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

Hatred and discrimination against marginalized communities is a standard feature of imperial societies. From the history of institutionalized oppression endured by Black people under the US criminal “justice” system to the tide of racism faced by Latinos through unjust immigration laws (re: Arizona), those without institutional power are recognized primarily as threats to be contained, silenced, or liquidated. Among these maligned communities are Muslims. Routinely stereotyped as either “terrorists” or “terrorist sympathizers”, Muslims have been made the focus of a climate of fear has been forged by corporate and State power. This demonization has reached an ugly peak since the attacks on 9/11. Muslims are separated into moral categories of “good” and “bad”, “good” Muslims being those who accept the objectives of US domination and “bad” Muslims being those who resist.

Columbia University professor Mahmood Mamdani deconstructs this political characterization of religious identity in great detail in his study Good Muslims, Bad Muslims. Illustrating how the American mainstream has accepted a racially charged language of “culture talk”, Mamdani casts aside doctrinally convenient explanations of “their” terror in favor of examining the precipitating causes of global violence. Mamdani’s central thesis can be summarized most accurately by a memorable line in W.H. Auden’s September 1939: “Those to whom evil is done, do evil in return.” The “evil” done by the US is described in graphic detail in this book. President Ronald Reagan backed a homicidal terrorist campaign in South Africa, Mozambique, and Angola. In South Africa Reagan partnered with racist white nationalists in a policy of “constructive engagement”. The purpose of constructive engagement, according to Mamdani, was to “bring South Africa out of political isolation so as to better tap its military potential in the war against militant–and pro-Soviet–nationalism”.

One of the ways Reagan brought South Africa out of “political isolation” was to support South African aggression in Angola and tacitly embrace the apartheid regime’s alliance with the Mozambique terrorist organization Renamo. This crucial history is particularly poignant as President Obama hails Nelson Mandela as an inspiration while the compliant press politely keeps this record of US complicity in South African criminality, the criminality Mandela suffered under, in the margins. In addition to US depradations on the African continent, Mamdani also explores how the CIA supported drug traffickers from Central America to Afghanistan. In an effort to terminate the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, the Reagan administration embraced the Contra forces, a brutal terrorist group that murdered Nicaraguan civilians and trafficked drugs into the US, undoubtedly with Washington’s support. In fact, Mamdani cites a February 1982 Memorandum of Understanding from CIA Director William Casey to US Attorney General William French Smith. Remarkably, this MOU “exempted the CIA from reporting drug trafficking by its assets who were not formally CIA employees, such as ‘pilots who ferried supplies to the contras, as well as contra officials and others.'”

Participation of this kind in drug trafficking was mirrored in Afghanistan where the CIA was funding the mujahideen, a guerilla group deeply involved in the manufacture and distribution of heroin. During these same years in the 1980s “60% of US demand” for heroin came from Afghanistan’s poppy fields and “the number of drug related deaths in New York City rose by 77 percent.” Along with this US-backed terror in Central America and Central Asia, Mamdani explores the historical partnership between Israel and the US. While the US supplies military and legal support, the Israeli power elite commits massive war crimes with impunity, confiscates Palestinian territory, and sustains this colonial arrangement through doctrines of ethnic and religious supremacy. For example, Mamdani presciently describes the annexation wall, then under construction, that now snakes through Palestinian territory as  a construct that “will turn the Occupied Territories into a series of halfway houses between apartheid-style Bantustans and Nazi-style concentration camps.” Similar language is used in reference to the imposition of US sanctions on Iraq under the Clinton administration which he condemned as “nothing short of an officially sanctioned genocide, primarily of children, most under five.”

It is against this backdrop of US sponsored terrorism that Mamdani sees the utter absurdity of the US asserting moral superiority in situations global violence, especially those which deal with Muslims. He notes “to the extent that ‘culture’ becomes a code word for describing certain peoples by ascribing to them a set of unchanging attributes, it functions as a latterday counterpart to race talk.” Mamdani’s study bears sharp similarities to the work of Karim H. Karim, with his concept of “cognitive scripts”, and Edward Said in this respect. Eviscerating the empty “culture talk” of intellectuals like Samuel Huntington–a proponent of the Manichaean  and racist idea that there is a “clash of civilizations” between medieval, barbaric, pre-modern Islam and the modern, enlightened, and rational “West”–Mamdani urges his readers to “think of culture in terms that are both historical and non-territorial. Otherwise, one is harnessing cultural resources for very specific national and imperial political projects.”

More broadly, Mamdani examines American foreign policy as an avenue into understanding how the process of “othering” occurs in the US, the process of manipulating, slandering, or denying the identity of those power systems deem unacceptable or inimical to its aims. This is of particular significance as the US is engulfed in protests over the exoneration of George Zimmerman, the admitted killer of Trayvon Martin. Much like the corporate imagery of Muslims, the prevailing image of young Black men in the eyes of power–“criminal”, “thug”, “delinquent”, etc.–is one that invites hostility, the kind of hostility that motivates racists, vigilantes, and even Presidents to hunt down innocent people and murder them with such cruelty. The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement published a study that states a Black person in America is extrajudicially killed every 28 hours. It is for these reasons that Mamdani’s work is an indispensable contribution to the liberation of consciousness within the empire. Whether or not we meaningfully honor his contribution for what it’s worth will depend on not only how we think about these episodes of structural violence but, more importantly, in how we respond in terms of direct action to the injustices which horrify us with disturbing regularity.

President Obama responded to the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial by counseling Americans that “we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken”. Putting aside the uncontroversial fact that President Obama is a serial violator of international law, the substance of this statement can be understood more clearly through one of Mamdani’s incisive observations: “If to live by the rule of law is to belong to a common political community, then does not the selective application of the rule of law confirm a determination to relegate an entire section of humanity as conscripts of a civilization fit for collective punishment?” The exoneration of George Zimmerman is a dramatic example of the “selective application of the rule of law,” and young Black men like Trayvon Martin (and myself) have been reduced to “conscripts of a civilization fit for collective punishment.” The same can be said of the Nicaraguan civilians murdered by the Contra forces, Angolans, Afghans, and Palestinians who continue to languish under arguably the world’s most sadistic occupation in the Gaza Strip. If there is any realization about this extensive study that should resonate with readers more than others it’s that we should not be asking if those being systematically killed under the boot of an oppressive force are “good” or “bad”. This is largely of secondary importance. The fundamental question is do we accept the assumed inviolability and moral “goodness” of the oppressive power doing the killing. Rejecting this assumption about the goodness of power–the State’s monopoly on the use of force and violence– marks the beginning of a genuinely moral debate uncontaminated by the clichés of “culture talk”, a debate that is sorely needed in the wake of recent events.