Book Review: “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror” By Mahmood Mamdani

** this review was published by Columbia University’s Baraza Ijtihad on February 24th, 2013 ——

Written in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Mahmood  Mamdani’s 2005 Good Muslim, Bad Muslim historicizes the violence of terrorism. It extricates it from the narrow morality that arises from the convergence of ethics and national interest, and instead locates terrorism “first and foremost as unfinished business of the Cold War” (p. 13). “Good” and “bad” Muslims, terms borrowed from former US president George W. Bush (p. 15), are descriptions not of religious adherence, but of utility to U.S. foreign policy. As yesterday’s allies become today’s antagonists, the labels change to morally denigrate American foes.

Reintroducing history to the violence, the book begins by tracing the broad contours of the relationship between nation-state modernity and violence. Dr. Mamdani rejects violence as pre-modern or communal, asserting instead an inextricable relationship between violence and modernity (p. 5). This is the book’s central theoretical framework: violence is political, nmmamdaniot cultural.

Building on this history of violence and modernity, the first chapter offers an alternative account of political Islam. It exposes the caricatures of Muslims and Islam that are deployed to provide a moral veneer for expansionist imperialism. The subsequent three chapters offer a chronological account of the violence of U.S. imperialist policies, beginning with post-Vietnam American support for anti-nationalist militancies, and through the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Today’s terrorism, the book asserts, is a direct consequence of these policies. The final chapter of the book offers closing thoughts, exhorting a review of American policies that “consistently seem to erode support and generate opposition.” (p. 260)

The book’s push to retreat from moralized diatribe has unfortunately been as unheeded in the academy as it has in popular discourse. Instead of politically and historically engaged analyses of terrorism, academic inquiry has legitimized state policy more than it has sustained impartial investigation. The attacks of September 11th prompted and created an industry of ‘terrorism experts’, locating terrorism anywhere from the theological contours of Islam to structural poverty in Muslim-majority countries to their marked increase in youth population. Analytic methodologies are equally variant: comprador intellectuals (Dabashi 2011*) paint a picture “from inside the harem” (Razack, quoted in Maria 2009, p. 644), statistical models ascertain propensity to violence, and charlatan theologians perform textual dissection to pinpoint the sources of violence. This burgeoning literature owes less to intellectual inquiry than it does to the deluge of newly available funding (Greenwald*).

In a powerful critique of this conflation of power politics and analysis, Stampnitzky (2010), concurring with Dr. Mamdani, demonstrates that the term ‘terrorist’ has become a label ascribed to unwelcome actors, and that an intellectually under-defined and politically hyper-bound academic discipline has been constructed around the idea. Writing as early as the 1986, Eqbal Ahmad (Ahmad, p. 2) too underscored this intellectual laxity: “the contemporary environment is extremely inhospitable to reasoned discussion of terrorism, its forms, and the compulsions which produce them.”

Reduced to a pathology, terrorist violence is thus rendered a phenomenon as devoid of history and politics as a pernicious virus. Its eradication is to be found in economic alleviation or cultural renaissance, but not in a revision of political and power relations.

Contrary to this understanding of conflict dissociated from modernity, Dr. Mamdani sites the very genesis of political modernity in violence. The bloody expulsion of Jews and Muslims from 1492 Spain, and the contemporaneous conquest of Grenada, cemented a violent and racial dimension to the birth of modernity. The history of the modern state had two victims: “the internal victims of state building and the external victims of imperial expansion.” (p. 5) Just as race informed Spanish violence, European imperialism too centered race. And while war was a parameterized within imperial Europe, inhumane violence against the ‘uncivilized’ colonized peoples was explicitly sanctioned, for they “love fighting for fighting’s sake…They have no objection to being killed” (Hugo Trenchard, Marshal of the Royal Air Force, quoted in Headrick, p. 316). Thus, colonialization’s epistemological violence – the labeling of people as ‘uncivilized’ – sanctioned physical terror.

This overwhelming tendency to characterize violence as inherent to colonized peoples continues to prevail today, and is deployed to legitimize neo-colonial wars. Malcom X’s 1964 Oxford debate provided prescient insight: “they use the press to appear that the area that they are about to invade is filled with savages, or filled with people who have gone berserk” (“Scribd”*). Chapter One, “Culture Talk”, unveils the role of such rhetoric in creating a Muslim figure for America’s mission civilisatrice that provides a moral patina to imperial politics. It begins with the ascription of modernity exclusively to the Western tradition, leaving other traditions with no claim to civilization. Thus, those in assent with the West are found to be modern, and those in disagreement said to be lacking modernity. The elision of modernity and pacifism allows those marked as non-modern to also be found inherently violent. This additionally sanitizes the role of imperial politics in creating that violence, identifying instead the culture of the ‘uncivilized’ as the driver of this violence. Today, Muslim cultural proclivity to violence is often presented to imperial audiences as embodied in the notion of ‘jihad’.

It would be inaccurate to suggest that a martial concept of jihad was absent in Islamic intellectual tradition prior to the spread of modern-day terrorism. In an excellent chronology of the changing concept of jihad in the geographical epicenter of contemporary terrorist conflict, South and Central Asia, historian Ayesha Jalal describes some notions of jihad as supportive of militarism (Jalal). Yet despite the presence of this concept, militant Islamic movements historically remained marginal. It then becomes pertinent to inquire, as Dr. Mamdani does, “How did a political ideology become a violent force?” (p. 15).

Dr. Mamdani finds the answer in President Reagan’s rollback initiative, a plan to use pan-Islamist militarism to drive the Soviets back to the borders of their empire. Nowhere did this project find more gusto than in Afghanistan, where neighboring Pakistan had long courted imperial interventionism to shore up its regional primacy. General Zia’s repressive junta of the 1980s, with its anti-communist Islamism, presented an adroit and eager conduit for American arms and pan-Islamist ideology.

Replacing the socialist government of Zulfiqar Bhutto, Zia’s regime found quick favor with a Reagan administration intellectually informed by Jeanne Kirkpatrik theory of benevolent right wing dictatorships (Mamdani, p. 100). Grade-school textbooks exhorting militant jihad were published by USAID in dusty Nevada universities and sent to chilly Nowshera madressas as recently as 1994 (Mamdani, p. 137), while American weapons landing in Karachi were dispatched through the historic Khyber Pass to Kabul. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s ISI diligently provided recruitment facilities and training. The result was “to flood the region not only with all kinds of weapons but also the most radical Islamist recruits.” (Mamdani, p. 126)

If Islamist terrorism’s “cancer is in Pakistan” (Obama, quoted in Woodward 2011, p. 302), culpability for the malady is undeniably collective. “The Afghan jihad had a deeper effect on the Pakistani state and society than it did on any other country” (Mamdani, p. 149), and “it became clear that even if the Afghan jihad was over, its effects on Pakistani society were not.” (Mamdani, p. 153) An efficacious proxy for American’s pernicious Afghan war, the domestic repression of Zia’s regime expunged progressive politics from the Pakistani polity. In her detailed recounting of the marginalization of Pakistan’s left, sociologist Saadia Toor (Toor*) traces the deep relationship between the Pakistani religious right and the CIA that has rendered a country where “religion or its opposite is constantly being rammed down [Pakistani] throats”(Zaman, p. 189).

Despite widespread condemnation of this nefarious historical US-Pakistani nexus, it continues today in the country’s acquiesce to American drones and USAID’s continuing social reorganization project. The universalist pretenses of Islamism have been substituted for those of liberalism; indeed, in the wake of the tragic attack on Malala Youselfzai, posters proclaiming “Drones Kill So Malala Can Live” were seen around Pakistan. Similarly, the rhetoric of violent non-modernity continues to animate the project of bringing pacifism to ‘Af-Pak’ by introducing “modernity” to communities, and USAID funnels roughly 5 billion dollars to the region a year.

A discussion of the tragedy of September 11th that eschews an equitable reorganization of global politics for reclusion into narratives of self-righteous moralism that divorce politics from violence and history cannot transition us to a more peaceful world. As long as violence is ascribed inherent to some, subsequent, reciprocal, violence shall remain endemic to global politics. Dr. Mamdani quotes Franz Fanon: “He of whom they never stopped saying that the only language that he understands is that of force, decides to give utterance by force.” (p. 9).

Equally eloquently, Dr. Muppidi describes this phenomenon from the perspective of those who are subject to America’s messianic imperialism: “[c]easelessly rescuing one from the other, the coolie from the rag-head, the animal-salve from the slaver-object, the good Muslim from the bad one… but without ever setting any of us free” (Muppidi, p. 17).

Any analysis of terrorism must locate its genesis in the historic and continuing inequities of American foreign policy. Good Muslim Bad Muslim remains a timely reminder of this critical need.


Ahmad, Eqbal. “Comprehending Terror.” MERIP Middle East Report. 140.May-Jun. (1986): 2-5. Print.

Dabashi, Hamid. Brown Skin, White Masks (The Islamic Mediterranean). New York: Pluto Press, 2011. Print.

Greenwald, Glenn. “The sham “terrorism expert” industry.” Salon. 15 2012: n. page. Web. 2 Dec. 2012. <;.

Headrick, Daniel. Power over Peoples: Technology, Environments, and Western Imperialism, 1400 to the Present (Princeton Economic History of the Western World). Princeton: Princetion University Press, 2010. Print.

Jalal, Ayesha. Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010. Print.

Stampnitzky, Lisa. “Disciplining an Unruly Field: Terrorism Experts and Theories of Scientific/ Intellectual Production” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association Annual Meeting, Hilton San Francisco, San Francisco, CA, Aug 08, 2009 <Not Available>. 2012-06-20 <;

“Malcom X speech at the Oxford Union 3 December 1964.” Scribd. N.p.. Web. 2 Dec 2012. <;.

Mamdani, Mahmood. Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, America, The Cold War, And The Roots Of Terror. 1st ed. New York: Pantheon Books, 2005. Print.

Maria, Sunaina. “”Good” and “Bad” Muslim Citizens: Feminists, Terrorists, and U.S. Orientalisms.” Feminist Studies. 35.3 (2009): 631-656. Print.

Muppidi, Himadeep. The Colonial Signs of International Relations. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. Print.

Toor, Saadia. The State of Islam: Culture And Cold War Politics In Pakistan. New York: Pluto Press, 2011. Print.

Woodward, Bob. Obama’s Wars. Simon & Schuster, 2011. 316. Print.

Zaman, Taymiya. “Not Talking About Pakistan” Critical Muslim. 04 (2012): 189. Print.