Good Muslim, Bad Muslim

In this book Mahmood Mamdani look at the US role in embracing, promoting, funding and engaging in terrorism around the world. Written in 2004 Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror seems to reflect conversations that the author was having in the years after 9/11. In the first chapter he covers the us/them division of so-called clashes of civilizations of the so-called modern and tradition, of what was projected to the public as the good Muslim and the bad Muslim in the press and in policy. Following the first chapter, Mamdani details American terrorism during the Cold War (which the Americans did not call terrorism, but "low intensity conflict", including the intentional targeting of civilians, as outlined within their manuals). For those interested in better understanding the American role in the Cold War throughout Africa and Asia, as well as Afghanistan, this book is excellent. Mamdani also details how these "low intensity conflict" operations came home, not in the form of "blow back" as we know them, but as American operations to delude, deceive, and lie to the public, manufacturing consent through propaganda and avoiding any accountability via covert operations that were not overseen by Congress. Readers of Chomsky will be well informed of American roles in Central and South America, and in that sense this adds new geographies to critical conversations. The book does not speak much of the ways the "good Muslim, bad Muslim" discourse has influenced opinion and policy, and instead focuses the subtitle "America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror".

A few quotes:

"Pervez Hoodbhoy gives the following examples from children's textbooks designed for it by the University of Nebraska under a $50 million USAID grant that ran from September 1986 through June 1994. A third-grade mathematics textbook asks: "One group of maujahidin attack 50 Russian soldiers. In that attack 20 Russians are killed. How many Russians fled?" A fourth-grade textbook ups the ante: "The speed of a Kalashnikov [the ubiquitous Soviet-made semiautomatic machine gun] bullet is 800 meters per second. If a Russian is at a distance of 3200 meters from a mujahid, and that mujahid aims at the Russian's head, calculate how many seconds it will take for the bullet to strike the Russian in the forehead." The program ended in 1994, but the books continued to circulate: "US-sponsored textbooks, which exhort Afghan children to pluck out the eyes of their enemies and cut off their legs, are still widely available in Afghanistan and Pakistan, some in their original form." (p. 137)

"Nicholas D. Kristof of the New York Times reported that "the United States shipped seven strains of anthrax to Iraq from 1978 to 1988." Training in the use of chemical and biological agents had been provided to Iraqi military officers as early as the 1960s. An official army letter published in the late 1960s noted that "the U.S. army trained 19 Iraqi military officers in the United States in offensive and defensive chemical, biological and radiological warfare from 1957-1967"... [Later] When Saddam began gassing the Kurdish minority in Iraq in May 1987, the United States was already providing Iraq with aid worth $500 million per year. In spite of public revelations about the use of chemical weapons, the United States doubled aid to the regime... Hussein became an example of the price that must be paid by any regime that violates the terms of its alliance with the United States. The 1991 Gulf War was literally a punishment..." (p. 181-183)

"Propaganda has been an integral part of war in modern times. The history of America's war with Iraq, from the Gulf War to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, has seen the upgrading of propaganda from distortion and exaggeration of known facts to the deliberate invention of lies. Decisive in persuading members of Congress to vote for the Gulf War was a statement by a Kuwaiti "nurse" who claimed to have seen Iraqi soldiers looting the maternity department of a Kuwaiti hospital and killing babies. Later, it came to light that the "nurse" was actually the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador in Washington, and her account was fabricated for the Rendon Group, a media consultancy firm employed for the war, by Michael K. Deaver, a former media adviser to Ronald Reagan." (p. 196) 

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The Birth of Modern Terrorism?

What were the ideological origins of Al Qaeda and ISIS? Yaroslav Trofimov argues that the answer goes back to 1979, when an uprising occurred in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. For an event that is largely undocumented officially, "The Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam's Holiest Shrine and the Birth of Al Qaeda" (2007) is a fascinating historical book – and of what the author argues is the origin of modern Islamic terrorism. The book was written by a journalist, and thus academics searching for references and justification for some of the claims will be left wanting. I located a number of errors as I read through, but the book is nonetheless well worth reading.

Why the author believes this event is so important – and the ideology that drove it - is because Trofimov argues these were the origins of nearly all contemporary extremist movements. The author also outlines that the ideology driving these extremists did not only spread after 1979 naturally - it was actively supported "on the Cold War battlefronts. Instead of being suppressed, Juhayman's brutal brand of Islam was encouraged and nurtured as it metastasized across the planet since 1979" (p. 7). The most well-known instance of this was American support of jihadist movements in Afghanistan, of which Osama bin Laden was a part. The book is also fascinating in that it shows how this event has global impacts - from North Africa to Asia - about which the author includes chapters on.

The book also demonstrates the role of torture and brutal tactics in creating extremists and fostering extremist ideologies: "Like many members of the new movement, Mohammed Abdullah had reasons to dislike the Saudi state. By one account, prior to enrolling in university he was employed as an administrative worker in a Riyadh hospital. Suspicion fell on Mohammed Abdullah when money disappeared from the hospital safe. Saudi police, whose main investigating technique tends to be torture, pulled the young man's fingernails until he confessed to the crime. He was cleared and released from jail only after the real culprit was accidently caught with stolen cash later" (p. 38). Torture resulted in bad intelligence and pushed people into extremism. The person the quote is speaking about, Mohammed Abdullah, went on to become one of the leading members of the group of the 1979 uprising.

A note for the critical reader: the book perpetuates a range of stereotypes about the "Arabs" that are well suited to be examples for an updated version of Edward Said's Orientalism (1979). Even "seemingly reasonable Muslim intellectuals" are irrational (p. 107), are not trustable and do not trust each other (p. 136, 177), while they also have secret, mutually understood bonds between them. The result is that Arabs are portrayed, contradictorily, as idiotic and cunning; untrustworthy and trustworthy; highly skilled and untrained. Tropes of 'the other' that – consciously or not – have long been used as means to uphold one's own supposed superiority.

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