Book Review: Good Muslim – Bad Muslim- America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror by Mahmood Mamdani

The post 9/11 era has not only brought a new dimension to the world order but has also ignited a robust debate amongst intellectual and political circles about the identity of Muslims by drawing a line of distinction between Good Muslims and Bad Muslims. Good Muslims are normally described as those that have been westernized and are supportive of American policies whereas Bad Muslims are categorized as the fanatical bunch who are opposed to American objectives. This debate is also sketching the fault lines within Muslim communities worldwide as Muslims struggle to seek their identity as players in the modern world. Mahmood Mamdani, in his book Good Muslim-Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror, explains the roots of terrorism and America’s “War against Terrorism” (Mamdani, Location 2844) from political and religious perspectives by carefully examining through the lens of history. He suggests that embattling modern and premodern cultures and not the religions or democracy that forms the current fault between civilizations which also further divides the Muslims. His book gathers all possible evidence, sometimes not correct, to link the current Islamic terrorist movement with American political objectives.

Mamdani begins by elaborating the history and definition of violence from Western perspective. European political theorists like Max Weber recognized the state monopolized violence as political modernity which in turn was defined in terms of culture and violence. Spanish state-led violence in 1492 first against its Jewish population and then targeted at Muslims was considered important towards establishing a modern Christian Spanish state. Violence later conducted on the wings of racism and imperial objectives led to near decimation of Native Americans, Tasmanian natives, Maoris of New Zealand, Herero of German South West Africa, and later in recent history gassing of Russians and Jews by German Nazis. All violence, he suggests, “is unfortunate response to tragedy” while feeling “self-righteousness” (Mamdani, Location 154). Mamdani bases his book on cultural interpretation of politics, Culture Talk, and suggests a different way of thinking about political Islam. He claims that terrorism, especially Islamic terrorism is rather a recent phenomenon and the tragedy of 9/11 finds its roots into the Cold War.

While questioning the common assumption that every religiously entrenched political movement is potentially a terrorist movement, he makes distinction between ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘political’ Islamic movements. Historically, there has been a clear demarcation between the fundamental and political movements in Islam with later making the call for Muslims’ homeland in South Asia and in other Muslim countries. The foundations of current radical political Islamic movement were laid by political Islamists, Sayyid Qutb in Egypt and Mawdudi in the Sub-continent (Mamdani, Locations 680, 714, 771), who set out to form a ‘truly Islamic’ society by persuasion and coercion. Mamdani makes a clear distinction between cultural and political Islam with former emerging out of the Cold War. He suggests that terrorism is born of a political encounter and especially the current Islamic terrorist movement is born when American political ambitions met political Islam during the Cold War.

At the height of Cold War, America was fighting many proxy wars against Soviet Union around the world. Nixon Doctrine had “Asian boys” fighting “Asian wars” (Mamdani, Location 905, 2512) in Laos and Vietnam with much of the proxy war funded through illicit drugs trade under the umbrella of CIA and USAID. Like Asian wars which led to the CIA led training of thousands of mercenaries, U.S., according to Mamdani, embraced the mercenaries in Congo (1960) and Angola (1975) by providing them both funds and training. Under the umbrella of Safari Club, as U.S. felt on its back foot in Africa (Congo, Egypt, and Somalia) against Soviet Union, then Reagan administration’s CIA chief William J. Casey started seeking the support for  “terrorist and proterrorist movements from Renamo in Mozambique to Unita in Angola, and from contras in Nicaragua to the mujahedeen in Afghanistan”(Mamdani, Location 1235). By recognizing the fact that U.S. strategic interests may not be under threat in Europe but in the Third World, through “constructive engagement” (Mamdani, Locations 190, 1232, 1296, 1300) and “Low Intensity Conflicts”(Mamdani, Locations 186, 1246, 1252, 1342) , U.S. tried to turn the tide on the Soviets in Africa and elsewhere.

Reagan’s “rollback” Doctrine (Mamdani, Location 1351) which was aimed at reversing the American defeats in the Third World led U.S. to openly embrace terror in Nicaragua (Central America), invasion of Grenada (1983), and later organizing and conducting a robust guerilla operation in Afghanistan by training and supporting mujahedeen from all over the world. The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was a golden opportunity for the U.S. to give Soviets their own Vietnam. During the same year, the Iranian Revolution had given a bitter taste of nationalist Islam. Therefore, to avail the opportunity to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan, U.S. mustered active support from all over the Muslim world especially in the Middle East and Pakistan.  U.S. was ready to defeat Soviets in Afghanistan through armed insurgency for which radical Muslims were gathered from across and world and thousands were radicalized at madrassas in Pakistan. These mujahedeen were given training, weapons, and support at all levels through Pakistani intelligence agency ISI and through other governments. To fund this Low Intensity Conflict, once again U.S. relied on expanding the opium and drug production in the region. In 1985, President Reagan introduced a group of Afghan Mujahedeen leaders as “moral equivalents of American founding fathers” in the White House lawn  (Mamdani, Location 1454).

The CIA created Islamic Jihad, according to Mamdani, gave a new life of the teachings of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Mawdudi in the Sub-Continent. The Afghan war provided the necessary skills, confidence and weapons to a large number of radical Muslims who now had a political agenda i.e. rid Afghanistan of infidels, which after the Afghan war got transformed into the global agenda. Mamdani suggests that privatization of Afghan jihad was probably the vital mistake on U.S. part which led to the development of small fighting contingent without any supervision. Under this privatization, many Pakistani madrassas turned into military training camps and started graduating thousands of right-wing Islamic militants with a political agenda. These right-wing extremists later hijacked the movement at the end of Afghan War and started forming the basis of Al-Qaida, the base, with a goal of global jihad. Once the Afghan War was over, madrassas continued producing mujahedeen now under the new brand of Taliban which later controlled the ravaged and un-organized Afghanistan with brutality and savageness.

At the end of the Afghan War, the Afghan Mujahedeen from other countries later returned to their homelands but this time with terrorist training and ambition to bring down their respective “un-Islamic” governments and establish a truly Islamic state. Mamdani, however, suggests that there is a difference between Islamic terror and radical Islamism with later initiated against the imperial occupations of the 20th century and to help bring social reforms. Trained right-wing Islamic extremists, forming the ranks of terrorist activities, started organizing terrorist attacks in Islamic as well as western countries as we witness the tragedies in the Middle East and Africa and 9/11 in U.S.

9/11 also changed the rules of American engagement around the world. From low-intensity proxy wars United States quickly moved to high-intensity direct warfare as the world poured its support behind the U.S. “Regime Change”, and that became the new code word for extending American objectives around the world, according to Mamdani, which led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The spread of “democracy” through U.S. interventions also resulted in the spread of right-wing movements and terrorism. Mamdani states that, “the debate on terrorism revolves around two poles, the cultural and the political. Culture Talk seeks the explanation for a deed in the culture of the doer. In contrast, Political Talk tends to explain the deed as a response to issues, to a political context of unaddressed grievances”. (Mamdani, Location 3091) Terrorism can’t be dealt as a crime otherwise it won’t be a political problem, the writer states. U.S. policy of reconciliation between the rival groups including mending differences with terrorists changed after 9/11 as zero-tolerance policy against terrorists is installed by the Bush administration. Mamdani, controversially, equates U.S. and Al-Qaida ideologies as the outcome of the Cold War, highly ideological, self-righteous and power centric; where both parties are fighting terror with the means of terror.

Although many claims and suggestions by Mahmood Mamdani are questionable and controversial in his book, he makes a daring effort in explaining the roots of terrorism and the foundations of a Good and a Bad Muslim. Post 9/11 era has forced every Muslim to prove his/her innocence by choosing the pavilion of Good Muslims in comparison with the Muslims who chose the fundamentalist school of thought and were labeled as Bad Muslims. This burden of proof is heavy on the shoulders on all the Muslims especially in the presence of controversial U.S. foreign policies.

Note: All locations are cited from the Amazon’s Kindle version of the book

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