For many non-Muslims in the United States, Western Europe, and Israel, the suicide bomber quickly became the icon of an Islamic “culture of death.” This led me to try to think in a sustained way about the contemporary mode of violence that is described by much of the Western media as “Islamic terrorism.” Is there, I asked myself, a religiously motivated terrorism? If so, how does it differ from other cruelties? What makes its motivation—as opposed to the simple intent to kill—religious? Where does it stand in relation to other forms of collective violence? How is the image of the suicide bomber, bringing death to himself and others, addressed by Christians and post-Christians?
He also examins the “clash of civilizations” thesis that purports to explain contemporary Islamic jihadism as the essence of contemporary terrorism, and he argue against the kind of history that assumes self-contained civilizations having fixed values. Asad also discusses state terrorism and violence exercised by the modern state:
I am simply impressed by the fact that modern states are able to destroy and disrupt life more easily and on a much grander scale than ever before and that terrorists cannot reach this capability. I am also struck by the ingenuity with which so many politicians, public intellectuals, and journalists provide moral justifications for killing and demeaning other human beings. What seems to matter is not the killing and dehumanization as such but how one kills and with what motive. People at all times have, of course, justified the killing of so-called enemies and others they deem not deserving to live. The only difference is that today liberals who engage in this justification think they are different because morally advanced.
By the way, Paradise Now is a great film about suicide bombers.
There are several articles by or about Talal Asad online, among others:
Interview with Talal Asad (Asia Source, 16.12.02)
Interview with Talal Asad: Modern power and the reconfiguration of religious traditions (Stanford University)
Talal Asad: A single history? Francis Fukuyama's defence of the universalism of western values and institutions is challenged by modern global political realities (Open Democracy, 5.5.06)
Talal Asad: Reflections on Laïcité & the Public Sphere (Keynote address at the "Beirut Conference on Public Spheres," October 22-24, 2004)