On Suicide Bombing (The Wellek Library Lectures) Reviews

On Suicide Bombing (The Wellek Library Lectures)

On Suicide Bombing (The Wellek Library Lectures)

Like many people in America and around the world, Talal Asad experienced the events of September 11, 2001, largely through the media and the emotional response of others. For many non-Muslims, “the suicide bomber” quickly became the icon of “an Islamic culture of death”—a conceptual leap that struck Asad as problematic. Is there a “religiously-motivated terrorism?” If so, how does it differ from other cruelties? What makes its motivation “religious”? Where does it stand in relation to other forms of collective violence?

Drawing on his extensive scholarship in the study of secular and religious traditions as well as his understanding of social, political, and anthropological theory and research, Asad questions Western assumptions regarding death and killing. He scrutinizes the idea of a “clash of civilizations,” the claim that “Islamic jihadism” is the essence of modern terror, and the arguments put forward by liberals to justify war in our time. He critically engages with a range of explanations of suicide terrorism, exploring many writers’ preoccupation with the motives of perpetrators. In conclusion, Asad examines our emotional response to suicide (including suicide terrorism) and the horror it invokes.

On Suicide Bombing is an original and provocative analysis critiquing the work of intellectuals from both the left and the right. Though fighting evil is an old concept, it has found new and disturbing expressions in our contemporary “war on terror.” For Asad, it is critical that we remain aware of the forces shaping the discourse surrounding this mode of violence, and by questioning our assumptions about morally good and morally evil ways of killing, he illuminates the fragile contradictions that are a part of our modern subjectivity.

(Summer 2007)

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3 Comments so far »

  1. Deborah "freespeechlover" said,

    Wrote on August 1, 2012 @ 3:07 am

    40 of 45 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    the best yet on the topic, July 19, 2007
    This review is from: On Suicide Bombing (The Wellek Library Lectures) (Hardcover)

    This book based on the Wellek lectures at U.C. Irvine is the best book on the topic of suicide bombings. As the other reviewer stated, it’s approach brings “depth” to the topic, especially an understanding of Islam and the Arabic language, both of which tend to be seen as insignificant not only in the mainstream press but also in academic circles. Asad demonstrates why cultural anthropology has contributions to make to a topic and a region dominated by political science with its biases in which meaning lies away from “the ground up” and for the people it presumes to represent.

    Some highlights that struck me–Asad’s point that suicide bombing is about histories and the fact that in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the history of Israeli expansion and Palestinian dispossession is always bracketed out, so that various kinds of political violence are abstracted from this political context. Another point he made is about the “West’s” own “culture of death.” I was very struck by his discussion of colonial and contemporary warfare waged by the West and the development of advanced weaponry designed to beat out at every turn surgical skill. Israel, prior to its departure from Lebanon last summer, left over cluster bombs AFTER the cessation of hostilities. There was no military point, no self-defense or security involved in that act. This act was aimed at a civilian population for no reason at all other than to maim and kill. The U.S. State Dept. “regrets” that Israel still hasn’t turned over the maps that show where the cluster bombs were dropped, so that they can be safely disarmed. This is part of a culture of death in which beheadings are seen as more cruel than the machinations of the West’s advanced weaponry, not because of any objective measure of “cruelty,” but because non-Europeans do it to Europeans and their descendents.

    The other point that Asad makes that I found profoundly intriguing was that in the West we impose a Christian understanding of martrydom–i.e.the crucifixion–onto public suicide bombings, but there is nothing redemptive about the suicide, so that leads Westerners to a problem in interpretation which we retreat from via righteous anger.

    Asad doesn’t try to pretend that the West is just obsessed with suicide bombings because of the media, although his quoting Mai Jayoussi on the I.D.F. figures which show that only 4% of attacks by Palestinians on Israelis are suicide bombings, was startling even to me, and I’ve lived and done research in the Occupied Territories. He takes on public suicides and shows how interpreting their meaning confounds assumptions in the West about the relationship between the state, the law, and public death.

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  2. R. Elghonimi said,

    Wrote on August 1, 2012 @ 3:17 am

    32 of 36 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    Looking for the real answers – ask the right questions, July 14, 2007
    By 
    R. Elghonimi (TX USA) –
    (REAL NAME)
      

    This review is from: On Suicide Bombing (The Wellek Library Lectures) (Hardcover)

    Rather than giving us more “imaginary” scenarios of what “might be going on in the mind of a terrorist” (as if modern torture methods or any other methods could definitively uncover intentions – a witch hunt mentality), Talal Asad is asking the right questions. What makes terrorism so terrifying that it has to be labeled distinctively – rather, than say, a gun-wielding student running amok at a university, killing 30+ people and then himself? Why does the topic of suicide bombing cause overwhelming horror over and beyond the scope of other horrific acts by state armies or school shootings – the disproportionate maiming and killing of civillians, women and children from far range by modern military weapons? The author doesn’t attempt to give simplistic answers and wave the problems away, nor does he apologetically defend any perpetrator of terror – individual dissident or modern government.

    What he does is uncover the disturbing truth that the double standard exists in our media and liberal democracy discussions: as soon as a modern government labels a dissident regime or country or religious group as “barbaric” or “uncivilized”, it gives itself the right to kill “their” citizens or attack “their” defenses just as it has been previously attacked. Where is the line crossed?

    Very deep reading. The author touches on Islamic and Christian culture and compares and contrasts what living and dying mean in each. This was one of its strongest aspects. Once the ideas of living, dying, and sacrifice are understood in terms of a particular culture, only then can its stance on suicide or bombing or terrorism be correctly understood. Do proponents of terrorism or suicide bombing abide by the tenets of their religion or is it a subversion of their teachings? Or does it even depend on their circumstances or our reading of it as a foreign culture with the necessary misinterpretations? It is a highly engaging book and covers many more relevant and related areas. I am glad it covers a side of the issues that is sorely missing and needed and has been missing from the contemporary media and intellectuals/academics who, as usual, are like a flock of sheep, saying about terrorism and the Islamic world just what everyone else does.

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  3. N. Jones said,

    Wrote on August 1, 2012 @ 3:59 am

    0 of 4 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    A scathing and powerful critique of the liberal consciousness., May 24, 2010
    By 
    N. Jones (MA, USA) –
    (REAL NAME)
      

    This review is from: On Suicide Bombing (The Wellek Library Lectures) (Hardcover)

    No book to date has so cleanly highlighted the insidious depth of the cruelty and violence on which contemporary liberalism stands. It forces us to consider, in earnest, is the form of suicide bombing even something which can be considered a product of anything but liberal politics (mind you, hearing this before reading the book may do some damage to its argument).

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