by Mahmood Mamdani
I was in New York City on 9/11. In the weeks that followed, newspapers
reported that the Koran had become one of the biggest-selling books in
American bookshops. Astonishingly, Americans seemed to think that reading
the Koran might give them a clue to the motivation of those who carried out
the suicide attacks on the World Trade Center. Recently, I have wondered
whether the people of Falluja have taken to reading the Bible to understand
the motivation for American bombings. I doubt it. . . .
The post-9/11 public debate in the US has been inspired by two Ivy League
intellectuals - Samuel Huntington at Harvard and Bernard Lewis at Princeton.
. . .
The aftermath of the Iraq War has turned into a crisis for theory. It is
increasingly clear that the designation of some Muslims as good and others
as bad has little to do with their orientation to Islam, and everything to
do with their orientation to America. Simply put, good Muslim is a label for
those who are deemed pro-American and bad Muslims are those reckoned
anti-American. . . .
Contemporary, modern political Islam developed as a response to colonialism.
Colonialism posed a double challenge, that of foreign domination and of the
need for internal reform to address weaknesses exposed by external
Early political Islam grappled with such questions in an attempt to
modernize and reform Islamic societies. Then came Pakistani thinker Abu ala
Mawdudi, who placed political violence at the centre of political action,
and Egyptian thinker Sayyed Qutb, who argued that it was necessary to
distinguish between friends and enemies, for with friends you use reason and
persuasion, but with enemies you use force. . . .
The late Cold War
That said, we are confronted with a singular question: How did Islamist
terror, a theoretical tendency that preoccupied a few intellectuals and was
of marginal political significance in the 1970s, become part of the
political mainstream in only a few decades? To answer it, we need to move
away from the internal debates of political Islam to its relations with
official America, and back from 9/11 to the period that followed America's
defeat in Vietnam, the period I call the late Cold War. . . .
The defining feature of the new phase of the Cold War was the strong
anti-war movement within America opposed to direct military intervention
overseas. Henry Kissinger, the US secretary of state, designed a strategy in
response to the changed context: if America could not intervene overseas
directly, it would intervene through others. Thus began the era of proxy
war, one that was to mark the period from Vietnam to Iraq. . . .
The administration of Ronald Reagan raised proxy war from a pragmatic
response to a grand strategy, called the Reagan Doctrine. . . .
The Reagan Doctrine also turned on a second initiative, . . . Reagan called
on America to defeat "the evil empire".
Evil is a theological notion. As such, it has neither a history nor
motivation. The political use of evil is two-fold. First, one cannot coexist
with evil, nor can one convert it. Evil must be eliminated. The war against
evil is a permanent war, one without a truce. Second, the Manichean battle
against evil justifies any alliance. The first such alliance, dubbed
"constructive engagement", was between official America and apartheid South
Africa. . . .
Rollback on a global scale: Afghanistan
The Afghan war was the prime example of "rollback". In the history of terror
during the last phase of the Cold War, the Afghan war was important for two
reasons. First, the Reagan administration ideologized the war as a religious
war against the evil empire, . . .
Second, the Reagan administration privatized war in the course of
recruiting, training and organizing a global network of Islamic fighters
against the Soviet Union. . . .
The narrow theology recast Islam around a single institution, the jihad; it
redefined the jihad as exclusively military and claimed the military jihad
to be an offensive war entered into by individual born-again devotees as
opposed to defence by an Islamic community under threat. . . .
Before the Afghan jihad, right-wing political Islam was an ideological
tendency with little organization and muscle on the ground. The Afghan jihad
gave it numbers, organization, skills, reach, confidence and a coherent
objective. America created an infrastructure of terror but heralded it as an
infrastructure of liberation.
[Mahmood Mamdani is Herbert Lehman Professor of Government, Department of
Anthropology and School of International Affairs, Columbia University, New
Joe Stephens and David B. Ottaway, "From
U.S., the ABC's of Jihad: Violent Soviet-Era Textbooks Complicate Afghan
Education Efforts," Washington Post, March 23, 2002
Jonathan Power, "War of
Civilizations?," International Herald Tribune, October 29, 2004