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retread| “Bombing Without Moonlight” I: Outline 29 July 2006

Posted by EDITOR in ABD, Philosophy, Politics, Reviews.

Retreads are quality posts from yesterweeks that are given a second run on Saturdays. This piece was originally posted by ABD on 26 November 2005.

This is a summary and outline of “Bombing Without Moonlight”, an Oct 2004 article by Abdal-Hakim Murad (TJ Winter) on the theoretical backdrop of suicidal terrorism. Once I’ve outlined its main points, I want to proceed to some questions and comments (in a separate post).

For the sake of clarity, I am writing between the lines on several occasions here…


We live in the moment, and forget the lessons of the past. Contrary to popular impression, suicidal militancy neither begins in nor belongs to the Islamic tradition. As the logical extreme of contemporary Islamist politics, it is a thoroughly modern phenomenon and has a rich lineage in Western thought itself. By the same token, traditional religion provides a more effective antidote to this phenomenon than do the primary Western combatants in the ‘war of ideas.’ The first of these, neoconservative belligerence, is a veiled anti-Semitism (now directed against Muslims) that shares the dualistic worldview of Islamism. The second of these, (post)modern liberalism, cannot offer a code of ethics that categorically rejects suicidal militancy. Since it has no defense for why human beings are ends in themselves, the ethical is suspended when push comes to shove, and human beings become soft targets in the game of war. The theoretical backdrop of suicidal militancy is therefore a quarrel between the Enlightenment (represented by liberals) and its stepchildren (conservatives and Islamists). The only way out of this mess is an appropriately pluralist, tolerant and intellectual form of traditional religion.

I. Amnesia

1. We live in an era of “occasionalism”, where the demands of the present crowd out the past (and thereby the continuity of tradition). This is “cemented” (caused? accompanied? exacerbated?) by trends in philosophy (postmodernism), economics (late capitalism), popular culture (Hollywood) and science (physics and neurology). In different ways, all of these trends erode human identity and dignity.

2. Journalism is the dominant form of discourse in such a culture, and it distorts the popular view of religion. The soundbytes that make it through are either the news of the moment, scriptural excerpts shorn of context, or the ways in which religion conflicts with modern (secular) beliefs.

3. In this “frankly primitive condition,” one might think that history has come to an end–i.e., that we have consensus or closure on the fundamental questions that used to generate conflict. The (violent) resurgence of religion therefore comes as a surprise.

4. Suicidal militancy is nevertheless disconnected from religious tradition, and is in fact thoroughly (post?)modern. Fundamentalists (whether Muslim or their Christian critics) represent a reaction to the postmodern crisis of identity, but are as much a product of their environment.

II. Sunna Contra Gentiles
(a play on St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles)

1. Insofar as identity construction requires an Other, we are falling back into the anti-Semitism that has traditionally defined the Christian view of Judaism. In Western eyes, Muslims are the new Jews.

2. Protagonists on both sides have adopted a dualistic worldview in which you are with us or against us. This colors politics, theology, intra- and interfaith relations. In the Muslim case, it applies to both the politics of those inspired by Syed Qutb and the religion of those inspired by Ibn Taymiyyah.

3. Islamists recognize that the autocratic Muslim regimes they oppose are thoroughly modern, secular client states of an American hegemon. (What they don’t recognize is that) they themselves are modern too. They are not rooted in the Islamic tradition, and view it “as so much deadwood.” Western-educated and modern in their outlook, they take both their spiritual and material “armament” from modernity. They seek to replace one hegemony with another.

4. We cannot respond to Islamism through violent reprisals by the West, but rather a counter-reformation from traditional Islam. Sunni Islam has classically adopted a cosmopolitan stance towards differences within and outside the faith. Following this line, classically trained ulama have been more conciliatory toward colonial rule, and “insurrectionism” has been the exception rather than the rule.

III. Jus in Bello
(international legal term for rules of war; literally, “just in war”)

1. The West is insufficiently equipped to win the war of ideas. Neither missionary zeal nor secular liberalism can remake the Islamists.

2. There is greater historical evidence in the Christian tradition than in the Islamic one for validating soft targets in conflict. The modern record includes Britain’s ‘terror bombing’ of German cities to sap civilian morale in WWII and America’s nuclear farewell to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

3. Secular liberalism suspends ethics in times of necessity. The English were unrepentant in targeting civilians, and the opposition from the Church was negligible (contrary to just war theory).

IV. Samson Terroristes
(a play on John Milton’s “Samson Agonistes”)

1. Nor are the origins of suicidal militancy very recent. Arab suicide bombers have Hindu, Buddhist and Shinto antecedents, whether or not Muslims acknowledge this lineage. The Western lineage is at least as colorful, and extends from pagan antiquity through early Jewish and Christian thought: Achilles, Ajax and Marcus Aurelius; Saul, Jonah, Job, Razis and, of course, Samson; the tradition of Christian martyrdom beginning with Jesus himself.

2. In contrast to Islam, where suicidal militancy is explicitly condemned by the tradition, this has been a “recurrent possibility of Europe’s heritage.” The glorification of suicide into modern times can be tracked by the representation of Samson as the archetypal suicide-hero–in Augustine, Aquinas, Milton, Wagner, Handel, the French composer Saint-Saens and the Zionist novelist Jabotinsky. In times of crisis, conventional restrictions are suspended and suicidal militancy enters stage right.

3. The contemporary Muslim penchant for conspiracy theories also has Western roots. This kind of thinking is “historically unusual for Muslims” and contrary to Islamic teachings. Indeed, Islam should make the calamities of this world appear small; it is almost giving Jews too much credit to blame everything on a Zionist conspiracy.

4. Impoverished of monotheism, secular politics succumb to instrumental reasoning, to the justification of unsavory means by utilitarian ends. The rage of Islamists betrays their resemblance to Nietzsche, Marx and company, insofar as they suspend ethical considerations in moments of crisis. Theists recognize, however, that the ethical is “needed most when most under strain.”

5. The political ideology and totalitarian ambitions of Islamists (e.g., Qutb and Mawdudi) are inspired by Western secular politics. They seek to collapse the productive tension between political and religious authority that was the heart of medieval Sunni politics. The resurgence of Islam that they represent is in fact an extension of the modern attack on (traditional) religion.

6. The failure of such an Islamism can be taken as a divine sign that it is a perversion of Islamic ideals.

V. Dies Irae (misnumbered VI. in the paper)
(Latin hymn; literally, “the day of wrath”)

1. The uncertainty of Islamism’s future can be compared to that of (Foucauldian) postmodernism. On the one hand, we might expect the zealotry of Islamic extremism to run its course and deflate from internal dissension. On the other, Islamism’s “porosity” to (susceptibility to? sustenance by? correlation with?) Enlightenment thought gives it a continuing appeal as long as the worst ills of modernity are apparent to its critics.

2. In the latter case, successful opposition will require no less than a restoration (reconstruction?) of traditional religion (in a form that is pluralistic, earth- and Other-friendly) that returns accountability and moral dignity to human beings. Indeed, self-judgment (i.e., a transcendent standpoint by which we can assess the moral permissibility of our actions) is the “greatest and most irreplaceable gift of the Abrahamic religions.”

3. (Returning to the opening theme of human identity), the philosophical debates surrounding genetic engineering remind us that liberalism has no solid notion of human self. The Kantian (=liberal) notion of the self is only coherent because it is a carry-over from the Christian concept of the soul (why else are we to be treated as moral beings in a way that nonhuman animals are not?). Jurgen Habermas (arguably the most significant Enlightenment thinker today and a successor of Kant) accepts this paternity but is nevertheless willing to extend liberal ethics into an age without religion.

4. John Gray (author of Al-Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern) takes the more pessimistic view that the possibility of a universal code of ethics ‘died with God’. He follows Schopenhauer (a critic of the Enlightenment) in this regard, who showed the emptiness of Kant’s position and stripped us of the illusion that human life is any more meaningful than animal life. But this takes us down the slippery slope that Martin Heidegger (Nazi philosopher) has already slipped on: in the face of spiritual alienation, we turn to the tribe. This confluence of science and (tribal) spirit leads to fascism.

5. As the points above suggest, the liberalism of the Enlightenment is a failed project. In opposing it, however, Islamism is vulnerable to the trajectory that Heidegger and the Nazis took. So are its most vehement critics–as can be seen by the rise of the far right across Europe. The most dangerous possibility ahead of us is a quarrel between these two stepchildren of the Enlightenment.

6. We need some other way out. (Post)modern liberalism is not equipped to combat suicidal militancy. Acknowledging liberalism’s debt to monotheism, we must restore (reconstruct?) traditional religion as the true antidote to the worst ills of our times. Only a vamped up tradition–pluralist, tolerant, and accountable before God–can save us from ourselves.

Note: The follow-up post to this piece, “Bombing Without Moonlight II: Background”, can be found here.



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