Good Muslim, Bad Muslim – An African Perspective

Posted on March 14, 2008

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Mahmood Mamdani, Herbert Lehman Professor of Government and Anthropology, Columbia University

Ever since September 11, there has been a growing media interest in Islam. What is the link, many seem to ask, between Islam and terrorism? The Spectator, a British weekly, carried a lead article a few weeks ago that argued that the link was not with all of Islam, but with a very literal interpretation of it. This version, Wahhabi Islam, it warned, was dominant in Saudi Arabia, from where it had been exported both to Afghanistan and the US. This argument was echoed widely in many circles, more recently in the New York Times. This article is born of dissatisfaction with the new wisdom that we must tell apart the Good Muslim from the Bad Muslim.

Culture Talk

Is our world really divided into two, so that one part makes culture and the other is a prisoner of culture? Are there really two meanings of culture? Does culture stand for creativity, for what being human is all about, in one part of the world? But in the other part of the world, it stands for habit, for some kind of instinctive activity, whose rules are inscribed in early founding texts, usually religious, and museumized in early artifacts?

When I read of Islam in the papers these days, I often feel I am reading of museumized peoples. I feel I am reading of people who are said not to make culture, except at the beginning of creation, as some extraordinary, prophetic, act. After that, it seems they just conform to culture. Their culture seems to have no history, no politics, and no debates. It seems just to have petrified into a lifeless custom.

Even more, these people seem incapable of transforming their culture, the way they seem incapable of growing their own food. The implication is that their only salvation lies, as always, in philanthropy, in being saved from the outside.

When I read this, or something like this, I wonder if this world of ours is after all divided into two: on the one hand, savages who must be saved before they destroy us all and, on the other, the civilized whose burden it is to save all?

We are now told to give serious attention to culture. It is said that culture is now a matter of life and death.

But is it really true that people’s public behavior, specifically their political behavior, can be read from their religion? Could it be that a person who takes his or her religion literally is a potential terrorist? And only someone who thinks of the text as not literal, but as metaphorical or figurative, is better suited to civic life and the tolerance it calls for?

How, one may ask, does the literal reading of religious texts translate into hijacking, murder, and terrorism?

Some may object that I am presenting a caricature of what we read in the press. After all, is there not less and less talk of the clash of civilizations, and more and more talk of the clash inside civilizations? Is that not the point of the articles I referred to earlier, those in The Spectator and The New York Times? After all, we are now told to distinguish between good Muslims and bad Muslims. Mind you, not between good and bad persons, nor between criminals and civic citizens, who both happen to be Muslims, but between good Muslims and bad Muslims.

We are told that there is a fault line running through Islam, a line that divides moderate Islam, called genuine Islam, and extremist political Islam. The terrorists of September 11, we are told, did not just hijack planes; it is said that they also hijacked Islam, meaning genuine Islam!
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Please click here to read the remainder of this paper by Professor Mamdani. His excellent book, entitled “Good Muslims, Bad Muslims” can also be ordered by clicking here.

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