fought by two superpowers,
and both subordinated local interests and consequences to
global strategic considerations, Whether in Angola or in
Mozambique, the Cold War interfaced with an internal
civil war, An entire generation of African scholars has been
preoccupied with …
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