Reviews

The one who dies in order to kill

On Suicide Bombing; Talal Asad, Columbia University Press, ₹1,758.  

This is one book you may want to avoid reading on a plane. Its title is On Suicide Bombing. And the author is a Muslim, with an Arab name: Talal Asad.

I came to it via a lecture by the American philosopher, Judith Butler. Her subject was ‘the human condition’. She talks about the questions Asad poses in his book: Can suicide bombing be thought? What resources do we need in order to think it? I was intrigued enough by Butler’s remarks to get a copy of the book.

Asad is an anthropologist by training. As an Arab Muslim in American academia, he is uniquely placed to offer an anthropological perspective on the discourse of terrorism in liberal democracies. ‘On Suicide Bombing’ is a collection of lectures he delivered in 2006. It has three chapters: ‘Terrorism’, ‘Suicide terrorism’ and ‘Horror at suicide terrorism’.

Asad begins with the most spectacular instance of suicide terrorism in recent history, the September 11, 2001, attack in the U.S., which sparked worldwide outrage, and rightly so. The mass killing of innocents is simply wrong and condemnable. There is nothing to debate here.

Nonetheless, Asad wants us to temporarily reserve our judgement, so that we could arrive at an understanding of the moral ground from which we pass judgment. Toward this end, the first question he wants us to answer is the following: why do we not feel the same degree of moral outrage that terrorist killing of innocent civilians evokes in us, when state-sponsored violence does exactly the same?

Interpretive frameworks

Asad does not suggest that the two instances of violence are equivalent, or that we should feel the same horror at both. In Butler’s words, he is simply impressed by the fact that our moral responses are regulated by certain interpretive frameworks that seem to pre-empt thought and precede feeling.

For Asad, the primary interpretive framework that dictates our thinking on political violence is the distinction between war and terrorism. War is legal violence, pursued by an entity recognised by international law, the nation-state. Terrorism is violence without legal sanction, enacted by non-state actors. Given that every kind of atrocity has been perpetrated by state armies as well as terrorists, it is the legal cover accorded to the former that differentiates it morally from the latter.

But what is the source of this moral legitimacy? The answer offered by liberal philosophers goes something like this: the state is the guardian of a political community. When this community faces the threat of annihilation, the state is obligated to defend it by any means necessary, including perpetrating evil of its own. Asad cites the American political theorist Michael Walzer, who argued that a political community may act immorally, but “only at the last minute and under absolute necessity.”

Ironically, this argument of “under absolute necessity” assumes a humanitarian form precisely when states seek to transgress the humanitarian codes of war. The classic example of ‘terrorism’ perpetrated by a liberal democracy ‘under absolute necessity’ is the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed 1,29,000 people, most of them civilians. The justification given was that it saved the lives of thousands of American soldiers by ending the war sooner. But today we know that the real motive was geo-strategic—to signal America’s status as a military superpower.

Asad dwells at length on the dubious liberal assumption that state armies kill civilians only under duress. He notes that liberals justify torture, too, with similar logic—as an evil necessary to combat the evil of future terror attacks. He describes how liberal discourse frames the cruelties of the state as the unavoidable excesses of war, while presenting similar acts by non-state actors as the essence of terrorism.

But this distinction is a fragile one, and it crumbles under scrutiny. Asad demonstrates that there is no rational basis to deny an insurgent group the same moral fig leaf we extend to state armies, namely, that the killing of civilians is being done under duress.

Secondly, even liberal thought recognises one circumstance under which a non-state actor may legitimately engage in political violence: to found a nation-state that would be home for a new political community. This is the reason the International Criminal Court has refused to include terrorist acts as punishable offences. As we know, there is hardly a nation-state that wasn’t founded on bloodshed.

These are not the only contradictions. Given that suicide bombing, or dying in order to kill, is often synonymous, in liberal discourse, with so-called Islamic jihad, Asad investigates what Judaism and Christianity have to say about jihad-like suicidal violence.

The obvious example from Judaism is Samson, the mythical hero who kills himself to kill a large number of his enemies, mostly civilians. Asad notes that Israeli society considers Samson’s ‘suicide terrorism’ an act of nationalist self-sacrifice. Moving on to Christianity, he points out that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ could be viewed as a case of horrifying torture or as an instance of suffering that redeemed a sinful humanity. Insofar as Jesus knew of it in advance, it constitutes an act of suicide. “In Christian civilisation, the gift of life for humanity is possible only through a suicidal death,” writes Asad.

Simply put, liberal democratic discourse and the Judeo-Christian tradition from which it evolved have no problem accepting either suicide or the killing of civilians, provided the act is linked to a noble purpose that serves the community. How do we then explain or justify the moral outrage evoked by the violence of suicide bombers, who may well be acting from such a purpose in mind?

Asad’s background in post-colonial theory leads him to examine, and swiftly dismantle, the easy liberal consensus that jihad or a ‘holy war’ is “integral to an Islamic civilisation that is largely rooted in religion”. For it is precisely this conception of Islam that underpins the whole ‘clash of civilisations’ theory, with ‘medieval Islam’ and its religiously motivated terrorists on one side, and Western ‘modernity’ and its secular armies on the other.

Clash of civilisations

Asad suggests that the liberal discourse of terrorism is premised not on a clash of civilisations so much as a clash between the civilised and the uncivilised, between civilisation and barbarity. He thus foregrounds disturbing parallels and continuities between the colonial project and the so-called ‘war on terror’—continuities that liberal humanists lack the conceptual tools to engage with.

In his final chapter, Asad observes that Western liberal humanists are not much troubled when armed white men kill unarmed brown people or when armed brown men kill unarmed brown people. But their moral outrage peaks every time armed brown men kill unarmed white people. Is it possible that their horror of suicide terrorism has something to do with its abrupt inversion of the traditional logic of political violence, which typically entailed the disciplining of the (brown/black) barbarians by the (white) civilised?

On Suicide Bombing is an important book for our times. Today the spectre of terrorism has embedded itself in our daily lives. Yet sadly, our understanding of terrorism as a social phenomenon remains crippled by a narrow, security-centric discourse that glibly peddles words like ‘fidayeen’ and ‘jihadist’ as if they were explanations.

By opening up the claustrophobic discourse of terrorism to the broader context of post-colonial history, Asad draws our attention to liberal violence of a particular kind—its pre-emptive evacuation of history from any understanding of terrorist violence.

On Suicide Bombing; Talal Asad, Columbia University Press, ₹1,758.

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