America’s ‘war on terror’, a euphemism for a war against an ever increasing number of Muslim countries and groups, is premised on the notion of a distinction between the ‘good’ Muslim and the ‘bad’ Muslim. The former are Muslims who support Bush’s imperialist misadventures; the latter those who refuse to toe the American line. The ‘war on terror’ is, at the same time, also constructed as a struggle for discursive hegemony between rival definitions of Islam — one version identified with the ‘good’ Muslims and their American backers. Consequently, the ‘war on terror’ comes to be framed, as this fascinating book tells us, in essentially cultural, as opposed to political, terms. It is as if the war is all about Islam, or, as the ‘good’ Muslims would have it, about the ‘false’ version of Islam championed by their unpleasant Muslim rivals. This, Mamdani dismisses as crude Orientalism, based on the facile assumption that Muslims exist in a historical vacuum and that all of their actions can be explained simply by a reading of certain Islamic texts.
Western neo-conservative and pro-Zionist ideologues insist that the ‘war on terror’ is a justified response to ‘Islamic terror’. Mamdani pleads for a nuanced understanding of contemporary American neo-conservative discourse about Islam, pointing out the subtle differences between ideologues. While some like Samuel Huntington see Islam in monolithic terms, as inherently opposed to the West, there are others who distinguish between those Muslim groups that are not overtly hostile to the hegemonic project of the West, and the ‘fundamentalist’ others that are so. This, in turn, has crucial implications for America’s policies vis-à-vis the ‘Muslim world’. The former position calls for an unrelenting war against Islam and Muslims, while the latter, building on the difference it constructs between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims, appeals for a strategy of building close alliances between the West and ‘good’ Muslims in a war against ‘bad’ Muslims.
The author presents an incisive critique of what he calls this ‘culture talk’, seeing in it a convenient means to absolve Western powers of not only their role in abetting Islamist militancy in many countries but also their own direct involvement in terrorism in large parts of the developing world. He insists that contemporary Islamist militancy must be seen as a political phenomenon, and not something that is linked to Islam as such.
At the same time, Mamdani also dismisses the oft-heard argument that, in contrast to the ‘non-West’ where politics is always allegedly culturally driven, political decisions in the West are supposedly directed by purely rational and ‘civilised’ imperatives. The enormous clout of fundamentalist Christianity in America today, with the President claiming to receive revelations directly from God, is evidence enough to debunk this claim of civilisational and political superiority.
For Mamdani, terrorism is not a non-Western or a Muslim monopoly, with various Western powers having consistently used it as a political tool to advance what they regard as their own strategic interests. Marshalling evidence, he shows how America, for decades during the Cold War, used both state terrorism as well as local terror groups to wage war against nationalist and leftist regimes in a vast number of countries. These proxy wars caused the deaths of millions of people and led to untold destruction, in the face of which al-Qaeda’s attacks fade into insignificance.
It is this specific political context of modern times, rather than revival of medieval orthodoxy, which reveals the roots of militant Islamism. The links between radical Islamism and imperialism are most clearly reflected in America’s funding and training of Muslim militants in the course of the Afghan war as well as Israel’s initial support to the Islamist Hamas as a counter to Palestinian nationalists. In fact, Mamdani suggests, the emergence of contemporary Islamist ‘terrorism’ can be understood only by recognising its close links with Western imperialist interests which used the Islamists as a principal means to challenge the Soviet Union during the Cold War. America’s policy of patronising Islamist militants has now boomeranged on itself with the former now on the offensive for a host of reasons. The factors which have provided the fodder for discontent include the United States’ continued support for Israel in the context of Palestinian aspirations, the brutal invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, the stationing of American troops in Saudi Arabia, and America’s backing of a host of repressive pro-Western regimes in Muslim countries.
The Muslim Non-West
The book convincingly argues that militancy in some Muslim communities, including the issue of radical Islamism, is a political rather than a religious phenomenon. It is a reaction to Western imperialism and its local agents. Radical Islamists are less interested in the intricacies of Islamic law and philosophy than in ridding their countries of West-dominated control. America’s ‘war on terror’, for its part, is also all about politics, the argument about it being waged in order to ‘defend’ ‘civilisation’ being a flimsy fig leaf to cover up the hegemon’s designs for global control.
While Mamdani’s narration of a long list of US imperialist misdaventures across the globe, to which Islamist militancy is, in a sense, a response, and his critique of American neo-conservative discourses about Islam is valuable, in the end he is able to present only one side of a complex story. The book keeps off analysing and critiquing Islamist discourses about non-Muslims and their religions, which, critics would argue, is a mirror image of the Western imperialist notion of the ‘Muslim world’ or the non-West. As both Bush and Osama would see it, if one is not with them, one is necessarily against them.
With the political roots of ‘terror’ and ‘war on terror’ clear, solving the mounting global crisis, says Mamdani, also calls for a political response. What is needed is a global movement for peace as well as a concerted effort to bring America to its senses, forcing it to respect local nationalisms and desist from behaving like the global bully that it has become. But are such pious desires, as here of Mamdani, enough to tame the imperialist beast? The reader is left with the sense that while Mamdani excels in analysis, the solutions he has to offer somewhat fail to enthuse.