On Suicide Bombing: Asad on Suicidal Civilization

In short, in Christian civilization, the gift of life for humanity is possible only through a suicidal death; redemption is dependent on cruelty or at least on the sin of disregarding human life. Talal Asad, On Suicide Bombing

For Asad, the crucifixion, as a kind of foundational image and inner-logic of Christian civilization, represents the overcoming of horror through the translation of death into sacrifice. Christ’s torture doesn’t leave us horrified but moves us from horror into a universal logic of human liberation and salvation through sacrifice. This cruciform foundation does not, as is often assumed, lead towards some kind of revolutionary nonviolence. Instead, it ushers in a civilization in which all sorts of violence are put to work–not only against others, but against the self–to usher in and secure this new form and existence of human life. The impulse to sacrifice the self for the sake of the others stands in contradiction to another impulse to sacrifice all life–self and others–for the sake of this higher, fuller life. The contradiction is not resolved, or is resolved in the form of a subject who incessantly struggles to resolve the contradiction (my previous posts can be seen as suggesting that pacifists and just warriors both operate within this struggle).

A popular cultural example would be the legendary Jack Bauer–a man who is tortured and tortures, who loses his family, willingly accepts his own death on multiple occasions, and ends the series escaping with his bare life, knowing that the very country he sacrificed himself to save will now turn its violence against him. He willingly risks the wrath of the law by violating the law–including violence against civilians–for the sake of the (civilian/civilized) life made possible by the law.

For Asad, the political point is clear. The “suicide bomber” is not a foreign, barbaric, uncivilized, inexplicable, archaic religious zealot. The suicide bomber produces such horror in Western democracy because they act specularly, exposing the horror of our own suicidal tendency as a project of civilization (the suicidal gift of life). To have rituals to assimilate their actions–to grieve the losses–would require accepting the way our own sacrifices for life–for democracy, civilization, Christianity–have terrorized whole populations.

Perhaps, and here I’m just speculating as I’m still thinking through the implications of Asad’s book, what is needed is a politics that aims to secure the means to live a meaningless life. Avoiding the sacrificial or suicidal logic that devalues present life for the sake of a fuller life to come (either immanent future or eschatological future), we can think through our political choices as oriented towards modes of human interaction that do not carry the weight of history or destiny of the future (echoing Fanon) but create opportunities to live mundane, meaningless, uneventful, small, insignificant lives–together. This has the advantage of showing precisely the inhumanity of neo-liberal capitalism and echoes the struggle I hear so often from refugees and displaced persons (“There is a saying [among Dalit]…Kheti na pathari…it means We have no land for our house…for this we need citizenship”). For this–a house–we need citizenship.

I’m not sure what I think about this idea–so maybe it will spark some ideas of your own, or at least entice you to read Asad’s fantastic book On Suicide Bombing.

This entry was posted in Atonement, death, ethics, politics, refugees, utopia, violence and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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