“Good Muslim, Bad Muslim”- a review

       Hello lovely readers! I hope you’ve been enjoying the remaining weeks of May. I’m stuck up at UCF until the beginning of June because of my work- I work at an elementary school. So, while I’ve been up here counting down the days until I can go home, I’ve been reading quite a few books and catching up on movies/tv shows. My latest read was Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, which was really interesting and inspired me to discuss it on here. What with the rise of Islamophobia and ISIS, I feel that it is important to help shine some light on this controversial topic. This post will be the longest I’ve written, but bear with me.

       Good Muslim, Bad Muslim is a non-fiction work written by anthropologist  Mahmood Mamdani. Published in 2005, this was a reaction to post 9/11 american society and the modern U.S foreign policy.  With this book, Mamdani attempts to examine the politicization of terrorism, Islam, and how 9/11 happened, through the lens of the cold war era. While he does not discredit the fact that 9/11 was indeed a turning point for America and the world, he wants to bring a fresh illumination to the subject, one often over looked. The book, essentially divided into two parts- culture talk and how Islamist terror came to be the center of Islamist politics- is stylized almost like a dissertation or a research essay, with each chapter introducing a generalization and then sub topics building off one another, culminating in a final conclusion.

“My aim is to question the widely held presumption – even among critics of Culture Talk – that extremist religious tendencies can be equated with political terrorism. Terrorism is not a necessary effect of religious tendencies, whether fundamentalist or secular. Rather, terrorism is born of a political encounter.”

        The book starts with an introduction titled Modernity and Violence, briefly outlining the history of violence- wars, revolutions, genocide, crusades- going back to the 1400s and working its way forward, and how that violence has shaped the world.

“President Bush moved to distinguish between ‘good muslims’ and ‘bad muslims.’ From this point of view, ‘bad muslims’ were clearly responsible for terrorism. At the same time, the president seemed to assure Americans that ‘good muslims’ were anxious to clear their names and consciences of this horrible crime…. But this could not hide the central message of such discourse: unless proved to be ‘good,’ every muslim was presumed to be ‘bad.’ All muslims are under no obligation to prove their credentials by joining in  a war against ‘bad’ muslims. “

        Chapter 1, “Culture Talk”, lays the groundwork for his arguments in later chapters. In this section, Mamdani discusses how the talk of culture has become highly politicized and generalized in “geo- packages.” There are two versions of Culture Talk: the inexpert and naive view that Islam is the enemy civilization, and a more subtle view of Islam as divided within itself. “Culture Talk assumes that every culture has a tangible essence that defines it…..Culture Talk after 9/11, for example… explained the practice of terrorism as ‘Islamic.’ ‘Islamic Terrorism’ is thus offered as…..an explanation of the events of 9/11.” He then goes into the ideas behind the presumption of “a clash of civilizations”, examining Samuel Huntington’s essay A clash of civilizations, and then providing refutations from other scholars toward the notion of “civilizations marching through history like armed battalions.”

       One of the most important parts in this chapter, in my opinion, is his analysis of political Islam and fundamentalism. He discusses the origin of the term “fundamentalism” and how the term has been warped over time.  Fundamentalism is not a “throwback to pre-modern times” but a reaction within the religion to its changing political situations.

“To speak of fundamentalist Islam, at least in the case of mainstream Sunni Islam, is misleading. Since mainstream Islam did not develop a religious heirarchy…..it lacks the problem of secularism. ‘Fundamentalism’ can be applied to those forms of Shi’a Islam that have indeed developed a religious hierarchy. When this book focuses on political movements that speak the language of religion, they will be refered to as ‘political Islam’ and not Islamic fundamentalism.”

       I think that the understanding of terms regarding terrorism and Islam is vital to accurate analysis of our current situation today. We cannot simply lump together Islam and politics as one entity, as well as interchanging the terms fundamentalism and radicalism.  This whole assumption has led to racism and stereotyping of muslims and their religions.It is truly such a misconception that the political islamic movement is driven by religious leaders, when in fact it was created by political intellectuals with a worldly concern.

        The following chapters examine the history of colonialism, secular movements, clashes between powers, and the rise of radical religious movements in the middle east. They trace the United State’s involvement in various proxy wars and backing of disastrous dictatorships. I found these chapters to be very illuminating and quite disturbing.  Mamdani uses Africa as the first example. America’s partnership with apartheid South Africa helped form two key movements in cold war Africa- Unita and Renamo.  Renamo is considered Africa’s first genuine terrorist movement. The U.S openly supported Unita,funneling millions of dollars, so called ‘humanitarian aide’, to the movement in Angola, fully aware that Unita was heavily employing strategies such as starving civilians, kidnapping, and planting land mines.

“Political terror had brought a kind of war never before seen in Africa. The hallmark of the terror was that it targeted civilian life…. Terrorism distinguished itself from guerilla warfare by making civilians its prefered target. If left-wing guerillas claimed that they were like fish in water, right- wing terrorists were determined to drain the water- that is civilian life- so as to isolate and eliminate the fish.”

        Mamdani explains how U.S foreign policy, which was influenced by cold war hysteria and aimed at eliminating any form of communism, snowballed into automatic support for any anti-soviet regime or movement, no matter how brutal. Al Qaeda was a product of the CIA. Saddam Hussein was supported by the U.S government. Osama Bin Laden was trained in programs funded by the CIA. Oh the irony. Al Quaeda turned on America. Saddam Hussein turned on America. Osama Bin Laden turned out to be the most wanted terrorist.  “The real damage the CIA did was not the providing  of arms and money but the privatization of information about how to produce and spread violence- the formation of private militias- capable of creating terror………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.”

       In his conclusion, Beyond Impunity and Collective Punishment, Mamdani ties together his meandering examination of cold war policies in relation to the middle east with the present post 9/11 society. He gives a meditation on the United States’s”war on terror” and how treating terrorism as a crime, thus giving out rudimentary punishment, is not the way to go about it.”Few would fail to notice the growing common ground between the perpetrators of 9/11 and the response to it called the ‘war on terror.’ Both sides deny the possibility of a middle ground….rally forces in the name of justice but understand justice as revenge…..the war on terror has proceeded by dishing out collective punishment, with callous disregard for collateral damage…”

The following excerpt is his closing statement and one which I found to be very true and perfectly summed up the book.

“Herein lies the continuing relevance of Vietnam. The lesson of Vietnam was that the battle against nationalism could not be won as a military confrontation:America would need to recognize the legitimacy of nationalism in an era of imperialism and learn to live with it. Just as America learned to distinguish nationalism and communism in Vietnam, so it will need to learn the difference between nationalism and terrorism in the post 9/11 world. To win the fight against terrorism requires accepting that the world has changed…… that to occupy foreign places will be expensive, in lives and money. America cannot occupy the world. It has to learn to live in it.”

       Good Muslim, Bad Muslim was an extremely interesting and educational read. I came away with more of an understanding of Islam, how to correctly define terrorism in relation to Islam, and how deep into covert affairs America was during the cold war. The writing was a bit dense and intricate, as Mamdani is a writer in the realm of academia, so it requires full attention. It also helps to have some history under your belt and a good vocabulary. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of the topic and see it from  a different perspective.

4.5/5 stars





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