On Suicide Bombings III – Unpacking Talal Asad’s book

by Aasem Bakhshi

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.


Filed under Books, History, Islam, Islamism, psychology, Society, Terrorism, Writers