Mahmood Mamdani’s book, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, traces the emergence of political Islam post-Cold War and the September 11 attacks on World Trade Centre

In his book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror (Harmony, 2004) India-born Ugandan academic, author, and political commentator Mahmood Mamdani’s concerns are threefold. Firstly, he aims to trace the origins of Islamic terrorism. Secondly, he challenges the explanations provided for it. Lastly, he identifies the framework contributing to what he terms ‘culture talk,’ a narrative influenced by deliberate misrepresentation.

In the exploration of a public debate, two prominent intellectuals emerged as key figures after the Cold War, each holding distinct perspectives yet sharing similar fundamental ideas. Samuel Huntington, a former Harvard professor, and a prominent orientalist Bernard Lewis from Princeton University became central figures in this disquisition. The widely recognised phrase, “clash of civilizations,” in contemporary cultural discourse is derived from Lewis’s 1990 article, “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” in The Atlantic.

Huntington gained widespread recognition for his influential book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996), where he broadened Lewis’ thesis positing that the Cold War was a parochial conflict within the West, and the real conflict lay ahead — a war between civilizations.

According to Huntington, the borders of Islam were marked by bloodshed, and his viewpoint portrayed every Muslim as potentially ‘Bad’. In contrast, Bernard Lewis, closely connected to high-level foreign policy circles, urged the US government to discern between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims. He advocated for supporting and organising the former against the latter, proposing a strategy of quarantining ‘bad’ Muslims through a form of civil war within Islam.

Terrorism: In service to contemporary power

The pivotal moment in validating these arguments was anticipated to be Iraq (Saddam Hussein regime), where the ousting of ‘bad Muslims’ was expected to pave the way for the emergence of ‘good Muslims’, celebrating the liberators. However, the anticipated seamless transition terribly failed as ‘good Muslims’ seemingly transformed into ‘bad’ ones, prompting a reevaluation of the definitions attached to these categories. The author argued that the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims, as articulated by figures like Huntington and Lewis, was not rooted in their relationship with Islam but rather in their relation towards the United States (as a centre). A ‘good’ Muslim, in this context, was synonymous with a pro-American Muslim, while a ‘bad’ Muslim was an anti-American one.

Mamdani writes: “But if the same Iraqis who yesterday welcomed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein today see American troops as an occupying force, is it not time to question the simplifying assumption that the problem lies with bad as opposed to good Iraqis? If good and bad Iraqis — and good and bad Muslims — are really quasi-official names for those who support and oppose American policies, is it not time to go beyond the name-calling and review policies that consistently seem to erode support and generate opposition? Whether in America, Iraq, or elsewhere, the revitalization of democracy in the era of globalized American power requires no less.”

To distinguish cultural from political Islam, the author situates political Islam within the Cold War context. The aim is to challenge the prevalent assumption, even among Culture Talk’s critics, that extremist religious tendencies equate to political terrorism. The argument asserts that terrorism doesn’t inherently stem from religious inclinations, whether fundamentalist or secular, but arises from political encounters. When drawing on tradition and culture, terrorism is portrayed as a modern political movement in service to contemporary power, with the genesis of the 9/11-related political terrorism traced back to the late Cold War.

‘The CIA forged link between Islam and terror in central Asia’

The book came out of public discussions over a set of public events, beginning with 9/11. Mamdani started closely following the American press, particularly The New York Times and its reportage on 9/11. What particularly struck him was that the NY Times was continuously reporting that more and more Americans were buying copies of the Quran in order to gain an insight into the motivation of those who hijacked planes and hit the Twin Towers. NY Times eventually reported that the Quran was one of the bestsellers in American bookstores.

On finding this, Mamdani exclaims, “I thought of my own family, friends and people I knew back home in Kampala and as the weeks and months and years rolled by and as the US invaded Iraq and bombed Iraq, I wondered whether my parents or relatives or cousins or friends were going to book shops to buy copies of the Bible to get an insight into why the US was bombing Iraq and, of course, I realized they weren’t. I didn’t even think the people of Fallujah were trying to get a clue as to why bombs were raining on them by reading the Bible even though the President of the US was claiming biblical inspiration for this set of events and I asked myself why the difference and I realized of course that the difference was a clue to the nature of the public debate in the US and it was a clue to the nature of public intellectuals and how they had framed the debate post 9/11.”

Good Muslim, Bad Muslim aimed to inject titular irony into this dichotomy, encouraging readers to question the prevailing worldview. One of the shared assumptions critiqued by Mamdani was the division of the world into modern and anti-modern, with the belief that modern cultures were inherently progressive while anti-modern ones were stagnant. This binary framework, the author argued, neglected the historical nature of all cultures and perpetuated a colonial perspective that hindered genuine understanding.

Every culture has a tangible essence that defines it and one that informs its politics. Another critical point addressed in the book challenged the notion that cultures develop within distinct containers labelled ‘civilizations’. By delving into the texts of political Islam, the author talks about an Iranian influential thinker, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani. Afghani grappled with the consequences of British colonialism in India and advocated for addressing internal weaknesses within Muslim societies. His call for bringing Muslim masses into the public sphere was a response to colonial challenges.

Mamdani, who is married to filmmaker Mira Nair, argues that the West, particularly the United States, has oversimplified and essentialized the concept of jihad, leading to a misconstrued understanding of Islam and Muslims. He contends that the dichotomy of ‘Good Muslim’ and ‘Bad Muslim’ emerged during the Cold War, with the West instrumentalizing certain Islamist groups to counter Soviet influence in Afghanistan. This selective support, according to Mamdani, contributed to the rise of extremist ideologies.

“The CIA was key to the forging of the link between Islam and terror in central Asia and to giving radical Islamists international reach and ambition. The groups it trained and sponsored shared a triple embrace: of terror tactics, of holy war as a political ideology, and of a transnational recruitment of fighters, who acquired hyphenated identities,” he writes.

Dismantling the binary of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims

The genesis of jihadi Islam was a collaborative effort involving the US, the CIA, and intelligence agencies primarily from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. This distinctive form of Islam represents a historical mutation, departing from traditional interpretations. Jihadi Islam reconceptualizes the foundational pillars of Islam, relegating the four pillars to a secondary status while elevating jihad to the central pillar. The concept of jihad, originally encompassing a holistic struggle — spiritual, personal, social, and military — undergoes a transformation, exclusively emphasizing military endeavours. “The legitimization of violence against civilians was a direct consequence of something the CIA manual called training in ‘strategic sabotage,’” he writes.

The contemporary Islamist terror we observe today represents not a straightforward extension of Islamic history, but rather a transformation resulting from a threefold convergence: ideological, organisational, and political factors. The ideological facet arises from the interplay between Islamist intellectuals and various Marxist-Leninist principles promoting armed resistance in the post-war period. The organisational dimension is a direct result of the US-led orchestration of the Afghan jihad as a quasi-private global undertaking. The political aspect emerges as a consequence of Islam being stigmatised and linked to terrorism, a trend that gained momentum post-Cold War and intensified after the events of 9/11.

“State-sponsored Islamist political movements should not be equated with terrorism. One can conclude, therefore, that political Islam is a modern political phenomenon, not a leftover of traditional culture,” Mamdani underlines. He also analyses the Vietnam War and Afghanistan conflict to argue that the conflict significantly influenced the trajectory of political Islam by creating a breeding ground for radicalisation. In the context of Afghanistan during the Cold War, he highlights how the US and its allies supported Afghan mujahideen fighters against the Soviet Union. This support, intended to counter Soviet expansionism, had unintended consequences as it contributed to the militarisation of Islamist groups. The Afghan experience became a crucial moment, shaping and ultimately misconstruing the narrative of jihad and empowering radical factions within political Islam.

In unravelling the layers of the public debate and intellectual discourse, the author sought to dismantle the simplistic characterisations of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims, urging readers to question the political self-interest embedded in cultural explanations. Also, the historical and nuanced perspectives offered by thinkers like Afghani challenged the rigid categorisation of civilizations, underscoring the need for a more nuanced understanding of cultural development. Mamdani’s exploration called for a departure from reductionist frameworks and a deeper engagement with the complexities inherent in the interactions between cultures, civilizations, and historical contexts.

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