Thursday, April 12, 2012

Talal Asad: Vanishing The Enemy

Talal Asad's stunning On Suicide Bombing should be mandatory reading for any syllabus related to religion or ethics. Asad accuses the West of projecting its own fears or horrors onto suicide bombers and the Islamic community as a whole. By uncovering this tendency, he vanishes any notion of an enemy as being an external “other” and suggests we look into the mirror and see, that in the words of Pogo, “the enemy is us.”

Asad attempts to demystify suicide bombing by equating it with horrific acts perpetrated by Western liberal democracies. By elevating the question of war’s morality and reducing the uniqueness of suicide bombing, Asad creates a parallel sense of outrage. He levels the playing field and forces so-called liberal democracies to confront their hypocrisy.

(Jonathan Hobin, "The Twins")
One way he attempts this is by dismissing Western critiques of suicide bombing based on motivation, martyrdom and sacrifice. Motivation is ascribed, not expressed because the bomber has died. Sacrifice and martyrdom are only ways of marginalizing Islam as a death-cult when, in fact, it condemns the active pursuit of self-sacrifice as martyrdom.

Asad suggests the real answer for suicide bombing resides in the West’s own pursuit of its ceaseless wars, particularly the war on terror. Because suicide bombing is a form of self-defense and is thus the same as a preventive strike, we in the West have no cause to separate ourselves from the suicide bomber and his/her motives. Moreover, a suicide bomber, according to Asad, can actually be understood as a more courageous and moral actor because he takes his own life, rather than seeking to kill others while preserving it.

(Francis Bacon, "Fragment of a Crucifixion," 1950)
Asad also suggests horror provides the core revulsion of suicide bombing and attempts to explain its connection to the Crucifixion. The Crucifixion represents a paradox – a loving gift and an unjust suffering. According to Asad, “in Christian civilization, the gift of life for humanity is possible only through suicidal death; redemption is dependent on cruelty or the sin of disregarding human life."

That the West believes in punishment, the loss of this “ritual” in the act of the bombing erodes our sense of collective identity. It’s this undermining of identity, the specter of formlessness, that gives horror its power. Suicide bombing is the manifestation of these “horrors” in the Western psyche.

(“100 Cuts” from George Bataille's Les Larmes d'Éros)
The example of the Chinese “100 Cuts” photo that George Bataille famously celebrated, reveals an almost evangelical infatuation with pain that can lead to an abnormal privileging of suffering for religious or transfigurative reasons. Asad suggests that Christianity creates a perverse relationship with suffering that ultimately leads to a romantic justification of it, which then permits evil to be performed for morally justified outcomes.

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