Talal Asad – On Suicide Bombing


Talal Asad, On Suicide Bombing, New York: Columbia UP, 2007.

Talal Asad’s short but powerful book, On Suicide Bombing (New York: Columbia UP, 2007) is not a detailed description or an ethnographic storytelling about suicide bombers, but a series of philosophical (ethical and aesthetic) questions when we encounter the killing of human beings by terrorism (especially Islamic suicide bombing) or the war through the mass media in our everyday lives: What is difference between war and terrorism, the act of war and the terrorist act? What is the motivation of suicide terrorist? Why suicide terrorism brings about horror to people? Engaging with those questions, he traces the history of the discourses (i.e. he seems to apply the method of genealogy, in the sense that Nietzsche and Foucault used) and examines how other scholars answer to them.

As an anthropologist, Asad has lived a unique life. According to Wikipedia, he is “a son of Muhammad Asad, Jewish convert to Islam and author of several books on Islam” and “born in Saudi Arabia and brought up in Pakistan, attended a missionary boarding school where he was one of only a few Muslims among a majority of Christians.” His personal experience as such might be the foundation of this book in dealing with the aforementioned questions. However, his strength through this book lies not in his religious and regional background (Muslim origin) but his balanced and logical reasoning on the problems as well as his strict uses of the terms and the concepts. Since what he is dealing with could be a provocative and dangerous thing (taboo?) especially in this time and at this place, he is warning against a misleading of the book: this book is not intending to justify the terrorist atrocities (4).

The first chapter is a discussion about the terrorism, in particular, the difference between just war and terrorism. While he is asking why the term “terrorism” is “so prominent today when talking about certain kinds of contemporary violence” (8), he criticizes the Huntingtonian view of “clash of civilizations,” since it “ignores a rich history of mutual borrowings and continuous interactions among Christians, Jews, and Muslims” (10). When we wan to distinguish between terrorism and just war, the matters are more complicated than are commonly supposed. While refuting Michael Walzer’s justification that “war is legal activity when it fulfils certain conditions” and his affirmation that international law “legitimizes certain types of violence and stigmatizes others” (16), Asad finds that the modern “war is a legally sanctioned concept, and the hateful killing perpetrated by unlicensed militants is not” (25). Thus, if the act of killing is legally sanctioned by the state, the only power which can punish and commit violence against civilians, it could be a just act of war. Furthermore, this justification is based on the assumption that “civilized nation,” democratic liberalism of the West, has the moral superiority over “uncivilized” opponents, terrorists. So Asad concludes the first chapter saying “it is not cruelty that matters in the distinction between terrorists and armies at war, still less the threat each poses entire ways of life, but their civilization status. What is really at stake is not a clash of civilization… but the fight of civilization against the uncivilized” (37-8).

In the second chapter, Asad looks into other theorists explaining the motives suicide attackers while asking if there is “a crucial difference between someone who kills in order to die and someone who dies in order to kill” (40). Although there are several explanations of it in terms of religion (sacrifice), psychoanalysis (death wish), and the like, he seems to focus on the relationship between violent politics and liberalism. According to Asad, “a conception of politics as the pursuit of war by other means…was born in that epoch [Renaissance], as the state gradually acquired exclusive power to wage war externally and to impose punishments internally” and “that violence…underlies liberal doctrine and practice today” (59). Following his reasoning, we come to the conclusion that “suicide bomber belongs in an important sense to a modern Western tradition of armed conflict for the defense of a free political community” (63).

Instead of asking the motive of suicide bombers, however, “why do people in the West react to verbal and visual representations of suicide bombing with professions of horror?” is the main question of the third chapter of this book. Why suicide bombing bring about horror, “a state of being that is felt” (68)? Asad seems to uncover the contradictory aspect of Western culture as well as horror through the historical and anthropological examinations (genealogical method). Following Mary Douglas, Georges Bataille, and several visual representations (photographs and films), he seems to find out that how horror is contradictory (ecstatic and painful) feeling and how the narrative of sacrifice and redemption, which can be traced from Christ’s indirect suicide, has been embedded in modern liberal democracies and its humanist and secularist ideology. Thus, “ironically, the idea of sacrificing individual life for the sake of national immortality in war as in peace has become quite familiar” (87-8).

Different from the title and the first impression of the book, this book is not about suicide bombing and terrorism. This book is a bitter critique of modern Western nations’ project of subject-body making (technologies of the self) by having a monopoly on violence and punishment (law) and by mobilizing their citizens into the violence against others. In a word, it is a critique of our modern subjectivity and ideology of liberal democracy which in itself cannot be distinguished from suicide terrorism, in that it “seeks to found or to defend a free political community with its own law” (92). 

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