The Violence We Live By

You can often detect it when a politician or journalist uses a word like “barbaric” to describe the actions of any suicide bomber before, on, or after 9/11: the assumption that “Islamic terrorism” represents an uncontainable hostility toward modernity.

The extremists, on this view, are primitive; we are civilized. They are irrational; we are people of prudence and reason. This is the “clash of civilizations” narrative that has held sway in the West for generations, but with a special power in the last decade.

Yet as anthropologist Talal Asad points out, the histories of Europe and Islam are not so neatly separated and thus the clash of civilizations rhetoric ignores a rich legacy of mutual borrowings and continuous interactions among Christians, Jews, and Muslims. More than that, though, the very selective heritage that shapes a people (that strange, unknown hybrid called Judeo-Christianity, for instance) often bears no relation to the hard facts on the ground — to the way people self-identify, to what they do, how they negotiate the world, and so on.

The concept of jihad is a case in point. Asad notes that the term is not central to Islam, but Western histories of the religion have made it integral to an Islamic civilization rooted in religion. In fact, jihad has been a subject of centuries-long debate among Muslim scholars of different historical and social contexts. It is simply not part of a transhistorical Muslim worldview but rather belongs to, as Asad writes, “an elaborate political-theological vocabulary in which jurists, men of religious learning, and modernist reformers debated and polemicized in response to varying circumstances.”

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