Humane Terror, Sacrificial Horror: Suicide Bombing and Contemporary Global Politics

By Omar Sarwar

N104425_36424337_1008 Suicide bombing is one of the most passionately debated topics in academia, the government, and the intelligence community. The secondary literature on this subject has convincingly demonstrated that suicide bombing is sui generis in its historical contingency (rather than in its essence), that al-Qaeda’s practice of suicide bombing takes place in a globalized landscape which is at once moral and political, and that even the most murderous terrorists appropriate and objectify modern notions of humanity in describing their actions.

As part of my doctoral studies, I have written extensively about the the historiography of the global jihad movement. In the interest of conciseness, however, I present here a long overdue comparative review of what I believe to be the most provocative, controversial work on the global jihad, Faisal Devji’s The Terrorist in Search of Humanity: Militant Islam and Global Politics (2008), and Talal Asad’s On Suicide Bombing (2006). My hope is that this analysis will offer a starting point on this website for further discussion about the moral and political logic of jihadi violence.

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The greatest merit of Devji’s earlier work on the global jihad, Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity (2005), is its elucidation of al-Qaeda’s eclectic approach to Islamic theological and juridical traditions, the transnational and global horizons of its militancy, and its ambition to achieve globality by way of the media. In his latest monograph, Devji succeeds in affirming the existence of a global arena bereft of its own political institutions but within which al-Qaeda acquires force and legitimacy through its search for a politics that takes humanity as its object. Nonetheless, he fails to prove the ethical (or suprapolitical) sovereignty of suicide attacks, something crucial to the peculiarly modern coloration of the jihad.

Investigating the globalization and democratization of the jihad movement and the supremely ethical (as opposed to political) character of suicide bombings, Devji holds that al-Qaeda’s militants regard Muslim suffering as a humanitarian cause that, “like climate change or nuclear proliferation, must be addressed globally or not at all.”[1] The search for humanity lies at the heart of militant action and those who profess allegiance to al-Qaeda invoke humanity as both the agent and object of an as yet unrealized global politics.[2] They believe that Muslims are not members of a religious group but “the contemporary representatives of human suffering.”[3] Thus, Devji argues, al-Qaeda’s militants target their enemies not for maintaining heathen religious beliefs or atheistic secular convictions, but for “betraying their own vision of a world subject to human rights.”[4] Claims about humanity are far more central to militant rhetoric than the scriptural material whose medieval exoticism has preoccupied so many of those studying the global jihad movement.[5]

Terrorists have assumed humanity’s historical role, which in the past was part and parcel of the civilizing mission of European colonialism.

Citing the writings of philosopher Hannah Arendt, Devji traces the birth of the globe to the Cold War, which introduced “the technology of destruction and abandonment for the first time by undoing the particularity of its own origins.” [6] And so it was humankind, not the United States, which became the real agent of global events like the unleashing of the atomic bomb and the landing on the moon. Indeed, the Cold War represents the beginnings of globalization and, in particular, gives ballast to “new forms of militancy by making the Muslim community into a global reality for the first time along with the humanity it represents.”[7] The Muslim community, or umma, has undergone a transformation in the weltanschauung of the jihadi militant. The umma, shorn of its traditional theological constraints, comes to stand in for humanity and thereby forges alliances with all human beings “who are no longer asked simply to convert to Islam, but rather identify with Muslim suffering to achieve their own potential humanity.”[8]

Devji proceeds to extend his earlier argument about the nature of the relationship established between al-Qaeda and its enemies, contending in this work that Muslim militants exhibit a perverse humanity “by addressing their victims in the language of intimacy, reciprocity, and equivalence.”[9] Thus, Bin Laden often treats his own militancy as the obverse of the violence practiced by the West. Devji then grapples with the question of global responsibility for militant acts. Rather than trying to locate responsibility for attacks in the exotic otherness of militants, so Devji advises, “it should be found in the unremarkable and ordinary aspects of their existence.”[10] It is in the banality of quotidian life that global responsibility can be situated.

Devji rightly points out that political experts and journalists today mistakenly confine intellectual genealogies of al-Qaeda to the Middle East, laying emphasis on Bin Laden’s Arabness and neglecting his location outside the Arab world.[11] Bin Laden’s invocations of Arabia and Arabness scarcely prove that these categories are hallmarks of an exclusively Middle Eastern debate. On the contrary, his “deployment of the category … is … global in its separation from any ethno-linguistic particularity.”[12] Bin Laden’s fixates on the Arabian Peninsula not as part of the Middle East, but as part of a sacred Islamic geography that nevertheless disregards descent from the Prophet Muhammad and tribal affiliation.[13] The product of a modern religious imaginary, then, Arabness becomes polysemic in the global jihad’s reconfiguration of the history and geography of the Middle East.

Crucial to Devji’s position is the distinction between political rationality, political instrumentality, and political institutionality, on the one hand, and the ethical, the suprapolitical, the sovereign, the conceptual, the sacrificial, the existential, and the epistemological, on the other. He implies that environmental and pacifist movements today can only envision a global politics of the future using the vocabulary of sacrifice. Since Muslim militancy has arisen in the wake of such movements, “[it] derives much of its rhetorical charge by partaking of their effects.”[14] Adverting to the writings of philosopher Karl Jaspers, Devji maintains that sacrifice, though not political in any normative sense, “serves as an invitation to a politics of the future.”[15] For Jaspers, as for Devji, Gandhi is the principal exponent of modernity’s sacrificial logic, even though his practice of it predated the Cold War. This logic, so Jaspers suggests, is suprapolitical because it is purposefully withdrawn from institutional politics and therefore also from political rationality.[16] Gandhian sacrifice was not only disinterested, but also outside “the chain of cause and effect that binds all political calculation” and stripped of all instrumentality.[17] It was the suffering of Gandhi’s body which became the focal point of an ethical investment by his followers and the condition for the possibility of a transformation in politics (from Crown rule to independence). Al-Qaeda militants uphold precisely this suprapolitical deployment of sacrifice; both Gandhi and Bin Laden are willing to die for their principles. Despite his insistence on non-violent action, Gandhi asked that a million innocent lives be given to achieve India’s freedom.[18]

Devji addresses the difference between Bin Laden’s violent tactics and Gandhi’s nonviolent ones by throwing light on the latter’s theology of good and evil. For the Mahatma, evil itself rested on goodness because it could only be made possible by the virtues of selfless loyalty and altruistic sacrifice. Since it was goodness that lent power to evil, virtue consisted in renouncing support for it. This is precisely why, Devji says, Gandhi claimed to understand if not endorse terrorist practices of sacrifice, which he sought merely to divert to nonviolent ends.[19] Gandhi abominated the violent practices of terrorists in colonial India at the same time he lauded their bravery, loyalty, and readiness to sacrifice their lives for the sake of swaraj. Their sacrifice was at once religious and perverted.

This brings me to the issue of whether political instrumentality is preserved or negated by the sovereign Gandhian acts of sacrifice supposedly undertaken by al-Qaeda militants. According to Devji, the Mahatma valorized killing oneself for a just cause because “sacrificing one’s life could not in fact be an instrumental act and was thus thrown back upon itself to become not a means so much as an end unto itself.”[20] But the purpose of his sacrifice, which he mobilized against the British, “was to lay claim to the noblest of human virtues … and so provoke the collapse or conversion of those who were bent on violence.”[21] The contradiction in Devji’s reasoning is plain: Gandhian sacrificial acts can’t efface political instrumentality (and become suprapolitical) in the way he suggests because the collapse or conversion of the British colonial government in India is an end to which sacrifice becomes politically instrumental. Even in his concluding chapter, Devji is unable to decide whether sacrificial acts are genuinely suprapolitical (because free of all political instrumentality) or subtended by political rationality. Responding to the horrors of the Holocaust and the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Gandhi acknowledged the possibility of his moral vision being relegated to the quotidian or to conventional war.[22] He thus endeavored to “cut sacrifice loose from all instrumentality and value it for its own sake, as a practice of sovereignty depending on itself alone.”[23] Asked by a journalist how he would meet the atomic bomb with nonviolence, Gandhi said that the only appropriate response was prayerful action. The Japanese residents of these cities should have offered themselves as targets to the American bombers in lieu of taking shelter or escaping death. In this way they would have been able to give their killers the promise of redemption. It was only by remaining victims that the Japanese who attempted to flee the scene of destruction relinquished their moral agency and denied it to their enemies.[24] So Gandhi said that if the Japanese had died with this prayerful action, then the war would not have ended as disgracefully as it did. Their sacrifice would therefore have been morally instrumental to the redemption of the pilot and politically instrumental to the termination of the war in a more peaceful manner. Thus, even the most heroic act of sacrifice by the Japanese would necessarily have violated its own sovereignty.

The separation of the ethical or suprapolitical from the political which Devji takes as unproblematic poses serious consequences for his stance on the militant’s conception of the caliphate and suicidal acts of sacrifice. He writes of the individuation of duty among militants, proposing that they “jettison Islamic law itself as a political model” and claim “territory only in the abstract terms of the global caliphate.”[25] Indeed, Devji’s is a perplexing understanding of the militant’s vision of the caliphate. He claims that al-Qaeda “offers no real criticism of existing conditions (apart from inveighing against them) and possesses no alternative to take their place.”[26] Militants also lack a collective utopia; at best, they possess a vague and undefined notion of a global caliphate.[27] Moreover, they think of it in purely moral and conceptual terms rather than in a “politically instrumental way, since it serves as an idea that delegitimizes an international order they consider to be merely the result of European conquest and colonization.”[28] They refuse to “locate the caliphate territorially let alone to plan for its establishment.”[29] And it remains “a mere name among [militants], possessing neither theological nor political substance.”[30]

However, even a cursory survey of speeches and interviews by al-Qaeda’s leaders demonstrates that, for them, the caliphate has both geographic specificity as well as theological and political content. That their conception of the caliphate is not as substantive as the historical institution which it emulates and seeks to resuscitate is by no means proof of its entirely abstract nature. For instance, in February 2005, al-Zawahiri stated in a videotaped speech broadcast on Al-Jazeera that the Islamic nation (an emirate) is a precursor to the caliphate.[31] The nation can only be brought into existence after the Crusader forces have been expelled from Muslim lands. It implements the shari’a, which calls for an independent religious legal system, whose rulings are binding on all who reside within its territorial jurisdiction. Moreover, the basic principle of promoting virtue and eliminating vice is a Qur’anic injunction that was honored in the earliest Islamic caliphate. So al-Qaeda’s idea of the caliphate not only contains both theological and political content, but also takes as foundational the system of Islamic law known as shari’a. Later, in July 2005, al-Zawahiri wrote in a letter to al-Zarqawi that al-Qaeda must take several steps for the caliphate to be established properly in the heart of the Islamic world.[32] First, the jihadis must remove American forces from Iraq. Secondly, they ought to establish an Islamic authority or emirate which can subsequently be extended geographically to form a caliphate, beginning in the evacuated Sunni areas of Iraq. The expulsion of American troops is the condition for the possibility of any form of Islamic authority in the region. Not only do foreign infidel forces pose a serious threat to the political integrity of this state, but so too do the secular Ba’athists who had dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s regime. Finally, the removal of foreign troops alone will not suffice; the mujahideen must continue in the struggle to create an Islamic state which serves as the template for the caliphate. Devji cites and interprets the meaning of this letter, but curiously dismisses this section as an admission on the part of al-Zawahiri that his plans for establishing a global caliphate are “purely a personal opinion.”[33] Although it is true that al-Zawahiri admits to the fallibility of his recommendations, it doesn’t follow from this that he regards his own scheme as insignificant or purely speculative. Indeed, al-Zawahiri reminds al-Zarqawi that their battle to establish a caliphate is extremely important. So, contrary to Devji’s claim that al-Qaeda’s caliphate has neither name nor form, a closer reading of their pronouncements reveals that the organization’s leadership advocates the establishment of the caliphate and envisions its political moorings in the heartland of Islam. This caliphate wields moral and political authority through an independent judicial system grounded in the principles of Islam.

The ethical/political binary dissolves upon closer examination of al-Qaeda’s letters and speeches, leaving the reader with the impression that Devji’s argument about the global character of the jihad is so uncompromising that it forbids any concession to geographic and political particularities. His case also tends to overstate the importance of al-Qaeda’s practice of imploring its enemies to adhere to their own moral principles. Devji explores the statements of the American convert to Islam and al-Qaeda operative, Adam Gadahn, suggesting not only that Gadahn’s indictment of American intervention in Iraq is symptomatic of an obsession with the theme of hypocrisy in militant rhetoric, but also that “the language of hypocrisy is an acknowledgement of epistemological as well as existential pluralism.”[34] That is, the militant is only permitted to judge others according to the principles they espouse, such that their moral ultimatum to the enemy is “for people to be true to themselves.”[35] So Devji writes that “in the absence of a global politics Zawahiri could not rely upon any universal criterion … and so appealed only to the integrity of American principles.”[36]

Devji is right to point out al-Qaeda’s frequent condemnation of American hypocrisy, but there is nothing exclusively American about al-Zawahiri’s moral demands. In lieu of treating Muslims as the spoils of war, the United States ought to treat Muslims with dignity, based on mutual interests, and without aggression. Al-Zawahiri appears, then, to be telling the Americans to act according to principles that they share with the Muslims they’ve deemed fit to maim and kill. What is more, Gadahn shows no respect for American principles at all.[37] In Gadahn’s view, democracy is not a guarantee of freedom, Christianity is utter falsehood, and Zionist-Crusader missionaries and foot soldiers have an opportunity to repent and convert to Islam before they meet their dismal fate. Having impugned Christianity and democracy, a militant like Gadahn can’t possibly ask Americans to be true to themselves or to act on the principles they revere. Rather, he insists, they must renounce their unbelief and enter into the light of Islam. To be sure, Devji convinces the reader of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s appeal to human rights during his trial in Guantanamo Bay in March 2007. A more judicious reading of these leaders’ statements might simply have acknowledged the multiplicity of opinions among the leaders of al-Qaeda on the question of staying true to one’s principles.

Despite its theoretical failings and selective use of evidence, Devji’s oeuvre leaves the reader to contemplate some interesting questions about the ways in which humanity and death might be interlaced for some militant Muslims. Asad’s lectures on suicide bombing, much like Devji’s writings, attempt to unpack modern assumptions about dying and killing. His argument, put simply, is that the production of terror and the infliction of atrocities are “aspects of militant action in the unequal world we inhabit, of our notions of what is cruel and what is necessary, and of the emotions with which we justify or condemn particular acts of death dealing.”[38] I do not have the space here to swell on the entirety of Asad’s case, but I want to put it in conversation with Devji’s in the hope that a comparison will clarify the significance of the themes of modern liberalism, violence, globalization, humanity, capitalism, sacrifice, and the individual to the scholarship on suicide militancy.

Both Devji and Asad implicitly agree that suicide bombing is ultimately a modern phenomenon. For the former, the Muslim militant’s concern for humanity, his ardor for sacrifice, and his commitment to an abstract caliphate are all in different ways linked to the emergence of the globe during the Cold War, the proliferation of the mass media, and the limitations imposed by the modern nation-state. Asad, however, makes the more striking claim that the suicide militant belongs to “a modern Western tradition of armed conflict for the defense of a free political community: To save the nation … in confronting a dangerous enemy, it may necessary to act without being bound by ordinary moral constraints.”[39] He arrives at this conclusion through a reflection on the relation between violence and liberal doctrine. Violence, he argues, founds the law of a liberal nation-state at the same time it founds the political community. The state appropriates the right to kill, “the right to behave in violent ways toward other people—especially toward citizens of foreign states at war and toward the uncivilized, whose very existence is a threat to civilized order.”[40] Since the modern sovereign state has an absolute right to defend itself (including with the use of nuclear weapons), suicidal war with catastrophic global repercussions remains an undeniable possibility in the liberal world.

Thus, Asad finds that violence is globalized and made productive of a distinctively modern rationale for armed conflict in which the absolute right to protect oneself by force permits the freedom to exercise violence on a global scale. When social difference and backwardness present a threat to civilized society “self-defense calls for a project of reordering the world in which the rules of civilized warfare cannot be allowed to stand in the way.”[41] In other words, when protecting oneself from the uncivilized, the civilized feel entitled to employ uncivilized methods of warfare. The right to such self-defense is entangled with a liberal project of universal redemption: some humans must be treated violently so that humanity can be redeemed.[42] And since they can also protect themselves with nuclear weapons, liberal democratic states corroborate the legitimacy of suicidal war. If Devji familiarizes us with the equivalence of the suicide militants and their enemies in their presuppositions about the relationship between humanity and violence to infrastructure, then Asad brings to the fore their parity in their assumptions about the nexus between redemption and violence to humanity.

Both scholars agree that the nation-state is the originary historical locus of liberalism; for Devji, as a political body, and for Asad, as a political community. They concur that liberal democratic states have historically come to acquire their coercive powers in a global context. That is, the responses of these states to perceived problems and crises on a global scale involve the use of violence at home (in Devji’s theory with the reduction of freedoms in the name of biological security and an impoverished because only legal conception of tolerance) and abroad (in Asad’s account with the reordering of the world to eradicate the cultural backwardness that is seen to imperil civilization itself). Both theorists therefore also interrogate the liberal assumption that the problem of violence is radically separate from the problem of politics and that “the primary task of the state [is] to exclude violence from the arena of politics and confine it to the domain of war.”[43]

Lecturing two years before Devji’s most recent book was published, Asad observed that terrorists often converse in the language of necessity and humanity. The Red Brigades in 1970s Italy, for instance, imitated the judicial authority of the state and its use of violence, accusing kidnapped victims of crimes against the people and then executing them. Such acts, Asad says, not only transcend the limits of (state) law in the cause of revolutionary justice, “they do so by explicitly invoking a wider humanity.”[44] The Red Brigades believed that the prime minister’s execution was necessary to the welfare of Italian citizens and to the safeguarding of humanity. It is bewildering that Devji doesn’t make reference to Asad’s insight here to bolster his own case for the humanity in terrorism; indeed, he doesn’t cite Asad’s lectures at all.

Finally, both Devji and Asad diagnose the militant’s unwitting departure from Islamic theological and juridical tradition in their reformulation of jihad as an individuated sense of religious duty (fard al-‘ayn) and commitment to jurisprudence. As Asad cautions, such usages have not been supported by most Muslim jurists, “for the legal preconditions of jihad … must include both the presence of a genuine threat to Islam and the likelihood of success in opposing it.”[45] The heterodoxy, as it were, of this novel conceptualization of jihad is described by Devji as “an ungoverned and quite personal obligation.”[46] Like Asad, he recognizes that militants “fighting for a global Islam routinely uproot jihad from its classical status as a political obligation.”[47]

Nonetheless, the accounts of these two scholars collide with one another in grappling with questions concerning motivation and sacrifice. Devji says that the suicide bomber’s violence consists in a suprapolitical sacrificial act, which seeks humanity in the universal condition of death, not in life. But Asad reminds us that shahada is only contingently related to sacrifice. He would also object to Devji’s theorizing of Muslim militant sacrifice in Christian and post-Christian language which jihadis themselves rarely, if ever, speak. Devji’s argument is impaired, so Asad might assert, by “the claim that since sacrifice is the essence of religious subjectivity, violence is integral to it.”[48] Moreover, in the Islamic tradition, the concept of witness or martyr (shahid) and the concept of sacrifice (dahiyya) have a complex, if contingent, relationship. Devji, who negligently collapses sacrifice into martyrdom, fails to notice this contingency.

Asad tells us that it isn’t uncommon for all civilians who die in a political conflict to be esteemed as shuhada (plural of shahid). To connect shahada in some essential way to the ritual of sacrifice—to see it as a form of sacrifice, as Devji does—is to neglect this broader category of deceased people. Thus, for instance, the violent death of all Palestinians “in confrontation with Israelis … is regarded as a sign that they have died as witnesses (shuhada) to their faith—although there is no ritualized form to most of these deaths.”[49] Consequently, Asad suggests, “the shahid’s death constitutes a triumph rather than a sacrifice.”[50] Indeed, the Islamic tradition has posited numerous ways of dying as shuhada that have nothing to do with war. Dying in defense of one’s possessions, perishing far from one’s home, falling to one’s death from a high mountain, and being completely dismembered by wild beasts are all ways in which a believer can earn the title of shahid.[51] That one can achieve this privileged status through obliteration by an external force means that motives, which are vital to the suprapolitical sacrifices Devji describes, are not necessarily tied to shahada. Any believer who dies in an untimely way and not owing to legitimate punishment deserves an honorary status. The believer who dies in an allegedly justified war (actively or passively) fits these criteria, but she can become a shahid even if she never witnesses a single war in her life. Thus, Asad rightly suspects, to conceive of suicide bombing as sacrifice is to endue it with a meaning that is related not to Islam but to a Christian and post-Christian tradition.[52]

In the end, although Devji is correct to say that some Muslim militants disavow the liberal assumption that life remains the limit of humanity, he fails to convince the reader that sacrifice (as understood in any tradition) is requisite to their invocation and objectification of humanity.

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I welcome the readers’ comments on this essay and wish to solicit your thoughts on the global jihad and the phenomenon of suicide militancy more generally.

Omar Sarwar is a doctoral student in History at Columbia University, where he is specialising in International and Global History. His interests include political Islam, anticolonial nationalism, music, and acting. He lives in New York City.


[1] Faisal Devji, The Terrorist in Search of Humanity: Militant Islam and Global Politics (Columbia University Press: New York, 2008), p. 6.

[2] Ibid., pp. 6—7.

[3] Ibid., p. 7.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., p. 12.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., p. 30.

[9] Ibid., p. 45.

[10] Ibid., p. 75.

[11] Ibid., p. 104.

[12] Ibid., p. 107.

[13] Ibid., p. 108.

[14] Ibid., p. 18.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., pp. 18, 218.

[18] Ibid., pp. 19—20.

[19] Ibid., p. 21.

[20] Ibid., p. 47.

[21] Ibid., p. 48.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., pp. 3—4.

[26] Ibid., p. 46.

[27] Ibid., p. 78.

[28] Ibid., p. 98.

[29] Ibid., p. 111.

[30] Ibid., p. 98.

[31] “Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri on Al-Jazeera,” Middle East Media Research Institute, Special Dispatch Series, no. 950, August 4th, 2005 <http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/1431.htm>, p. 3.

[32] “Letter to from al-Zawahiri to al-Zarqawi,” GlobalSecurity.Org, Homeland Security, Library, Report, July 9th, 2005 <http://www.globalsecurity.org/security/library/report/2005/zawahiri-zarqawi-letter_9jul2005.htm>, pp. 6—7.

[33] Devji, The Terrorist in Search of Humanity, p. 78.

[34] Ibid., p. 83.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid., p. 84.

[37] “Al-Qaeda Operative Adam Gadahn, aka ‘Azzam the American,’” Middle East Media Research Institute, Special Dispatch Series, no. 1281, September 6th, 2006 <http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/1867.htm>, pp. 2—4.

[38] Talal Asad, On Suicide Bombing (Columbia University Press: New York, 2007), p. 2.

[39] Ibid., p. 63.

[40] Ibid., p. 59.

[41] Ibid., p. 62.

[42] Ibid., pp. 62—63.

[43] Ibid., p. 17.

[44] Ibid., p. 21.

[45] Ibid., p. 12.

[46] Devji, The Terrorist in Search of Humanity, p. 78.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Asad, On Suicide Bombing, p. 43.

[49] Ibid., p. 49.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid., p. 51.

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