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Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror

Mahmood Mamdani (New York: Three Leaves Press, 2005), 304 p.

Tuesday 10 June 2008, by Emrah Sahin

In his latest work, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, Mahmood Mamdani, Uganda-born political scientist at Columbia University, criticizes the attempts to explain terrorism exclusively in cultural terms, what he terms “Culture Talk.” He distinguishes between political Islam and Islamic fundamentalism, delineating the latter as a cultural phenomenon. He argues that political identities are not equivalent to cultural identities, and seeks to explain political terror through an examination of the particular political contexts in which it has developed.

Good Muslim, Bad Muslim introduces an alternative interpretation of the post-9/11 American order. Accordingly, 9/11 is not an aberration in American history, but a direct result of late Cold War American politics.

Mamdani makes two important contributions to the scholarship. First: He revises Hegel’s notion that man is willing to die for a cause which he believes to be more important than his own life. He interestingly adds that we are also now willing to kill for what we believe is a just cause, which he applies to the political Islamic terrorists. Second, he defines contemporary radical movements and distinguishes two kinds: the “socially-centered and state-centered.” Whereas the former are willing to fight within the system and far from being usual suspects for terror, the latter, whose desire for power is unstoppable, attracts those who kill for a cause greater than life. The leaders of these Islamist fundamentalist radical movements are those who become involved in Islamist political terror.

Mamdani’s comparison of political Christianity and political Islam is particularly interesting in that unlike the former, the latter is the movement of secular intellectuals into the religious domain. The pioneers of political Islam such as Muhammad Iqbal, Sayyid Qutb, and Ali Shariati are not “religious ulama (scholars) but political intellectuals” who have entirely worldly concerns, using a largely secular Islamic discourse, concerned more with contemporary political and social issues than with a spiritual concern with salvation.

Mamdani argues that the roots of contemporary terror are way more complicated than anyone has until now believed. He insists we must understand “the context of the transition from colonialism to post colonialism” to comprehend categorical changes within Islamist movements, i.e., that of the Egyptian Society of Muslim Brothers “from a reformist to a radical agenda.”

Mamdani’s thought provoking arguments, captivating analyses, and lucid writing style give us an insightful and eloquently written view on Muslims and political Islam in the post-9/11 world.

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