On Suicide Bombing

By Mahmood, Sadia | Islamic Studies, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview
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On Suicide Bombing


Mahmood, Sadia, Islamic Studies


Talal Asad. On Suicide Bombing. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. Pp. 128. Hardbound. ISBN: 978-0-231-14152-9. Price not given.

In this slim volume Talal Asad deconstructs the liberal discourse on the current categories of "war" and "terrorism" while extending and adding new dimensions to the already existing studies on contemporary modes of violence and terrorism. He advances his project of "deconstruction" of modernity and liberal democracies and elaborates on the continuities and cleavages between secular modernity and its past by discussing terrorism, one of the contemporary modes of violence. Whereas Asad examines the colonial and post-colonial construction of the categories of "war" and "terrorism," he argues that these are constructed according to different logical criteria: the "war" derives its primary sense from the question of legality, and "terrorism" from the feelings of vulnerability and fear of social disorder. Hence the two cannot be rendered as mutually exclusive.

Asad has recourse to a variety of disciplines, theories and scholars to draw his arguments from and respond to the opinions opposed to his own. One encounters, for example, references to Michael Walzer, May Jayyusi, Bruno Etienne, Ivan Strenski, Sigmund Freud (d. 1939), Emile Durkheim (d. 1917), Max Weber (d. 1920), Robert Pape, Roxanne Euben, Richard Tuck, John Keegan, Jacqueline Rose, John Hamilton, Mary Douglas (d. 2007), Michael Hanake, Sayyid Mawdudi (d. 1399/1979) and Sayyid Qu.b (d. 1386/1966), to name just a few. These scholars range from military scientists to political philosophers; from historians of early modern western thought to scholars on religion to psychoanalysts and others. Asad also refers to important contemporary literature including novels related to war, particularly the war on terror. All this reflects the wide scope of the book as well as the author's remarkable grip on the discourse from various possible angles.

Asad wants his readers to distance themselves-at least temporarily- from the popular discourse that prepackages moral responses to terrorism, wars and suicide bombing. He does so by offering a critique of liberal thought, especially its discourse on the war on terror and its claims of rational and moral superiority over other ideologies. He questions the popular discourse on terrorism in public, media, and scholarship, which seeks to grasp religious motivations behind acts of suicide bombing. Asad argues that speculations and theories regarding the motivations of a suicide bomber are fiction and hence cannot be verified (p. 3). This discussion is related with the main themes of the book which are: contemporary mode of violence (i.e. terrorism), war on terror, liberal democracies, the psychological aspects of terrorism, the possibilities of a religious terrorism, Islamic terrorism, the psychology of suicide bombers and of its victims, the anthropology of the concept of death in Western thought and of some related political and religious ideas and their development in Islamic thought.

Moreover, Asad critically analyses major theories on just war, terrorism, and suicide bombing along with the attempt to establish their relationship with Islam. He also raises the issue of culpability and argues that recent increase in Jihadism and sectarian killings are closely connected with US internationalist interests in the Middle East. He traces the genealogy of the doctrine of jihad, bashing the conception that it ever had a central place in Islamic thought. He finds this concept, however, to be strongly related with the foreign occupation of the Muslim lands. In light of this, for Asad, violence and suicide bombers belong to a modern Western tradition of armed conflict in defence of a free political community. He further pursues the argument that violence and suicidal terrorism are legitimate offsprings of the modern nation state and secular liberalism.1 What really stands out in On Suicide Bombing is Asad's study of the response of horror to suicide bombing in what he calls the "western mind," and his deconstruction of the current categories of "war" and theories of "just war.

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