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Where's the Evil: Mahmood Mamdani
The 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."

In 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?

A brief history of the word is in order.

It's 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.)

By 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 wickedness."

Today, 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 candidate.

“I think we have to be mindful of what it means to take evil from the domain of theology into the domain of politics,” Mahmood Mamdani says.

A 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 evil ones.”

“Evil 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.”

Following 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.

“This 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.”

Outsourcing the dirty work had its political advantages, but where did the concept of religious evil combine with 20th century American politics?

“In 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.”

Mamdani 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.

“In 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.’”

As 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.

“Afghanistan 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.

“Strangely 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 war.

“When 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.”

So 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?

“The 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.”

“Americans 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?

“One 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 world. 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 outside.”

So why was the word "evil" absent in Bush's latest speech?

Is Bush joining the global peace movement? Hardly.

Did Bush read Mamdani's book? You've got to be kidding.

Has Bush decided to stop using the word? No way.

"Evil's" absence 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


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