Liberal Cults, Suicide Bombers, and other Theological Dilemmas

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Liberal Cults, Suicide Bombers, and other Theological
Stewart Motha*
Journal of Law, Culture, and Humanities Forthcoming 2008
Not Published Version
A conceit is afflicting the liberal left. The once reflexive adjustments of civilizational
logics, suspicions about theories of universal progress, and the disposition to challenge
the Washington consensus on social, economic, and political affairs is now undergoing a
steady reversal. A universalist liberal ideology has been re-asserted. It is not only neo-con
hawks or Blairite opportunists that now legitimise wars for democracy. Alarmingly, it is a
generation of political thinkers who opposed the Nixonian logic of war (wars to show that a
country can ecrediblyf fight a war to protect its interests1), and those humbled by the anticolonial
struggles of liberation from previous incarnations of European superiority that are
renewing spurious civilizational discourses. This emuscular liberalismf has found its voice
at the moment of a global political debate about the legality and effectiveness of ejust warsf
. so called ewars for democracyf or ehumanitarian warf.
The new political alignment of the liberal left emerged in the context of discussions
about the euse of forcef irrespective of UN Security Council endorsement or the sovereign
statefs territorial integrity, such as in Kosovo . but gained rapid momentum in response to
attacks in New York City and Washington on September 11, 2001. Parts of the liberal left
have now aligned themselves with neoconservative foreign policies, and have joined what
they believe is a new anti-totalitarian global struggle . the ewar on terrorf or the battle
against Islamist fundamentalism. One task of this essay, then, is to identify this new
formation of the liberal left.
Much horror and suffering has been unleashed on the world in the name of the
liberal society which must endure. However, when suicide bombing and state-terror are
compared, the retort is that there is no moral equivalence between the two. Talal Asad in
* Senior Lecturer, Kent Law School, University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent CT2 7NS, UK. E-Mail: An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Faculty of Sociology,
Delhi School of Economics, Delhi, in January 2008. I benefitted enormously from questions and
comments at that seminar. My special thanks to Deepak Mehta, Pratiksha Baxi, and Upendra Baxi
for enriching that discussion. Brenna Bhandar, Peter Fitzpatrick, Ian Wollington, and Anastasia
Vakulenko commented on earlier versions. The anonymous referees made extensive and generous
suggestions for which I am very grateful. James Martelfs encouraging and incisive comments were
invaluable. Any errors are mine.
1 Paul Berman, Terror and Liberalism (New York, Norton and Co, 2003) p. 4.
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his evocative book, On Suicide Bombing, has probed the horror that is felt about suicide
bombing in contrast to state violence and terror.2 What affective associations are formed
in the reaction to suicide bombing? What does horror about suicide bombing tell us about
the constitution of inter-subjective relations? In this essay I begin to probe these questions
about the relation between death, subjectivity, and politics. I want to excavate below the
surface oppositions of good deaths and bad, justifiable killing and barbarism, which have
been so central to left liberal arguments. As so much is riding on the difference between
eour good warf and etheir cult of deathf, it seems apt to examine and undo the opposition.
The muscular liberal left projects itself as embodying the values of the eWestf, a
geo-political convergence that is regularly opposed to the eEastf, eMuslimsf, or the eIslamic
Worldf. I undo this opposition, arguing that thanatopolitics, a convergence of death,
sacrifice, martyrdom and politics, is common to left liberal and Islamist political formations.
How does death become political for left liberals and Islamist suicide bombers? In the
case of the latter, what is most immediately apparent is how little is known about the
politics and politicization of suicide bombers. Suicide bombers are represented as a near
perfect contrast to the free, autonomous, self-legislating liberal subject . a person overdetermined
by her backward culture, oppressive setting, and yet also empty of content,
and whose death can have no temporal political purchase. The esuicide bomberf tends to
be treated by the liberal left as a trans-historical efiguref, usually represented as the
eIslamo-fascistf or the eirrationalf Muslim.3 The causes of suicide bombing are often
implicitly placed on Islam itself . a religion that is represented as devoid of escepticism,
doubt, or rebellionf and thus seen as a favourable setting for totalitarianism.4 The account
of the suicide bomber as neo-fascist assassin supplements a lack . that is, that the
association of suicide bombing with Islam explains very little. The suicide bomber is thus
made completely familiar as totalitarian fascist, or wholly other as g[a] completely new kind
of enemy, one for whom death is not deathh.5 So much that is written about the suicide
bomber glosses over the unknown with political subjectivities, figures, and paradigms
(such as fascism) which are familiar enough to be vociferously opposed. By drawing the
suicide bomber into a familiar moral register of eevilf, political and historical relations
Talal Asad, On Suicide Bombing (New York, Columbia University Press, 2007).
3 There are, of course, some important exceptions. See the following important studies: Olivier
Roy, Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah (New York, Columbia University Press,
2004); Roxanne Euben, Enemy in the Mirror: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Limits of Modern
Rationalism (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1999); Andrew Strathern (etal) (eds.) Terror
and Violence: Imagination and the Unimaginable (Hyderabad, Orient Longman, 2006); Diego
Gambetta (ed.) Making Sense of Suicide Missions (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2006).
4 Berman, Terror and Liberalism, pp. 26-27.
5 Martin Amis, The Second Plane (London, Jonathan Cape, 2008), p. 22.
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between victim and perpetrator are erased.6 In the place of ethnographically informed
research the etheoristf or epublic intellectualf erases the contingency of the suicide bomber
and reduces her death to pure annihilation, or nothingness.
The discussion concludes by undoing the notion of the eWestf, the very ground that
the liberal left assert they stand for. The eWestf is no longer a viable representation of a
geo-political convergence, if it ever was. Liberal discourse has regarded itself as the
projection of the eWestf and its enlightenment. But this ignores important continuities
between Islam, Christianity, and contemporary secular formations. The current eclash of
monotheismsf, I argue after J-L Nancy, reveals a crisis of sense, authority, and meaning
which is inherent to the monotheistic form. An increasingly globalised world is made up of
political communities and juridical orders that have been eemptiedf of authority and
certainty. This crisis of sense conditions the horror felt by the supposedly rational liberal in
the face of Islamist terrorism. Horror at terrorism is then the affective bond that sustains a
grouping that otherwise suffers the loss of a political project with a definite end.
The general objective of this essay is to challenge the unexamined assumptions
about politics and death that circulate in liberal left denunciations of Islamic fascism. The
horror and fascination with the figure of the suicide bomber reveals an unacknowledged
affective bond that constitutes the muscular liberal left as a political formation. This relies
on disavowing the sacrificial and theological underpinnings of political liberalism itself .
and ignores the continuities between what is called the eWestf and the theologico-political
enterprise of monotheism. Monotheism is not the preserve of something called the eWestf,
but rather an enterprise that is common to all three Religions of the Book. The article
concludes by describing how the writings of Jean-Luc Nancy on monotheism offer liberal
left thinkers insights for rethinking the crisis of value that resulted from the collapse of
grand emancipatory enterprises as well as the fragmentation of politics resulting from a
focus on political identification through difference.
I The Liberal Left
I opened with a reference to the eliberal leftf. Of course the eliberal leftf signifies a
vast and varied range of political thinking and activism . so I must clarify how I am
deploying this term. In this essay the terms eliberal leftf or emuscular liberalf are used interchangeably.
Paul Berman and Nick Cohen, whose writing I will shortly refer to, are
exemplars of the new political alignment who self-identify as edemocrats and progressivesf,
but whose writings feature bellicose assertions about the superiority of western models of
6 For an important exception, see Mahmood Mamdani, gGood Muslim, Bad Muslim: A Political
Perspective on Culture and Terrorismh American Anthropologist 104/3 (2002) pp. 766-775.
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democracy, and universal human rights.7 Among this liberal left, democracy and freedom
become hemispheric and come to stand for the West.
More generally, now, the eliberal leftf can be distinguished from political movements
and thinkers who draw inspiration from a Marxist tradition of thought with a socialist
horizon. The liberal left I am referring to would view the Marxist tradition as undervaluing
democratic freedoms and human rights. Left liberals also tend to dismiss the so called
post-Marxist turn in European continental philosophy as epostmodern relativismf.8 Post-
Marxists confronted the problem of the ecollectivef . addressing the problem of masses
and classes as the universal category or agent of historical transformation. This was a
necessary correction to all the disasters visited on the masses in the name of a universal
working class. The liberal state exploited these divisions on the left. It is true that a left
fragmented through identity politics or the politics of difference were reduced to group
based claims on the state. However, liberal multiculturalism was critiqued by anti-racist
and feminist thinkers as early as the 1970s for ignoring the structural problems of class or
as yet another nation-building device. The new formation of the muscular liberal left have
only just discovered the defects of multiculturalism. The dismissal of liberal
multiculturalism is now code for etoo much tolerancef of eall that differencef. The liberal left,
or muscular liberal, as I use these terms, should not be conflated with the way eliberalf is
generally used in North America to denote eprogressivef, epro-choicef, open to a multiplicity
of forms of sexual expression, generally etolerantf, or eleft wingf (meaning socialist).
It might be objected that it is not the liberal left, but eright wing craziesf driven by
Christian evangelical zeal combined with neo-liberal economic strategies that have
usurped a post-9/11 crime and security agenda to mount a global hegemonic enterprise in
the name of a ewar on terrorf. It might also be said that this is nothing new . global
expansionist enterprises such as 18th and 19th century colonialism mobilised religion,
science, and theories of economic development to secure resources and justify extreme
7 By the eliberal leftf I have in mind a wide group of thinkers . but space prevents me from drawing
on multiple examples. An attempt at unifying the muscular liberals or new formation of the liberal
left can be found in the enterprise of the Euston Manifesto 2006 . see: – last accessed on 11th October, 2007. Article 11 of the Manifesto
gives a flavour of the confluence of forces and ideas that make up what I am calling the liberal left:
gDrawing the lesson of the disastrous history of left apologetics over the crimes of Stalinism
and Maoism, as well as more recent exercises in the same vein (some of the reaction to
the crimes of 9/11, the excuse-making for suicide-terrorism, the disgraceful alliances lately
set up inside the “anti-war” movement with illiberal theocrats), we reject the notion that
there are no opponents on the Left. We reject, similarly, the idea that there can be no
opening to ideas and individuals to our right. Leftists who make common cause with, or
excuses for, anti-democratic forces should be criticized in clear and forthright terms.
Conversely, we pay attention to liberal and conservative voices and ideas if they contribute
to strengthening democratic norms and practices and to the battle for human progressh.
8 Nick Cohen, Whatfs Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way (Fourth Estate, London, 2007), Ch. 4.
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violence where necessary. Global domination, it might be argued, has always been a
thanatopolitical enterprise. So whatfs different now? What is crucial, now, is that the entire
spectrum of liberalism, including the erational centref, is engaged in the kind of mindset
whereby a destructive and deadly war is justified in the name of protecting or establishing
democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. It might then be retorted that this erational
centref of liberalism have ealwaysf been oriented in this way. That is partly true, but it is
worth recalling that the liberal left I have in mind is the generation that came of age with
opposition to the war in Vietnam, other Indo-Chinese conflagrations, and the undoing of
empire. This is a left that observed the Cold War conducted through various ehot warsf in
Africa, Central and Latin America, and South East Asia and thus at least hoped to build a
enew world orderf of international law and multilateralism. This is a left that was resolved,
by the 1970s, not to repeat the error of blindly following a scientific discourse that
promised to produce a utopia . whether this was eactually existing socialismf or the purity
of eblood and soilf. But now, a deadly politics, a thanatopolitics, is drawn out of a liberal
horror and struggle against a monolithically drawn enemy called Islamic fundamentalism.
What is new is that Islam has replaced communism/fascism as the new eperilf against
which the full spectrum of liberalism is mobilized.
Islamist terrorism and suicide bombers, a clash between an apparently Islamic ecult
of deathf versus modern secular rationality has come to be a central preoccupation of the
liberal left. In the process, as Talal Asad has eloquently pointed out, horror about
terrorism has come to be revealed as one way in which liberal subjectivity and its relation
to political community can be interrogated and understood.9 Moreover, the potential for
liberal principles to be deployed in the service of legitimating a doctrine of pre-emption as
the enew internationalismf is significant. The first and second Gulf Wars, according to the
liberal left, are then not wars to secure control over the supply of oil, or regional and global
hegemony, as others on the left might argue, but anti-fascist, anti-totalitarian wars of
liberation fought in the name of edemocracyf. Backing eprogressive warsf for efreedom and
democracyf, those who self-identify as a left which is reasserting liberal democratic
principles start by asking questions such as: gAre western freedoms only for
westerners?h.10 In the process, freedom becomes ewesternf, and its enemy an amorphous
legion behind an unidentifiable line between ewestf and the rest (the eMuslim worldf). The
ewar for democracyf waged against eIslamist terrorismf and Muslim fundamentalism is the
crucible on which the new alignment of the liberal left is forged.
9 Talal Asad, On Suicide Bombing, p. 42.
10 Berman, Terror and Liberalism, p. 6.
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For Paul Berman liberalism as it had developed in Europe and North America
between the Napoleonic wars and the First World War was a formation that provided
humanity with a steady and predictable model of progress. Divine sources of authority had
been undermined, and the strength of liberalism was that multiple spheres of activity such
as science, politics, religion, and private life were treated as independent of each other.11
The North Atlantic model of progress, like something akin to the ewhite manfs burdenf, was
exported around the world through colonialism. As Berman puts it, several empires
gpostulated progress as its goalh.12 According to Berman, except for those colonized
peoples under the yoke of the einsanef Belgians, ga good many people among the
colonized populations approved of those imperial goals, tooh.13 The colonized world
apparently held out the gkeen and touching hopeh that historyfs promise was not just for
Europeans and North Americans, but that everyone would gprogress into freedom, wealth,
science and stabilityh.14 Everyone else, then, was just waiting to catch up with Europe and
North America. The version of liberalism projected by Berman posits a modernity readily at
odds, it seems, with anything that might be associated with Islamism. It is precisely this
distinction between Islamism and modernity that I will break down in the following section
of this essay.
What crushed the hope of this march of liberal progress, according Berman, was
the emergence of two forms of cultish behaviour in the 20th century . communism and
fascism. Adopting Leninfs phrase about social movements of a gnew typeh, asserting
continuities and parallels between Bolshevism and various national formations of fascism
. Italian, Spanish and German . Berman draws an uneasy parallel between the deathly
totalitarianisms of the 1930s and 1940s, and the emergence of movements in the Middle
East which adopt ideologies of purity, pledge allegiance to a Leader, and adopt the
powerful myth of a epeople of God under attackf (which, for Berman, seems as fitting when
describing the eRussian massesf, as Mussolinifs echildren of the Roman wolff15). All that is
needed, then, is an Islamist figure to add to Bermanfs line-up of Supermen: Lenin,
Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler . and now, Sayyid Qutb of the Islamic Brotherhood.16
11 Berman, Terror and Liberalism, p. 37.
12 Berman, Terror and Liberalism, p. 39.
13 Berman, Terror and Liberalism, p. 39.
14 Berman, Terror and Liberalism, p. 39.
15 Berman, Terror and Liberalism, p. 42-51.
16 Sayyid Qutb is the figure central to the narrative in Bermanfs Terror and Liberalism, see pp. 60-
102; and a caricature is predictably derided by Martin Amis, gTerror and Boredom: The Dependent
Mindh in M. Amis The Second Plane (London, Jonathan Cape, 2008), pp. 47-93.
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It might be objected that I am misusing the term eliberal leftf when I include Berman
as one of their number. The objection comes from a desire, indeed and anxiety, that the
conjunction of liberal and left should not be surrendered to the likes of Berman. But surely
thatfs a symptom of the narrowing of what left politics could potentially mean. There is a
specifically North American tendency to preserve the eliberal leftf as a tag for eas radical as
one can bef. In France one can still erespectablyf be a socialist; in India or Italy one can be
a Communist and still be emainstreamf, and not dismissed as part of the elunatic fringef. In
North America, eliberal leftf has signified being progressive, identifying with the poor and
marginalised, feminist, pro-choice, LGBT-friendly, and backing state intervention in the
management and regulation of the economy. What happens when this political positioning
has to confront its eenemyf – precisely the question that Carl Schmitt alerted us to in his
Concept of the Political? If being of the liberal left involves embracing the values that
mobilised the Euro-American revolutions of the 18th century, and the anti-colonial struggles
for self-determination, then what is the liberal stance on a unilateral superpower such as
the U.S overthrowing the Taliban in Afghanistan or a tyrannical dictator in Iraq? This kind
of question is a symptom of a wider political crisis in Europe and North America. With no
emancipatory project of transformation, the esuperpower citizenf is reduced to being a
spectator whose edeterminationf is praised because the Stock Market was steady as the
bombing commenced.17
Nick Cohenfs Whatfs Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way is one example of the
tendency to adopt a muscular approach to liberalism in order to legitimate wars for
democracy. Cohen argues that the left have abandoned their liberal democratic principles
in the face of a tyrannical dictator because they could not stomach US unilateralism,
Bushfs pushing of the boundaries on what constitutes torture, Guantanamo Bay, and the
privatization of Iraqfs oil industry.18 Led astray by postmodernist relativists, liberals,
according to Cohen, were unable to take the gonly moral optionh of gsupporting Iraqis as
they struggled to establish democracyh.19 The war had a gdegree of legitimacyh that liberals
should have readily accepted because it involved the goverthrow of Saddam Husseinh.20
This argument appears to be saying, ework out who your friends and enemies aref, and
then stand with your friends. You can criticise what is done in your name, but do not shy
away from recognising that a tyrannical dictator has been overthrown. That seems to be a
17 See Sheldon S. Wolin, gBrave New Worldh 5: 4 Theory and Event (2002).
18 Cohen, Whatfs Left? Ch. 11.
19 Cohen, Whatfs Left?, p. 314.
20 Cohen, Whatfs Left?, p. 315.
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quintessentially liberal problem . but one that Schmitt recognised far more rigorously than
Cohen, and he was no liberal.
The 20th Century provides the liberal left with its archetypal adversaries . fascist
and communist totalitarianism. Indeed, despite the claim that the difference is selfevident,
much ink is spilt on distinguishing the excesses of democracy from totalitarianism.
The foundational purchase of totalitarianism for the liberal left cannot be underplayed. Nazi
Germany and Soviet communists are the twin eevilsf readily wheeled out in order to
distinguish the elimit-conditionsf of modern western liberal democracies from those
erstwhile ideological foes. The recent excesses of liberal democratic orders are now
numerous and familiar: draconian anti-terror measures, Guantanamo Bay, Belmarsh
Prison, detention camps in Port Headland and Woomera, Australia, atrocities in Abu
Ghraib and elsewhere in Iraq, and the ongoing legacies of colonial dispossession and
enrichment. Whatever its deficiencies, the liberal left tell us, the liberal state is not
totalitarian. Democracy and the rule of law are now universally embraced modes of
governing, they claim . despite the horrors committed in the name of liberal state-building
and modern progress, including those authorised by domestic and international law.
Liberalismfs new adversary, we are told, is Islamic or Muslim fundamentalism . a
new totalitarian formation. According to the liberal left, no insurgency in contemporary Iraq
or Afghanistan could be a resistance to outside rule. When the ehome of democracyf
comes calling to lend a helping hand, nothing short of a twisted desire for totalitarian
absolutism, or jihadi cultism, could motivate acts of resistance. Any attempt to explain that
tyrannical abuses of power are not particular to a non-western people, religion, or eculturef
. by suggesting, for instance, that the USA, UK, France and the former USSR played
some significant part in installing, arming, and sustaining dictators such as Saddam
Hussein or Augusto Pinochet tends to be dismissed as an apology for tyranny and
totalitarianism. To object to high altitude aerial bombing as a means of emancipating
Afghan women is to attract the charge that the universal equality of women is being
disregarded in the name of ecultural relativismf. eWife burningf and efemale genital
mutilationf are other favourite calling cards of muscular liberals (a repeat of the bygone
obsession with the esex practices of the nativesf). These are the esignsf of barbarism . and
a epeoplef and eculturef, no less, are indicted on mass for sustaining these practices. The
multitude of different forms of eveilingf among Muslim women is another efrontlinef for
muscular liberals. To explain that religious piety, or a complex range of negotiations
among men/women, parents/children, within and between communities, is at stake is to
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attract the charge of eepistemological relativismf.21 The panacea for all these different
vectors of political and cultural conflict, we are asked to believe, is universal truth,
rationality and science, all mediated through democratic institutions and human rights
sourced in an indefinite place called the eWestf.
The relationship between death, politics, and subjectivity appear central to many
discussions which compare violence in the name of liberal democratic political formations
with those apparently driven by Islam. It thus seems apt to interrogate how liberal
subjectivity, human finitude, and politics cohere at the site of ecollective immortalityf22 (a
notion of the public, nation, or political community). In the following section, then, I focus
on the death-politics nexus in some influential studies.23
II Death and Politics
Berman draws a guniversal missionh for the United States from Abraham Lincolnfs
Gettysburg Address . and places emphasis on the defence of freedom as a work of death.
According to Berman, Lincoln did not gavert his eyes from deathh.24 For Lincoln, reflecting
on the sacrifice of Union soldiers during the Civil War, death is the measure of
commitment to liberty, equality, and self-government: gthe last full measure of devotionh.25
The cultish register is at a fevered pitch as Berman, inspired by Lincoln, draws the nexus
between liberalism and war: ga liberal society must be, when challenged, a warlike society,
or it will not endureh.26 Much horror and suffering has been unleashed on the world in the
name of the liberal society which must endure. eMoral equivalencef is the fuzzy concept
deployed if the difference between our egood warf and their senseless cult of death is
questioned. It is the thanatopolitical formations common to liberalism and Islamism that
this section will explore.
21 See my discussion of the various approaches to subjectivity and subjection in the context of legal
limits on eveilingf, and the unstable distinction between religion and secularism, in S. Motha, gVeiled
Women and the affect of Religion in Democracyh, in S. Motha (ed.), Democracyfs Empire:
Sovereignty, Law, and Violence (Oxford, Blackwell, 2007), pp. 139-62.
22 Asad, Suicide Bombing, p. 96.
23 I have elected to focus here on liberalism, terrorism, and the death-politics nexus. An equally
important trajectory, but one that is beyond the scope of this essay, is the manner in which
secularism is ecivilising and disciplinaryf rather than directly opposed to religion. This argument is
developed by Saba Mahmood who examines the gshared approach to scriptural hermeneuticsh in
the current religiosity of the US Government and eliberal Muslimsf who together are attempting to
refashion an Islamic reformation. This analysis goes a long way towards breaking down the
opposition between secularism and religion: see Saba Mahmood, gSecularism, Hermeneutics, and
Empire: The Politics of Islamic Reformationh (2006) 18:2 Public Culture 323-347 at 329-30.
24 Berman, Terror and Liberalism, p. 170.
25 Berman, Terror and Liberalism, p. 170.
26 Berman, Terror and Liberalism, p. 170.
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One does not need to go to great lengths to demonstrate the close links between
the preservation of a liberal political order and a politics of death. At its most extreme, the
International Court of Justice found that the use of nuclear weapons is potentially lawful.
There is no euniversal prohibitionf of the use of nuclear weapons in international law if the
life of a state is threatened.27 Moreover, violence in the name of liberal democracy has
been widespread and has served to terrorise civilian populations: recall the numerous
genocidal wars of colonial conquest, the bombing of German and Japanese civilians
during WWII, or the use of nuclear armaments against the Japanese in Hiroshima and
Nagasaki. The pornography of killing and the eerotic involvement with deathf has been
well documented by psychiatrists working with Vietnam veterans suffering post-traumatic
stress disorders . and doubtless many more of these accounts will emerge out of the
current occupation of Iraq. Talal Asad discusses these accounts of killing and violence in
the context of exploring the horror associated with different modes of violence and death,
including suicide bombing.28 As Asad points out, the violence of the warriors of the secular
modern state is not dissected in the same way as the suicide bomber. Asad suggests
that many of the discussions about suicide bombing reveal much more about liberal
assumptions about religious subjectivity and political violence than what is ostensibly
being explained. Below I explore how the ideologies that inform suicide bombing have far
more in common with liberal imaginings of human subjectivity than with the pre-liberal,
etraditionalf, cultish throwback now being associated with Islam and denounced by the
liberal left.
For the liberal left war has become a legitimate means of bringing about political
transformation. Even after the post-invasion catastrophe in Iraq, Berman and others have
argued that the invasion and occupation should be recognised as ganti-totalitarian
revolutionsh, the Baathists having contributed to the gatmosphereh that led to 9/11.29 The
hundreds of thousands of dead civilians are then part of a revolutionary shift to defeat a
totalitarian dictator and establish democracy, the rule of law and equality for women. The
means/end relationship between violence/death and political goals is explicit. No such
instrumentalization of death for political and temporal ends is extended to suicide
bombers. Even in accounts that are relatively gsympathetich to the political conditions
(though not the means) that produce death and killing by suicide bombing, suicide is often
27 Advisory Opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons (8th July, 1996)
(International Court of Justice), I.C.J. Reports 1996, 226.
28 Asad, Suicide Bombing, pp. 71-2. See the discussion there of Theodore Nadelson, Trained to
Kill: Soldiers at War (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).
29 Paul Berman, gWill the Opposition Lead?h New York Times, April 15, 2004 – available at, last accessed on 28 February, 2008.
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treated as the eendf rather than the means of violence. Let us turn to consider some such
One approach is to understand death and sacrifice in the register of oppression
and freedom. In his much discussed essay, gNecropoliticsh, Archille Mbembe treats
suicide bombing in the context of a discussion about the centrality of death in modern
calculations of power.30 He compares and contrasts a range of necropolitical instances
such as the Holocaust of European Jews, slavery, colonialism, and apartheid South Africa.
Israel/Palestine, a contemporary formation where death, terror, and freedom are in cocirculation,
is framed by Mbembe through two logics . the elogic of survivalf and the elogic
of martyrdomf. In Hegelian terms the esurvivorf is a being whose existence is
characterised entirely as a victory over the other, his enemy.31 The suicide bomber does
not conform to this logic as he does not survive the violent attack to gloat over his dead
How does martyrdom fit in a paradigm of oppression and freedom? Mbembe
explains martyrdom only by distinguishing it from the sacrificial deaths of a statefs
uniformed regulars. The inscription of this difference says a great deal about how the
political theorist has normalised state violence and terror. Why is the death of the soldier
also not an act of martyrdom? According to Mbembe what separates the suicide bomber
from the statefs various killing machines is the form . indeed, the uniform of the killer.
This, along with the ejustnessf of war, legally authorises the state to deal out death. The
logic of martyrdom, Mbembe says, needs to confront this distinction between form
(uniformed regular or terrorist) and matter (the dealing out of death). But for Mbembe,
martyrdom collapses form/matter as the suicide bomberfs body becomes the uniform of
the destructive device . the body is the weapon, and is thus removed from a field of
power. This is tantamount to the denial of a political-death that has a temporal purchase.
Commenting on the body of the suicide bomber, Mbembe says:
The body in itself has neither power nor value. The power and value of the body result from
a process of abstraction based on the desire for eternity. In that sense, the martyr, having
established a moment of supremacy in which the subject overcomes his own mortality, can
be seen as labouring under the sign of the future. In other words, in death the future is
collapsed into the present.32
This is a common reduction of the suicide bomber to one who seeks another-worldly
immortality . an account I will return to below. On this account, the materiality of the
present is overcome through a mystical association with a transcendental future. The
30 Achille Mbembe, gNecropoliticsh, Trans. Libby Meintjes, Public Culture 15:1 (2003), pp. 11.40.
31 Mbembe, gNecropoliticsh, p. 36.
32 Mbembe, gNecropoliticsh, p. 37.
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motivation for pain, suffering, planning and implementing onefs own violent death and that
of others, is given an otherworldly (and largely theological) explanation. eDesire for
eternityf is offered as the explanation for why the body is turned into a malleable thing:
The matter of the body, or again the matter which is the body, is invested with properties
that cannot be deduced from its character as a thing, but from a transcendental nomos
outside it. The besieged body becomes a piece of metal whose function is, through
sacrifice, to bring eternal life into being. The body duplicates itself and, in death, literally
and metaphorically escapes the state of siege and occupation.33
Death, suicide, the site of self-negation is also, then, a space of a freedom to come. It is
an escape from the pain of occupation or other forms of suffering. Death mediates the
journey to another world of redemption. The ebody in painf is quite central to Mbembefs
account of terror, death, and freedom. While this account may offer some insights into
Palestinian suicide bombers in the context of occupation, it adopts the view that the logic
of suicide bombing can be derived from some eauthenticf sense of the possibility of
being/existence beyond worldly life. The political, temporal implications of this death are
not theorised. If death is politics, it is as a politically unassimilable road to another form of
Are there other ways in which the ebody in painf can be placed in relation with a
community or political formation? Why abstract the body out of its setting through the
ideas and ideologies deployed to recruit, plan, and execute violent acts? The suicide
bomber is then, despite the attention to the conditions of her suffering, removed from
being in a political and historical relationship with her victim. And what are the implications
of recognising release from pain through self-sacrifice as a political strategy or technique
of resistance? We can explore the implications and limits of Mbembefs approach by
considering other accounts which study the eworldlyf and eother worldlyf dimensions of
martyrdom and sacrifice.
Another influential approach views suicide bombing as motivated by religion. This
approach seeks a sociological and theological explanation beyond the individual
psychological one. The Christian sense of sacrifice is adopted to understand suicide
bombing as the making-holy or becoming esacredf of the sacrificiant. Asad argues that this
involves taking the Christian gconcept of Christfs supreme gift of himself as the model for
sacrifice in generalh.34 Suicide bombing or martyrdom is then seen as a sacrificial gift
made to the ePalestinian nationf, for instance, without interrogating the kind of religious
subjectivity that is invoked here. The act becomes at once social, motivated by religion,
33 Mbembe, gNecropoliticsh, p. 37.
34 Asad, Suicide Bombing, p. 44.
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and constitutive of a relation between violence, nation, and religion. The nuanced
hermeneutic differences between appellations such as esacrifice, gift, martyrdomf tend to
be ignored by commentators that want the narrative to be an assimilation of the act of the
suicide bomber to the regular enationalf narratives such as the way in which we saw
Berman invoke Lincoln above.
As Asad points out, the Arabic word for egiftf, hadiyya, is never used to describe
sacrifice, and qurb.n, the Arabic word for sacrifice is more commonly used by Arabic
speaking Christians to describe communion, than by Arabic speaking Muslims to describe
animal sacrifice.35 The reason the religious motivation of suicide bombing is favoured, as
Asad explains, is that it combines a psychological element familiar to a criminal process,
and a gcultural signh that can distinguish ethemf from eusf. This feeds the civilizational
discourse where ewef are committed to life, and etheyf are committed to death.36 The
suicide bomber is then, at once, the esamef and thus cognisable (possessing the elast full
measure of devotionf) and absolutely different (pre-modern, unquestioning, not doubting
religion). A key difference here is the purchase of the comparison between the secular
ends of liberal democracy with the violence, sacrifice, or martyrdom of Islamist terrorists. It
is to the undoing of that difference that I will now turn.
To put the issue bluntly, what do jih.dis have in common with those who commit
violence in the name of liberal democracy? To explore this question recall the opposition
posed by left liberals between Islamic fundamentalism as a revival of pre-modern tribalism
and stasis in contrast to western wars for democracy which stand for enlightenment
values, rationality and freedom. Recall, also, the absence of emoral equivalencef between
eour good warf and etheir cult of deathf. According to Roxanne Euben jihad has a rich and
varied set of meanings in Islam: gDerived from the verb jahada which means “to exert,” “to
struggle,” or “to strive”, jihad literally means “exerting one’s utmost power, efforts,
endeavours, or ability in contending with an object of disapprobation” or striving toward a
worthy goal.37 As Euben explains gWhen qualified by the phrase “in the path of Godh (fi
Sabil Allah), jihad refers to struggling or striving in the path of God, yet the form and
means of such struggle are quite varied in the Islamic sourcesh.38 Euben then makes two
important arguments that help to dissolve the opposition between jih.dis and deathly
democrats. First, the contemporary and largely postcolonial reworking of jihad must not
be seen as the revival of an unadulterated Islamic tradition. When Islamist writers like
35 Asad, Suicide Bombing, p. 44.
36 Asad, Suicide Bombing, p. 56.
37 Roxanne Euben, gKilling (for) Politics: Jihad, Martyrdom, Political Actionh, 30 Political Theory
(2002), 4-35, at p. 12.
38 Euben, gKilling (for) Politicsh, p. 12.
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Qutb insist on the revival of a etraditionf, they engage in a modern discourse of authenticity,
as well as sovereignty, socialism, nationality, and rationality in order to advance their
arguments in a terrain of contestation in which no epuref position is available.39 This is not
unlike the elast full measure of devotionf in the sacrifice of soldiers in the name of liberty,
nation, or democracy. Second, the assertion of a universalist and social logic is the better
interpretation of contemporary theorists of jihad, rather than the reading of radical Islam as
a eparticularismf to be contrasted to the euniversalistf West (modern, enlightened and so
on). As Euben points out: gaction in the name of jihad has always been, at least since the
Medinan period, in the service of a universalist and universalizing political and social
orderh.40 While this is not a justification of killings in the name of jihad, it displaces the
sense that suicide bombing is a return to eprimitive traditionf or the pursuit of an eother
worldlyf immortality. What is clear from this discussion are the continuities rather than
differences between Islamic and so-called Western discourses in relation to death and
politics. Only the western universal, refusing to recognize Islam as an alternative
universal, renders it into an otherworldly quest.
It is unhelpful to orient the discussion of death and politics through apparent
differences between west/east, Islamic and Christian legacies, or pre-modern and modern
social and political imaginings. Euben insists that the relationship between death and
worldly politics is an intimate one, and it is not only the preserve of Islamists who are read
as revivers of epre-modernf tribalism. Christianity produces its own legion of deadly saints.
Consider the following incisive passage from Walzer, discussed by Euben:
The puritan response produced revolutionaries, that is, saints, godly magistrates, men
already disciplined (before the revolution begins) for the strenuous work of transforming all
society and all men in the image of their own salvation. Such men, narrow, fanatical,
enthusiastic, committed to their “work,” have little to contribute to the development of either
liberalism or capitalism … . Their great achievement is what is known in the sociology of
revolution as the terror, the effort to create a Holy Commonwealth and to force men to be
Godly. …Their extraordinary self-confidence … makes them capable finally of killing the
king. ..the saints are entrepreneurs indeed, but in politics rather than in economics. They
ruthlessly (and anxiously) pursue not wealth or even individual power. . . but collective
control of themselves, of each other, of all England.41
Death, terror, and politics are a worldly pursuit of power and control. The unification of a
polity under One law, the governance of a territory under One authority, the eaffective
39 Euben, gKilling (for) Politicsh, p. 21.
40 Euben, gKilling (for) Politicsh, p. 22.
41 Michael Walzer, “Puritanism as a Revolutionary Ideology,” in S. N. Eisenstadt (ed.) The
Protestant Ethic and Modernization: A Comparative View (New York: Basic Books, 1968), p. 129 .
cited in Euben, gKilling (for) Politicsh, p. 25.
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bindingf of the human body to the text of the law, are as common to Christianity as they
are to Islam.42
Without wishing to underestimate the differences between Christianity and Islam,
Marinos Diamantides has explained how they both share a common reception of Greek
texts, similar roles for scholars who engage in scriptural interpretation . and above all a
tendency towards legalism. 43 It is then a common edogmatismf rather than an insuperable
difference that marks their conflicts. Diamantides explains how elawf becomes the primary
expression of Islam gin a manner structurally similar to Christianityh.44 In Islam there is an
attempt at Canonization . but one that ultimately fails, or at least fails to manifest itself in
the form of Papal or other sovereign form which transcends local, communal, consensual
interpretations of texts. What then accounts for the dis/similarities between Islam and
Christianity? At the heart of this, for Diamantides, is the divergent fate of legalism in Islam
and Christianity . the reception of Roman Canon law is gstill bornh in Islam, whereas
Christianity successfully establishes gexclusive interpretative authorityh at the centre of an
imperial capital.45 Christianity evolves into the figure of what in later modernity becomes a
esovereign authorityf, along with a form of subjectivization which involves geautonomyf,
esolidarityf, ereciprocityfh.46 Later this matures into a principle whereby the etruth-seekingf
autonomous individual subject is at the heart of eWestern political rationalityf.47 In Islam, in
contrast, the equivalent principle is the glocal community as ecollective subjectfh speaking
through multiple, grevered interpreters of religious lawh.48 These similarities and contingent
differences result in anxieties that are related to the secularization of both monotheisms.
Current Islamic politics should then be viewed, Diamantides argues, as a gsecular politics
with a religious cloakh . just as gwestern liberalism is a secular cloak for religious
politicsh.49 While the potential symmetry of this formulation requires further elaboration
beyond the scope of this essay, it does undo the claim that the West is the only source of
a secular and worldly politics. The repression of the religious as the condition of modern
42 Peter Goodrich, Lior Barshack, Anton, gIntroductionh in Peter Goodrich, Lior Barshack,
Anton (eds.) Law, Text, Terror (London, Routledge-Cavendish, 2006), p. 8.
43 Marinos Diamantides, gTowards a Western-Islamic Conception of Legalismh in Peter Goodrich,
Lior Barshack, Anton (eds.) Law, Text, Terror (London, Routledge-Cavendish, 2006), pp.
44 Diamantides, gWestern-Islamic Conception of Legalismh, p. 96.
45 Diamantides, gWestern-Islamic Conception of Legalismh, p. 97.
46 Diamantides, gWestern-Islamic Conception of Legalismh, p. 97.
47 Diamantides, gWestern-Islamic Conception of Legalismh, p. 97.
48 Diamantides, gWestern-Islamic Conception of Legalismh, p. 97.
49 Diamantides, gWestern-Islamic Conception of Legalismh, p. 114.
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politics reveals itself to be an unfinished enterprise threatened by the eternal return of
What is primarily at stake, at least for my purposes, in this eWestern-Islamic
Conception of Legalismf as Diamantides has explained it is the displacement of the very
conception of the eWestf as distinct from eIslamic traditionf. As Jean-Luc Nancy has
cogently expressed it: gThe West can no longer call itself the West from the moment it
witnesses the spread, across the entire world, of the form that could once have seemed to
constitute its distinguishing featuresh.50 The full implications of this claim for an
interrogation of globalization, and indeed the eglobal war on terrorf is beyond the
immediate scope of this essay. But what it directs us to is the urgent need to contest and
question categories such as the eWestf, or indeed eEuropef . two signs of apparent
presence, or finitude, which are not now, if they ever were, capable of being given any
consistent substance. And yet so much is loaded on to the eWestf/fEuropef and its reason,
enlightenment, humanity, autonomy, secularism and so on. These are treated as if they
are a continuous progression from the one source, now contained within the one place
(the West), and attacked by a unified tribe of barbarians amassed against it. Diamantides
explains why this dis/continuous trajectory of the West is not just Western-Christian, but
also Western-Islamic. And Nancy explains how the eWestf is neither a place nor a
destination as the West itself has become globalised through processes of colonialism and
the spread of a techno-scientific rationality.
III Concluding Remarks: No Place Like the eWestf
The events of September 11, 2001 start with a collision that is the symbol and
symptom of a clash of monotheisms.51 There was a correspondence between all that is
symbolised through the eWorld Trade Centref, God as the dollar, or in fact the God
mentioned in the dollar, and Islamist terrorists who sort a worldly immortality in the name
of another monotheistic God.52 In either case an instrumentalised God is presented as a
source of absolute value. The reaction that took the name ewar on terrorf became the site
for a liberal deployment of yet more absolutes . civilizational divisions, secular pretentions,
and extraordinary renditions. But this post 9/11 world, as it has come to be called, seems
to reiterate a formulation that no longer seems possible precisely because the world has
become global. Is there not a ethird worldf in the efirstf, or elements in the global south that
50 Jean-Luc Nancy, gDeconstruction of Monotheismh Postcolonial Studies, 6:1, (2003) pp. 37.46, at
p. 37
51 Jean-Luc Nancy, The Creation of the World or Globalisation (Albany, SUNY Press, 2007) p. 39.
52 Nancy, Creation of the World, p. 39.
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can be the author of their own destruction? Secularism, rationality, science, democracy,
poverty, raced and gendered oppressions . none of these phenomena can be sourced in
the West given their global proliferation. To that extent the new alignments of the liberal
left with which I began this discussion are out of time, and out of place in this new global
world. If I may lower the tone for a moment to remind ourselves, consider the following
conception of religion in the world from Martin Amis:
Today, in the West, there are no good excuses for religious belief – unless we think
ignorance, reaction and sentimentality are good excuses. This is of course not so in the
East, where, we acknowledge, almost every living citizen in many huge and populous
countries is intimately defined by religious belief.53
This claim is patently absurd when considered in relation to the United States. And no one
passed this news on to the British Government which steadfastly retains a far from secular
constitutional order in the UK. For instance, a recent White Paper on constitutional reform
had this to say about the centrality of the Church of England: gThe Church of England is by
law established as the Church in England and the Monarch is its Supreme Governor. The
Government remains committed to this positionh.54 Our time, then, is out of joint. At once
secular in outlook, but committed to Christian institutions, political and juridical formations
throughout the so called eWestf reproduce the structures and formations of monotheism.
eClash of civilizationf discourses are obsessed with the eWestf as the sign that
delivers all meaning and value. The message is that the West has resolved the problem
of authority through liberal constitutionalism. The liberal left project their stance on the war
as the epitome of rationality, opposed to the myth and traditional stasis of the East. But
this rationalism has produced the most vociferous support for deadly and destructive
violence unleashed by the one remaining superpower and its allies. Is this affective
response to terrorism as far from rationalism that one can imagine . or, indeed, is it a
symptom of rationalityfs loss of value?55 There is a global crisis of evaluef . as Nancy has
put it.56 The liberal left response to this should have involved an urgent rethinking of the
substitutes for transcendent value, national sovereignty, for instance, which has been such
a corrupting ground for internationalism. Ethno-national community as the basis for
53 Martin Amis, Second Plane, p. 49.
54 The Governance of Britain (2007) . presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State for Justice
and Lord Chancellor, Jack Straw MP, July 2007. Para. 25.
55 For an incisive treatment of affect in politics and religion, see Jean-Luc Nancy, gChurch, State,
Resistanceh in S. Motha (ed.) Democracyfs Empire: Sovereignty, Law, and Violence (London:
Blackwell, 2007) 3-13.
56 Jean-Luc Nancy, gThe War of Monotheismh Postcolonial Studies, 6:1, (2003) pp. 51.53; and
Jean-Luc Nancy, The Sense of the World. Trans. Jeffrey Librett (Minneapolis, University of
Minnesota Press, 1997).
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sovereign self-determination is another problem that required urgent attention. Instead the
most fervent secular hopes have been deployed in the service of aggressive calls for war
and destructive violence. What does this tell us about the monotheistic inheritance of
secular formations?
Imagining the world as a esecularizationf of the Christian ecreated worldf, or efallen
worldf is no longer adequate. The identification of an immanent principle or end . that is, a
cause or telos for this world from this world – has been the site of many disasters. The
question of the eworldf was mainly approached as a question of evaluef . that is, whether
God, humanity, property, labour, nation will be the source of value. The modern problem
has been to cope with the dissipation of an available source of sense outside the world .
to explain the immanent sense of the world. Whether this was to be from humanity, the
use or exchange value of labour, the political theologies of eblood and soilf, nation or
people, have been symptomatic of the struggle for sense. What Nancy has suggested is
that the problem of eworldf must now be confronted beyond the traditions of monotheism,
including secularised onto-theological forms. As value becomes immanent to the world,
the ecreationf of the world is displaced into the gwithout-reasonh of the world: gand this
displacement is not a transposition, a esecularizationf of the onto-theological or
metaphysical-Christian scheme: it is, rather, its deconstruction and emptying out, and it
opens onto another space . of place and of risk . which we have just begun to enterh.57
Permit me to explain this further . though only as a preliminary opening to future
engagements and elaborations.
Recourse to the eWestf, eEuropef, eenlightenment valuesf, without further exploration
of their discontinuous trajectories reveals that there is a break-down of meaning . an
inability to make sense of contemporary events other than by reaching for an old ecertaintyf
that was never present to itself. Nancy has explained that this breakdown of meaning
must be understood within the tradition of emonotheismf itself. Monotheism is anti-religious
. and that fate haunts all peoples drawing their traditions from the three Religions of the
Book. What is meant by emonotheism is anti-religiousf? At stake in the emono-f of
monotheism is not only a distinction with epolytheismf, but also the potential abandonment
that might by wrought by a jealous God whose epeoplef cannot be certain of their fate.
There is no guarantee that through means of sacrifice, or by calling on eHimf to be good to
eHis peoplef, that this all powerful God will bestow goodwill. As Nancy explains:
Monotheism, in its first principles, undoes theism, that is to say the presence of a power
that assembles the world and guarantees its meaning. It thus makes the name of egodf
absolutely problematic . it makes it nonsignificant . and above all it takes away from it all
57 Jean-Luc Nancy, The Creation of the World or Globalisation (Albany, SUNY Press, 2007) p. 51.
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– 19 –
power to guarantee. The Christian guarantee can only take place at the price of a category
that is completely opposed to that of religious belief: the category of efaithf, which is loyalty
to an absence and the certainty of this loyalty in the absence of any guaranteeh.58
The absence of a power that can guarantee meaning . that is our present condition. But
this absence also marks the auto-deconstructive potential of monotheism. In this
condition, Man is placed at the centre of deciphering the meaning of the essence of God .
that is, monotheism becomes demythologised, and thus less religious. Christianity in
particular becomes auto-interpretative: ga symbolic order deciphered in the human
condition (manfs reason, his freedom, his dignity, his relations with others c)h.59 Religious
markers of sacredness are effaced gin favour of what Kant called a ereligion within the
limits of plain reasonf, or again what Feuerbach articulated in saying that ethe belief in God
is manfs belief in the infinity and the truth of his own essencefh.60 Recourse to the eWestf,
rationality, eenlightenment valuesf are only various supplements to this absolute loneliness
of being without a power that will guarantee meaning . of being so utterly free. The liberal
left have run aground in the face of this immense task, clinging as they have to mundane
and ill-thought distinctions between our good wars and their bad meaningless deaths.
What Nancy helps us to see is the gdark sideh of monotheism now showing itself in the
rationalist liberal left. Despite all the efforts to establish an absolute divide between the
West and the rest, between Christianity (its secularism) and Islam, the liberal left (and all
liberals and Christians) are facing the same dilemmas as radical Muslims. A loss of a
transcendent and determinant source of authority is producing and anxious and violent
response. The urgent question now is whether a thought apt for the challenges of this
time can be attended to in the work that is currently under way to reground and re-launch
a universal among many political philosophers of the left.61 The monotheistic attachments
of such discourses carry many dangers. But exploring and critically interrogating them is
an urgent task that follows from this discussion.
58 Nancy, gDeconstruction of Monotheismh, p. 42.
59 Nancy, gDeconstruction of Monotheismh, p. 43.
60 Nancy, gDeconstruction of Monotheismh, p. 43 (original emphasis).
61 Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj .i.ek, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality:
Contemporary Dialogues on the Left (London, Verso, 2000); Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: The
Foundation of Universalism (Stanford, University of California Press, 2003); Slavoj .i.ek, The
Fragile Absolute or, Why is the Christian Legacy is Worth Fighting For? (London, Verso, 2001);
Slavoj .i.ek, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (London, MIT Press,

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