Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: A Political Perspective on Culture and Terrorism



The link between Islam and terrorism became a central media concern following September 11, resulting in new rounds of "culture talk. This talk has turned religious experience into a political category, differentiating 'good Muslims" from "bad Muslims, rather than terrorists from civilians. The implication is undisguised: Whether in Afghanistan, Palestine, or Pakistan, Islam must be quarantined and the devil must be exorcized from it by a civil war between good Muslims and bad Muslims. This article suggests that we lift the quarantine and turn the cultural theory of politics on its head. Beyond the simple but radical suggestion that if there are good Muslims and bad Muslims, there must also be good Westerners and bad Westerners, I question the very tendency to read Islamist politics as an effect of Islamic civilization—whether good or bad—and Western power as an effect of Western civilization. Both those politics and that power are born of an encounter, and neither can be understood outside of the history of that encounter. Cultural explanations of political outcomes tend to avoid history and issues. Thinking of individuals from "traditional" cultures in authentic and original terms, culture talk dehistoricizes the construction of political identities. This article places the terror of September 11 in a historical and political context. Rather than a residue of a premodern culture in modern politics, terrorism is best understood as a modern construction. Even when it harnesses one or another aspect of tradition and culture, the result is a modern ensemble at the service of a modern project. [Keywords: Muslims, culture talk, Islamist politics, political identities, terrorism]