Where's the Evil: Mahmood Mamdani
one word most conspicuously missing from President George W. Bush's
May 24th Iraq
Strategy Speech was not "peace" or "mistake" or "Chalabi." The
word that created the most profound absence was "evil."
the past, Bush
has told us about "the evildoers," "the fight against
evil," "the mission against evil," "the struggle
against evil," "the war against evil," "the
instruments of evil," "the forces of evil," "a
new kind of evil," and "evil deeds." In speech after
speech, State of the Union included, Bush reminded us that "evil
has returned," that "evil is real," that "America
faces an evil," and that there are "evil people" who
are capable of "evil, evil deeds." Yet somehow, not a
single mention of the word "evil" escaped his lips this
Monday night, May 24, 2004. What went wrong?
brief history of the word is in order.
no understatement to say that over the centuries, the reputation
of the word "evil" has gone from bad to worse. When the
word was first used, it simply meant "uppity." You were
evil when you were a snob and "exceeded due limits” with
your status. (A dullard who rode his father's coattails into an
institute of higher education and then chose to become an alcoholic
might well have been called "evil" back then.)
the time “evil” made its way to Middle English it hooked-up
with the synonym "bad." Somehow, along its way to modern
English, “evil” became “a force of extreme moral
with neocons tweaking our language, evil may be the fastest growing
noun/adjective combination in the political vocabulary. Like Lovecraft’s Cthulhu,
it’s a monstrous entity lying "dead but dreaming," humanity's
elemental nightmare, one letter away from the devil, a virus spreading
worldwide insanity and mindless violence until it unseats the better
angels of our nature forever… unless we vote for the right
think we have to be mindful of what it means to take evil from the
domain of theology into the domain of politics,” Mahmood
political scientist, anthropologist, Professor of Government and
director of the Institute of African Studies at Columbia University,
Mamdani's latest book, Good
Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror,
chronologizes terror from Vietnam to 9/11 and, in the process, answers
the question of how we came to be at war with, what Bush calls, “the
has no history,” Mamdani tells me on Weekly
Signals, a KUCI radio show I co-host with Mike Kaspar. “Evil
has no motivation. Evil simply is. You cannot coexist with evil.
You can’t convert evil. You must destroy evil. The fight against
evil is a permanent fight and in that fight any alliance is permissible.”
Mamdani, these alliances account for a smiling Donald
Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein, the CIA cozying
up to a young Osama bin Laden, and, more recently, the raid on Ahmed
Chalabi’s home. Good Muslim? Bad Muslim? I ask Mamdani how
he came to write his book.
particular tendency in Islam which glorifies political violence was
a preoccupation of a few intellectuals in the 1970s,” Mamdani
says. “I couldn’t understand how it became an important
political movement in the matter of a decade and a half. The answer,
I finally realized, was because it became part of the American Cold
War project. Terror
is something the US employed when it had almost lost the Cold War
in Vietnam. While the CIA cultivated a proxy of thousands of mercenaries,
the Vietnamese were subject to carpet bombing and isolated into Hamlets.
As opposition to the war increased at home the advantages of a proxy
war became clear.”
the dirty work had its political advantages, but where did the concept
of religious evil combine with 20th century American politics?
Vietnam, the terror the US employed was not religious. It was secular
in Mozambique and Nicaragua, too. It was in the last phase of Afghanistan
that it became religious. Today, we are reaping the whirlwind.”
breezes through the history of US military terrorism from the 21
million tons of bombs dropped on Laos to our alliance with apartheid
South Africa and Nicaragua.
the case of the Contras, the religious right was brought in,” Mamdani
says. “This is the foundation on which the Afghan Jihad was
built. There was no longer any pretension of simply creating a nationalist
movement in Afghanistan. Instead, the Reagan administration decided
that this was going to be an international Jihad. For that they recruited
globally from New York, Indonesia, France, Germany, Chechnya and
North Africa. They were not interested in moderate Islamists. They
wanted the most radical extremist Islamists; those who considered
political violence to be at the center of political action; those
who were determined to fight the Soviet Union’s godless communism
globally. These were the Mujahideen, the people that Ronald Reagan
referred to as the ‘moral equivalent of our founding fathers.’”
Mujahideen guerrillas seized territory inside Afghanistan, they
ordered peasants to plant opium as a revolutionary tax. In other
words, heroin helped financed Cold War operations to the benefit
of the US. As any junkie knows, heroin is evil shit. Speaking of
smack, William Burroughs said, “The face of evil is always
the face of total need.” Since the USA needed to “bleed
the Soviet Union white,” it created an alliance with the future
founding fathers of al Qaeda.
is the moment when official America ditches any notion of peaceful
co-existence,” Mandami says. “It ditches any notion of
pluralism in foreign affairs. Accordingly, if America represents
good, then any other way of life must represent evil.
enough, when the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, the US also left.
It was not at all interested in what moral and political responsibility
it may bear for the kind of destruction that had been released on
Afghanistan, where the entire population had been displaced and where
several million people had been killed or maimed. The UN estimated
that a million people had gone literally insane from this ongoing
the US walked away, the Arab-Afghans who had been trained in the
deadly arts of war couldn’t go home because they would have
been imprisoned by the security services in the countries they returned
to. Most of them stayed in Afghanistan, without a country and without
a family, available to the next bidder.”
it goes. Bin Laden. 911. The evil axis. The War in Iraq. It sounds
like a virus
spreading worldwide insanity and mindless violence. How do
we stop it?
lesson that America learned in Vietnam was that you had to distinguish
between nationalism and communism,” Mamdani says. "Similarly
in Iraq, the US will need to distinguish between nationalism and
terrorism. It will need to distinguish between self-defense and aggression.”
need to move away from the self-congratulatory atmosphere of winning
the Cold War and instead ask themselves some serious questions. At
what cost was the Cold War won? To what extent was the US militarized?
To what extent did the Cold War create an imperial presidency only
nominally accountable to the legislature? What does it mean for the
Defense Department to run foreign policy rather than the State Department?
What does it mean to speak of one’s worldly opponents as evil?
has to turn around the Bush notion that any use of violence by others
is terrorism and every use of violence by the US is preemptive self-defense," Mamdani
says. "It’s crazy. That can’t work. The solution
cannot be an occupation of the world. America has to live in the
only way out for us is a movement against militarism — a movement
for global peace which will unite people within the US with those
why was the word "evil" absent in Bush's latest speech?
Bush joining the global peace movement? Hardly.
Bush read Mamdani's book? You've got to be kidding.
Bush decided to stop using the word? No way.
this Monday night was probably nothing more than a reaction to a
poll question or a decision by Karl Rove that at this point in time
the American public has heard enough of the word. The images from
Abu Ghraib might have played some role in that. No doubt, the word
will again become part of the president's vocabulary as his campaign
heats up. Then, come the early days of fall, who knows what "evil" might
spring from the mind of Bush.
— Nathan Callahan,
May 25, 2004