Commentary: Talal Asad’s “On Suicide Bombing”

Suicide terrorism has been considered as the most lethal form of terrorism. Unfortunately, it is on the increase. In 2013 itself, there were 384 suicide terrorist acts were carried out in 18 countries causing 3,743 deaths. What drives suicide terrorism and to what extent is suicidality a contributing factor to the horror of the same? Although suicide terrorist acts have become disturbingly frequent, we still know very little about the individuals who commit them. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, there are two myths routinely promoted around terrorist attacks, that is, suicide terrorism is a new phenomenon and, second, it was almost always the province of religious fanatics.

Asad in the book begins with the biggest instance of suicide terrorism in history yet, the attack in the U.S., which raised worldwide outrage. He didn’t support the crime in any form, nonetheless, he wanted us to temporarily sideways our judgement, and tried to explain and make us understand the moral ground from which we pass judgments. While thinking of how we get this moral legitimacy notion, the liberal philosophers state their concern by saying that the state is the guardian of the society. When there is any threat to the community, the state is under the obligation to defend their people by any possible means including perpetrating evil of its own. In Butler’s words, Asad simply put it by the fact that our moral responses are regulated by certain interpretive frameworks that seem to pre-empt thought and precede feeling. Talal Asad finds the liberal distinction between war and terrorism suspect. He mobilize to show as to why the western world finds the acts of suicide bombing so horrifying. Here, in this paper I am going to talk about the similar argument; to figure out why do we not feel the same degree of moral outrage that terrorist killing of innocent civilians evokes in us when state-sponsored violence does the same? 

Asad cites Walzer and argues that any political community can act immorally but “only at the last minute and under absolute necessity.” He further explains that the primary interpretive structure that dictates our thinking on political violence is the distinction between war and terrorism. War is legal violence, pursued by an entity recognised by international law, the nation-state, involvement of every citizen(in the sense that there is some awareness). Whereas, terrorism is violence without legal sanction, enacted by non-state actors. Given that every kind of atrocity has been perpetrated by state armies as well as terrorists, it is the legal cover accorded to the former that differentiates it morally from the latter.

There is a new sensibility regarding physical pain. Although in today’s time, the frequency is high; the liberal discourses regarding the delivery of the pain “without good reason” as sinful and therefore the object of moral condemnation. By using this attitude the modern liberal democracies support the notion of cruelty in the name of state-led war. In liberal democracies, a new urge to moralize the violence usage as an instrument of state came up after 2001. The American idea of a ‘war against terror’ and the European notion of confronting a global terrorist threat led to the formation of the whole new discourse on humanitarian military action. This political or moral ‘responsibility to protect’ is no longer to be confined to one’s citizens. The liberal argument of “under absolute necessity” assumes a humanitarian form precisely when states seek to transgress the humanitarian codes of war. For instance ‘terrorism’ perpetrated by a liberal democracy ‘under absolute necessity’ is the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed 1,29,000 people, most of them were civilians. The justification given was that it saved the lives of thousands of American soldiers by ending the war sooner.(But today we know that the real motive was to show America’s status as a military superpower.) The liberal assumption is that state armies kill civilians only under coercion. Liberals justify the torture on the similar ground- to combat the future terrorism and for that this evil way is a necessity. Liberals justify the cruelties of the state as an unavoidable ‘excesses’ of war while the similar acts by non-state actors as the ‘essence’ of the terrorism (Formation of Secular, Asad).

The interest of the state to humanize the war through law is highly seen in ‘just war’ theories: which concerns the morality of going to war, and the moral conduct within war. Liberals distinguish terrorism from the use of armed force in a just war based on the criteria that there is a deliberate killing of the civilians in the former one. In ‘just war’, they justify the action by saying that civilians may not be targeted, unless the damage is necessary and proportionate to the objective. The concept of just war has its roots in medieval Christian theory. This view derives from the doctrine of double effect that goes back to Aquinas and has been developed over the centuries in many works of moral theology. The doctrine maintains that committing evil actions are prohibited but the use of neutral means for a good end is permissible even if it has incidental evil results. It should be inclined towards the proportionate intended good. The concept, nowadays, is used to persuade those who are sceptical of this use of violence by justifying that is necessary as well as moral. The principles of necessity and proportionality should adhere to ‘just war’.

On the contrary, the liberal thinkers also have recognized that there are circumstances where a non-state actor may have ended up being engaged in the political violence; for instance, the Naxal wars to attain the rights on their ‘home’, to figure out a new home for a new political society. This can be supported as the International Criminal Court, the Court has denied to include terrorist acts as punishable offences since there is hardly a state that wasn’t founded on bloodshed.

In liberal discourse, it is already given that suicide bombing, or dying to kill, is often synonymous, with so-called Islamic jihad. Asad investigates what Judaism and Christianity have to say about jihad-like suicidal violence. Both liberal democratic discourses and the Judeo-Christian tradition from which ‘suicide terrorism’ evolved have no problem accepting either suicide or the killing of civilians, provided the act is linked to a noble purpose that serves the community. Then it is difficult to explain or justify the moral outrage evoked by the violence of suicide bombers, who have a similar purpose in their mind like those of ‘just war’ advocates. Asad demolishes the whole liberal consensus that jihad or Holy War is “integral to an Islamic civilisation that is largely rooted in religion”. Because of this conception of Islam, the whole ‘clash of civilisation’ theory is constructed, where ‘medieval Islam and its religiously-motivated terrorist is on one side and western modernism and secular armies on other. Asad mentions that “there is no such thing as a clash of civilizations because there are no self-contained societies to which fixed civilizational values correspond” (p. 12).

Liberal perspective has premised not on a clash of civilisations so much as a clash between civilised and uncivilised; and between civilisation and barbarity. There are some parallels and continuities between the colonial projects and the so-called ‘war on terror’. The liberal humanist lack these conceptual tools to engage with. Perhaps, it’s just their abrupt inversion of the traditional logic of political violence, which typically entailed the disciplining of the (brown/black) barbarians by the (white) civilised. In Asad’s words, “… it is not cruelty that matters in the distinction between terrorists and armies at war, still less the threat each poses to entire ways of life, but their civilizational status. What is really at stake is not a clash of civilizations…but the fight of civilization against the uncivilized…what is especially intriguing is the ingenuity of liberal discourse in rendering inhuman acts humane. This is certainly something that savage discourse cannot achieve”.

When the World Trade Center in New York was attacked by terrorists, a torrent of words poured out of the Western media to explain what motivated this act by interpreting its world-historic meaning. The disaster was quickly associated with the many incidents of Palestinian suicide bombings, and experts identified tendencies in Islam, in particular, its concept of ‘martyrdom’, in which dying and killing were combined and sanctified. There was an ‘Islamic culture of death’—so whole discourse was—that spawned this uniquely horrific violence. Everything was propagated about Islam and its history: Holy war or jihad is central to Islamic doctrine; Muslims reject the values of liberal democracy for religious reasons—and especially the separation of ‘religion’ from ‘politics’ and a commitment to peace. In brief, their civilization was premodern, irrational and violent. Most of these post 9/11 stories about Islamic doctrine and history were mixtures of ‘half-truths’—but then their purpose was not to enlighten but to ‘characterize’ an enemy. (Cook, Alison 2007)

Our thoughts on terrorism as a social phenomenon is paralyzed by narrow security-centric discourses smoothly canvas the words like ‘fidayeen’ and ‘jihadist’’ taking them as some explanation to the very idea of suicide terrorism. If we open this discourse of terrorism to a broader context of post-colonial history, then we would be able to pay attention to the liberal violence by its preemptive removal of history from any understanding of terrorist violence. Asad says “all histories are selective but what they leave out and how they interpret what they select is more interesting than the mere fact of selection.”(Asad, 10) The tendency to moralize war and terrorism, to stake so much on intention, obscures the fact that there is a space of violence shared by ‘war’ and ‘peace’, by ‘ruthless terrorism’ and ‘just war’, and that space is embraced by the liberal tradition(Asad,2010). Liberals argue fiercely among themselves about the ethics of the concept and practice of violence for national security and of coercive interrogation in the ‘War on Terror’, because they have been considered as legitimate violence in response to the threat of terrorist violence.

Asad, in the last chapter on the suicide bombing, talks about the reasons why do westerners express horror at suicide terrorism. The act of the war and terrorism has been taken for granted; what exactly matters is the appearance: the appearance of the act. It starts with the idea of the sight of the location-the depiction of the shattering and mingling of physical objects and human bodies at the spot of suicide bombing. A sudden disruption of the patterns of everyday life, violence where deaths are unregulated by the nation-state.

Suicide was typically offered to elites who could legitimately take their own lives. These kinds of suicides indicated “undefiant deaths.” According to critics, these suicides are assertions of the secular humanist principle that fighting against the demands of external power is a sign of nobility. Similarly, suicide terrorism takes away the satisfaction of the state to punish. There is nothing horrible in violent death but only in the motive that defines it. In such deaths, crime and punishment are united. Because it takes away the desire to punish the criminal. And, this makes the suicide terrorism horrible for the state- the cancellation of the monopoly of the state on violence and the lives. There is a disregard to the self-assertion and collective obedience of the law “…what horrifies is not just dying and killing but the violent appearance of something that is normally disregarded in secular modernity: the limitless pursuit of freedom, the illusion of an uncoerced interiority that can withstand the force of institutional disciplines. Liberalism…disapproves of the violent exercise of freedom outside the frame of law.” (p. 91). The destruction of human beings and their ways of life—the decision of how and when they are allowed to live or to die—has been essential to the formation of the modern state. And, taking this right away from the authorities make this act horrifying.

All commitments to political immortality and all calls for sacrifice for the nation demand killing and dying. That shows how modern terrorists belong to the same universe as liberal democrats waging war. Terrorists are, of course, criminals according to state law, but the logic of violence that underlies their conflict with established states are shared with the idea of the killing. It is only the ‘way’ of death-dealing they don’t agree to. For liberalism, the readiness to multiply death—ours and theirs, but especially theirs—is a condition of freedom, a readiness to shift nonviolent politics into the politics of force. Asad examines the colonial and post-colonial construction of the categories of war and terrorism, he argues that these are constructed according to different logical criteria: the war derives its primary sense from the question of legality, and terrorism from the feelings of vulnerability and fear of social disorder. Hence, the two cannot be rendered as mutually exclusive(Mahmood, 2008).


  • Asad, Talal. On suicide bombing. Columbia University Press, 2007.
  • Asad, Talal. Formations of the secular: Christianity, Islam, modernity. Stanford University Press, 2003.
  • Asad, Talal. “Thinking about terrorism and just war.” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 23.1 (2010): 3-24.
  • Cook, David, and Olivia Allison. Understanding and addressing suicide attacks: The faith and politics of martyrdom operations. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007.
  • Mahmood, Sadia. “On Suicide Bombing.” (2008): 123-132.

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