Safdar Ahmed
23 min readJul 22, 2015

Night of the Muslim Zombie

An art series & essay by Safdar Ahmed

The zombie is a fascinating and suggestive trope. By radically denying what it means to be human, the zombie exacerbates social, political and ideological disparities. This has no doubt been true since the zombie’s earliest incarnation in the mythology surrounding magical practices amongst plantation slaves in French occupied Saint-Dominingue. Though its relationship to Voodoo religion is disputed, the Haitian zombie has its origins in the historical trauma of slavery. According to Amy Wilentz, slave-drivers sought to control their subjects through fear, by invoking the power to transform them into zombies, which would guarantee their continued labour in a sort of undead, half-life. Slavery was in part ensured through the manipulation of Haitian-Creole beliefs on the hideous premise that death offered no escape.

The zombie enters popular culture after the US occupation of Haiti (1915–34), in William Seabrook’s The Magic Island (1929) and the cinema of the 1930s and 40s. Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932) activates the Western travellers’ distrust of African-Caribbean culture and religion. A young American couple are to have their wedding in a mansion near Port-au-Prince when the new bride is killed and then zombified by a jealous suitor. After hearing of her resurrection through local magic, her husband exclaims: ‘Surely you don’t think she’s alive? In the hands of natives? Oh, no, better dead than that!’ The film alludes to the distrust felt amongst settler colonists towards the slaves under their control, manipulating popular fears of racial miscegenation and the potential for insurrection, both in Haiti and closer to home. From such beginnings the zombie came to represent the deep-seeded social insecurities and racialised fears of the global North.

The protagonist of George Romero’s Night of the living Dead (1966) is Ben (played by Duane Jones), a black man who survives a zombie attack by finding refuge in a country house. Dawn breaks and a calm descends. Ben is exhausted but help is arriving. A large troupe of armed men are scouring and clearing the area. Spotting Ben from a distance and mistaking him for a ‘walker’, the militia leader tells his sharpshooter: ‘Alright Vince, hit him in the head, right between the eyes’. The hero is shot and killed. ‘Good shot! Ok he’s dead, let’s go get him, that’s another one for the fire’. As the credits roll, a succession of still images show the white militia placing Ben’s body onto a large faggot. Unwilling to be contaminated, they transfer him with pointy, curled meat-hooks that are gouged into the prone man’s flesh. The film was released during the height of America’s Civil Rights Movement. Its allusion to the lynching of black men by racist mobs is striking.

Duane Jones as Ben in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.

As the French philosopher Jacques Derrida pointed out, the zombie inhabits a liminal space. By blurring the categories of life and death, it presents an ambiguous supplement, a something extra, to the binaries that order our existence. By living to a degree, neither alive nor dead, it challenges our understanding of what it means to be human. This makes it a powerful conceptual tool — enabling us to move beyond understandings that are brittle and static to things richer and more nuanced. I will argue as well that the zombie’s confusion of categories takes us beyond the need for critical deconstruction to a place of human agency and hope.

The monster at the edge of society has the potential to illuminate its dark recesses. A prominent theme of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) is capitalism’s chokehold on modern life. After zombies bring down the state, a small band of survivors find refuge in a deserted shopping mall. In the absence of law, they act out fantasies of uninhibited consumption. In this sense the mall is paradise: a cornucopian space in which every need and desire is catered to. But the zombies also want in. They lurch en masse through vast parking lots towards glittering shopfronts, pulled by a residual memory, somewhere in their rotting brains, of ‘the good life’. Perhaps it’s the fate of late-capitalist societies to eek out a half-life of alienated labour and meaningless consumption?

If vampires are the silky aristocrats of the horror genre (an anaemic class of privileged, morbid, night-dwellers, condemned to live eternally), zombies inhabit a lower rung of society. They are the ‘great unwashed’, the lower classes, whose naïve and uninformed attempts at civic participation threaten to overturn society’s rules and norms. They evoke the fear of contagion that metropolitan discourses frequently associated with subaltern and marginalised groups, such as the homeless, migrants, indentured workers, slaves, refugees, gypsies and indigenous communities. They are the bearers of physical illness transmitted through blood and saliva. Their need to violate Western society’s deepest taboos, against murder and cannibalism, strike to the heart of this unease.

On another register zombies unsettle our relationship with the dead precisely because dead folk are powerless to naysay our manipulation of them. Consider how fallen soldiers, politicians and frontiersman are lionised in historical narratives, draped in flags, enshrined in a pantheon of bygone heroes — all in the service of an imaginary community. Necropolitics — the memorialisation of the dead — defines the living nation. The fallen ANZAC digger of Australian nationalism is a blank slate onto which numerous Prime Ministers, but none more than John Howard, projected a morally conservative and culturally homogenous notion of Australian identity. Countless cenotaphs around the world eulogise the ‘unknown soldier’ but were he (as ‘he’ is conventionally gendered) to rise up, would he approve? Were the dead to come back, would they shake their heads?

There is something edifying about zombies. By pushing existence to the point of, and beyond, death, they show us what it means to live in the truest sense. This is a common theme of zombie films, in which the focus is conventionally on the ability of humans to survive a zombie attack. Whether we band together, bicker amongst ourselves or go it alone is often crucial to our survival. The challenge is not always to eradicate the zombie but to endure its presence without allowing ourselves to become infected, or without losing our humanity in another sense, which brings me to the subject of this essay.

The zombie has played a pivotal role in the Western imagination of Islam and Muslim culture since the so-called ‘war against terrorism’ inaugurated by the American administration under George W Bush in 2001. Yet this zombie-Muslim connection is rooted in a perception of Islam that reaches back further, to the birth of the European Enlightenment. It can be traced through scholarship, literature and art, to hoary stereotypes of Muslim irrationality and fanaticism. A figment of paranoia and revulsion, the zombie is about more than our current fear of terrorism. It is a looking glass for all the weird dreams and vivid hallucinations of modern Islamophobia.

Safdar Ahmed, ‘Hungry for flesh!’.

The zombie-Muslim in Western thought

The Muslim has been called a fatalist. Oh what a word! What an error! They forget that fatalism does not rest in Islam but in the person.

Tidar, a writer for Het Licht, Indonesia’s Nationaal Socialistische Beweging (NSB) party newspaper, 1926.

The Islamic belief in predestination easily assumed fatalistic characteristics in the beliefs of the masses.

Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion.

In Western historiography, there is an established pattern of viewing Islam and Muslim culture much as we view zombies today. This discourse has many stages and contributors that can be traced to orientalist writings of the early modern period. Its central claim is that Muslims, unlike the followers of other religions, are intellectually and spiritually deadened. The idea most clearly emerges in the paradigm of Muslim fatalism.

It was the French historian and philologist, Ernst Renan, who argued that Islam opposes initiative, free thought and rational enquiry. In a lecture titled Islam and Science, delivered at the Sorbonne in 1883, Renan began with a common orientalist conceit, which is to make broad generalisations about an entire religion based on impressions gained from travelling to countries in which that religion is present. His descriptions are vivid:

Every person, however slightly he may be acquainted with the affairs of our time, sees clearly the actual inferiority of Mohammedan countries, the decadence of states governed by Islam, and the intellectual nullity of the races that hold, from that religion alone, their culture and their education. All those who have been in the East, or in Africa, are struck by the way in which the mind of a true believer is fatally limited, by the species of iron circle that surrounds his head, rendering it absolutely closed to knowledge, incapable of either learning anything, or of being open to any new idea.

This retarding influence, for Renan, stemmed from the very language of Islamic revelation and scholarship. Pointing out that races are defined by the languages they employ (a common belief amongst philologists in the nineteenth century) Renan denigrated Arabic — criticising what he wrongly perceived to be its imperfect conjugation of verbs. ‘Even today’, he asserted, ‘the Arabs are still struggling against the linguistic error committed by their ancestors ten or fifteen thousand years ago’. This blunder had shaped the religion and culture of Islam, sharpening its hostility to reason and science. Thus for Renan, Islam is static. It cannot escape its racial-linguistic origins amongst the desert-dwelling Arabs of the seventh century, with their Semitic culture, their simplicity and ignorance.

This concept of Islam as a regressive historical force nurtured the paradigm of Muslim fatalism amongst European thinkers in the nineteenth century. In their view fatalists hold everything to be cosmically determined, irrational, impersonal and beyond human control. The fatalist is reconciled to a life of unknowing, resigned to the mysteries of time and space, which shapes a disinterested, languid and slothful cast of mind. As Edward William Lane, the famed nineteenth century Arabist and translator of the The Arabian Nights, wrote in his description of Egyptian society:

The belief in predestination renders the Muslim utterly devoid of presumption with regard to future actions or to any future events. He never speaks of anything that he intends to do, or of any circumstances which he expects and hopes may come to pass, without adding, ‘If it be the will of God’.

It was believed a fatalist can smother their morality and commit the most horrific acts by transferring accountability from the self to fate, an inscrutable, external force. Thus Muslim barbarism, and lack of moral feeling, was a common subject for orientalist writers and artists in the nineteenth century. A painting by the French artist, Jean-Leon Gerome (1824–1904), titled ‘The Day of Judgement’ (oil on canvas), depicts a casual acceptance of brutality. God and the angel clearly prefer the killer of infidels over one who indulges in the slaughter (and suggested consumption) of swine.

A summation of his life’s work, the Muslim sits atop a pile of decapitated heads. His rich crimson gown evokes their blood.

(Someone seized the opportunity to profit from this sumptuous depiction of Muslim barbarity and is selling it on Amazon.)

Islamic regression is gendered in the colonial view of Muslim women, who were approached with a mixture of sympathy and contempt. As Leila Ahmed argues, European imperialists have long decried the oppression of Muslim women but only to give greater legitimacy to their arguments for colonial interference and occupation. Lord Evelyn Baring Cromer, who became British controller-general of Egypt in 1878, offered British colonialism as a beacon to lesser civilisations in this respect. ‘Islam as a social system has been a complete failure’, he concluded with an eye to the religion’s treatment of women. Quoting Stanley Lane-Poole and in contrast to his anti-Suffragist politics at home, Cromer adopted the stance of an imperial feminist, describing the degradation of women in Muslim homes as: ‘a canker, which begins its destructive work early in childhood, and has eaten into the whole system of Islam’. Never mind that his policies served to disadvantage Egyptian women in the spheres of education and employment. And here I note the word ‘canker’. It stems from the Latin cunc-rum, or cancer (from which derives the medical term of the same name) denoting an ‘eating, spreading sore or ulcer; a gangrene’. A canker consumes and corrodes its host, thus the term ‘canker blossom’ to describe a worm-eaten flower.

This lithograph by an unknown artist of 1880 depicts a Muslim dhikr ceremony (the ritualised remembrance of God) in Cairo. Note the ghoulish features of the participants, who seem collectively possessed. The print is held in the Mary Evans Picture Library in London.

The historian Norman Daniel observes the notion of Muslim fatalism appeared rarely in European writings of the medieval period. Where it did occur, one assumes readers might have drawn a connection to such themes in the Christian churches, particularly in the work of Calvin. Although perceptions of Islam amongst Western thinkers were diverse and not always disparaging, it is clear that for intellectuals such as Renan Islam played a role in counterposing the progress of Europe. ‘Fatalism’ was often cited as an explanation for Islam’s perceived decline after Europe’s industrial revolution and the expansion of its colonies. In orientalist writing we encounter the misleading question as to ‘what went wrong’ (Bernard Lewis) in the Muslim world, accompanying explanations about the apparent ‘failure’ of Muslims to keep up with European science and technology. Indeed, fatalism became the Ur-theme for comprehending the regression of civilisations more generally — be it the Roman Empire in the hands of Edward Gibbon, or the modern West in the historical pessimism of Oswald Spengler. Yet for non-Muslim civilisations fatalism was seen as a historical wrong turn, a mistake rather than an inherent trait. By the twentieth century, Islamic predestination was a cliché that serviced the self-perception of Western progress.

The idea of Muslim fatalism supplies a disturbing side-note to one of the worst genocides of the twentieth century. It is a curious fact that during the Holocaust, the inmates of Auschwitz referred to the most psychologically and physically decimated prisoner as der Muselmann (Muslim in German). As Jean Amery put it:

The so-called Muselmann, as the camp language termed the prisoner who was giving up and who was given up by his comrades, no longer had room in his consciousness for the contrasts good or bad, noble or base, intellectual or unintellectual. He was a staggering corpse, a bundle of physical functions in its last convulsions.

Though scholars have speculated about the true meaning and origins of the term, it strongly mirrors European misconceptions about Islamic notions of fate and predestination. The Muselmann in camp lingo was the quintessential zombie, a benumbed creature of deprivation, whom Aldo Carpi called ‘mummy-men, the living dead’.

A historical photograph, captioned ‘Musselman at Dachau’, sourced from the Holocaust Education & Research Team Archive website.

The zombie war for civilization

In our time the theory of Islamic fatalism is employed by those who believe the ‘war against terrorism’ is actually a war against the entire Muslim world. This includes Samuel Huntington’s theory of an impending ‘Clash of Civilizations’ between Islam and the West, which has exercised a strong influence over far right-wing discourses in Europe and the US over the last two decades. Exponents of this theory include Bernard Lewis, Roger Scruton, Bassam Tibi, Irshad Manji, as well as the conspiracy theorists: Daniel Pipes, Robert Spencer, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Geert Wilders, to name a few. Huntington’s thesis is notable for over-determining the role of Islam in contemporary political affairs. The wars of the future, he asserts, will be waged not in the interests of nation states but to consolidate larger religious and cultural identities. Amongst the world’s major civilisations (of which he identifies seven), Huntington perceives the greatest threat in Islam, whose ‘bloody borders’ reflect an inherent antagonism towards non-Muslims, and general incompatibility with Western secularism and democracy. ‘The fundamental problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism’ Huntington asserts. ‘It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power.’

Safdar Ahmed, ‘Infection Spreads’.

Proponents for a clash of civilisations commonly portray themselves as defending the Enlightenment values of free speech, tolerance and egalitarianism against Islam, which is cast as violent and closed-minded. Often this positions them not only against Islam but left-wing theories of mutliculturalism, whose proposed tolerance of Muslim communities is seen as a fatal compromise with an unflappable enemy. In this context, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali put it, ‘the trouble is the West’. Muslim migration is likened to an invasion, pre-empting the take-over of Western societies. It is a measure of the success of such misconceptions that English translations of the word ‘Islam’ so easily go askew. Islam is often rendered into English as submission, which contains negative connotations of force. This sense of the word is brought home in Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission (Soumission), which pictures France in 2022 after a Muslim party has been elected to power. Reflecting the paranoia of France’s National Front (NFP), Houellebecq evokes a dystopian future in which French culture is disowned, polygamy is legalised and women are banished from the public sphere.

Safdar Ahmed, ‘The Geert Wilders Zombie Survival Guide’.

Yet for Muslims, Islam connotes something else. In its verbal form: an act of autonomous self-surrender to the divine will, or what Toshihiko Izutsu calls ‘absolute trust in God’. This relates to experiences of faith, ritual, and community, and does not describe a relationship of force.

There is an old debate about the issue of destiny in Islamic theology, which arose in the eighth and ninth centuries. Yes the Quran and hadith make frequent references to notions of divine predestination, which spurred theological discussions about the nature of causality — whether causes are contingent upon Divine immanence or occur independently of it. Some religious scholars argued for a theory of divine determinism on the premise that if God’s knowledge and power is all encompassing, nothing can occur that is beyond God’s reach. A proponent of this argument was Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d.1111), who invoked zombiism to prove his point. We know, al-Ghazali wrote, that no one has yet seen a decapitated man remain alive and go about his daily routines. Yet if God decreed it the headless man could indeed exist, despite empirical evidence suggesting it to be impossible. God’s agency is paramount. Yet few denied the existence of free will amongst human beings. Theologians belonging to the ‘Ashari school of law claimed that God creates a spectrum of ‘potential’ acts which humans then choose and so ‘acquire’ (kasb). This idea of acquisition protects the omnipotence of God whilst clearing a space for human freedom and moral accountability.

Alas caricatures die hard and the stereotype of Muslim fatalism is just that: a fiction shaped by 19th century orientalist scholars and imperial racists, to be refined in the twentieth century by opportunistic politicians, academics, cultural producers and a profoundly ignorant gaggle of Islam haters.

An old fear — rising from the dead!

‘Muslim rage’ on the cover of Newsweek magazine.

‘This is going to be the real deal & absolutely survivable against these 4th world allahpuke zombies. STAND! Go heavy, Only assholes are outgunned, Dont be outgunned or out ammo’d.’

American rock musician and National Rifle Association board member Ted Nugent, 2014.

The fear of Islam is a palpable and determining force in our world. It emerged strikingly in the late 1970s, when the Iranian revolution brought political Islam to the international stage, and was reinforced by the attacks on US soil on 11 September 2001. Amorphous and penumbral, this fear saturates cultural genres, such as novels, comics and films. Indeed a dizzying plethora of zombie novels and movies have been produced since 2001. It was strange but revealing to hear commentators after the attack against the Twin Towers refer to is as something akin to a Hollywood disaster movie. Many felt as though they were watching a film enacted in real life, as though the normal order of relations had been reversed, when in fact our reality and sense of history has long been conditioned by popular cinema. And whilst George Romero used zombies to produce subtle and potentially edifying social commentary, they have since taken on a darker, more racist hue.

Safdar Ahmed, ‘Zombie Fries’.

Islamophobia is connected to the zombie threat in Z A Recht’s, Plague of the Dead, in which a zombie outbreak begins in one of the most populous cities in the Muslim world, Cairo. US troops try in vain to stop rabid hordes from spreading beyond the regions of Africa and the Middle East, referring us to the orient as a dark location in the West’s geographical imagination: a locus of violence and disease. The comic series, Zombies of Mass Destruction, in which zombies are deployed by the US military to win the fight against Muslim terrorists in the Arab world, evokes the same association.

A more egregious example is Max Brook’s World War Z, which works by analogy to zombiewash Israel’s crimes against the Palestinian people. In Brooks’ hands, the expansive concrete wall that abets Israel’s expropriation of Palestinian land in illegally occupied territory is depicted as a sort of modern-day ark. In response to the zombie threat, Israel allows all non-infected humans inside the wall, where Arabs and Jews are momentarily united. Elated by Israel’s generosity, survivors break out into song (in the film) which incites zombies to scale the barrier. This plays to the self-mythology of Israel as a benevolent, democratic country that only pursues military occupation and offensive war as a means of self defence.

In the novel, Brooks introduces us to Saladin Kader, a Palestinian refugee who embodies the worst caricature of the Arab anti-Semite. He mounts a breathless rant against Israel which, far from touching on genuine historical grievances is rooted in paranoia. He dismisses the zombie outbreak as a lie, a Zionist conspiracy designed to fragment and weaken Arab states, before fighting an Israeli Jew who he doesn’t realise has been infected. Advocates for Israeli and US military dominance over the Middle East commonly ascribe an irrational political culture to Arab governments and insurgents (Fouad Ajami) for which Saladin is a walking test case. It is only after his life is saved by an (uninfected) IDF soldier that his worldview is fundamentally challenged. The soldier’s benevolence — which overlooks political, racial and religious affiliation — forces Saladin to revise his irrational prejudices and learn an implied moral lesson. Namely, the IDF act justly, Israel only desires peace, and the Palestinians were wrong to ever resist the colonisation of their ancestral lands.

Safdar Ahmed, ‘Brain-Food’.

The paranoid fantasies of the horror genre parallel discourses of the ‘war against terrorism’ amongst Islamophobes on the political right in Australia, Europe and the US, so inflating conspiracy theories about a Muslim threat to ‘our’ way of life. The overwrought prose found in right-wing scholarship, news media and the blogosphere has normalised such expressions as: ‘Islamofascism’, ‘Islamisation’, ‘Islam has bloody borders’, ‘creeping sharia’, ‘sharia by stealth’, ‘unholy terror’, ‘Muslim rage’ (think here of the zombie rage virus), ‘deathcult’ and so on. Such terminology plays upon an existing paranoia in the creation of a new (un)reality. Its consequence is that now more than ever, Muslims are bombarded with distorted accusations and conspiracy theories that put a question mark under their civic morality. This is promoted by right-wing politicians, sections of the corporate media and fringe groups like the Australian Defence League and Q Society of Australia, who describe Islam as a ‘totalitarian ideology’, comparable with fascism and Nazism.

Safdar Ahmed, ‘Stop Islamo-fascist Zombie-ization!’.

The zombie-Muslim in Hollywood films and computer games embodies Georgio Agamben’s notion of homo sacer or ‘bare life’ — a person relegated to a juridical ‘state of exception’ in which the normal, legal protections that citizens take for granted no longer apply. Or, as Jack Shaheen made clear, Muslims on the silver screen are all too killable! They appear so morally debased, so abject (and exotic — but in a way that inspires revulsion) as to be blown away without need for moral qualm or juridical accountability. If there’s a dominant trope for Hollywood depictions of Islam it is the Muslim horde — a homogeneous culture that is secretive, seedy, violent, misogynistic and barbaric. It appears in recent films such as The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty and American Sniper. Whilst claiming to show the ‘reality’ of America’s military engagement in the Middle East, these films function as propaganda — in many cases legitimising US policies of extra-judicial killing, secret rendition and torture. Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is perhaps the worst example, for glorifying the actions of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL who candidly admitted killing civilians in Iraq.

Audience reactions to American Sniper.

Games are equally problematic when they exploit themes of military occupation and urban warfare in an Arab-Muslim setting. The fact that games elicit enjoyment in simulated killing is not in itself problematic, because we harmlessly simulate lots of things in the virtual world (as in the real world) understanding all the while that this is merely a type of role-play. But what does it mean if the game denigrates a particular racial or religious group?

Dying Light was published by Warner Bros in 2015. It is a zombie-apocalypse survival game set in the fictional Middle Eastern city of Harran. With Western troops and military contractors engaged across the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, its allusion to the killing of Muslim insurgents (and civilians) seems hard to ignore. Other games are more explicit. The goal of Muslim Massacre (created in 2008 by an amatuer designer in Brisbane) is to make sure ‘no Muslim man or woman is left alive’. Having dispatched every Muslim that enters the screen, the player progresses through various levels of difficulty, before gaining the opportunity to kill the Prophet Muhammad and a personified Allah.

A female Muslim zombie attacks in Dying Light.
Zombies in the urban landscape of Harran, from Dying Light.

Real zombies: religious and secular

I once explained the concept of Muslim zombies to a Hazara man from Afghanistan who had come to Australia as a refugee only to find himself imprisoned for over two years in an immigration detention centre. I wondered if he would associate the zombies I’d drawn with the type of xenophobia that saw him locked away for years and mislabelled an ‘illegal queue jumper’.

But he didn’t. Instead, he related the zombie to religious extremism in his own country — to the greedy, self-interested, flesh-consuming warlords (the Hikmetyars, Rabbanis and Sayafs) who tore Afghanistan apart after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union. His reading made sense, for whilst the trope is not intended as a critique on Islam (which encompasses a diverse range of beliefs, practices and cultural shadings) it is well applied to that minority of religious zealots, militants and obscurantists who confirm the worst stereotypes of the far-right, and whose supremacist fantasies of political and cultural homogenization they indeed replicate. To skip back to theology for a moment, there is some justification in Muslims calling out puritanical militants for their zombieness — for completely screwing up their religion. Was it not the Prophet Muhammad who said: ‘The comparison of one who remembers God to one who does not is like that of the living and the dead’? (Bukhari)

Safdar Ahmed, ‘Media Zombie’, watercolour on paper.

Whilst some radial Islamists do indeed live down to the zombie caricature, this is less a sign of their religiosity than a symptom of their modernity. The most militant proponents of political Islam, including the Taliban, Daesh, al-Qaeda and Boko Haram have an impoverished understanding of Islam’s erstwhile legal, theological and spiritual traditions. Their vision of an Islamic state is not anachronistic, as we are commonly told. They do not wish to wind the clock back to the seventh century. Rather, their selective disaggregation and recombination of religious tradition is thoroughly modern. So too their ability to mobilise a shallow, instrumentalist form of reason that reduces religion to the status of a political ideology. This objectification of religion, as Wilfred Cantwell Smith pointed out, reflects a modern interest. It is the will to conceive religion as a set of rationally apprehended doctrines and practices that can be studied, held up and compared with other religious ‘systems’.

In the wrong hands, this process of reification boils faith down to a crude set of authoritarian strictures and prohibitions, which conversely mirrors the dumbing down of political dogmas and traditions in the secular sphere. (Examples of the latter include the worst cases of free-market fundamentalism, American exceptionalism, rightwing fascism, radical Stalinism, and the shallow polemics of the new-atheist movement, to name a few.) Religion becomes rife for exploitation in the redressal of political agendas, both legitimate and illegitimate. Reification is the calling card of religious nationalists around the world who use faith to validate an incipient political identity or aspiration to power. This is true of Zionist settlers in Israel, Buddhist militants in Burma, radical Christian evangelicals in the US and Hindutva nationalists in India. All are taken with the idea that religion can be evacuated of its otherworldly content and realized in this world, as a simplified political system or program. This approach stems from modernity’s shallow rationalism and obsessive preoccupation with the nation-state.

If zombies are real they are a product of modernity and cannot be put to demonise a single religious or racialised group.

Safdar Ahmed, ‘Muslim + Zombie’.

Back to life!

As the zombie threatens and unsettles us, so can it lead to new understandings. For just as it draws a shaky line between us and them, so may it undermine the false oppositions on which this distinction is based. The zombie, in other words, may disturb the conceptual binaries that separate Islam from the west, reason from superstition, civilization from barbarism, and the sloppy clichés they invoke. I therefore submit a soft, squidgy hope: in the malleable (old and new) concepts of faith and identity which problematise and defy either/or categories. We should not follow Samuel Huntington (who was himself following Leo Strauss) in believing: ‘there can be no true friends without true enemies.’ No. Our identities are embroiled in a state of constant flux. Human beings are changeable and changing. We should all be zombified for this reason — if only to break our inert self-regard. You deserve to have your entrails wrenched out and eaten before your eyes if it jolts you from your smug assumptions. The zombie draws us back to life and into the real world.

Oh you can run and you can hide,
You can board up the windows and cry,
Middle Eastern zombies are the worst kind,
You’ve killed so many now they’re out of their minds!

Middle Eastern zombies, Secret Trial Five.

The artworks that accompany this essay are my response to the ludicrous myths and conspiracy theories that so frequently enter into discussions about Western Muslims and secular democracy. The pictures demand their own interpretation though I hope this essay adds to their understanding.

Safdar Ahmed, ‘Zombie boat people’, watercolour and gouache on paper.
Safdar Ahmed, ‘Stop Creeping Sharia!’.

You can buy this as an art zine (which features more of my artwork) from the lovely people at Sticky Institute in Melbourne or online from the Take Care zine distro. After the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris, I drew a comic that loosely alludes to this theme. You can write to me at:

Safdar Ahmed, ‘Women in Islam’.


Georgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, Zone Books, 2002.

Leila Ahmed, Woman and gender in Islam: Historical roots of a modern debate, Yale University Press, 1992.

Max Brooks, World War Z: An oral history of the zombie war, Broadway Paperbacks, 2013.

J Collins & B Mayblin, Introducing Derrida, Icon Books, 2000.

Norman Daniel, Islam and the West: The making of an image, Oneworld Publications, 2009.

Samuel P Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Touchstone, 1996.

Toshihiko Izutu, Ethico Religious Concepts in the Quran, McGill-Queens, 2002.

E. W. Lane, Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, East-West publications, 1889.

Z. A. Recht, Plague of the Dead, Permuted Press, 2006.

Ernest Renan, The poetry of the Celtic races, and other studies (Trans. William G. Hutchison), Kennikat Press, 1970.

Jack Shaheen, Real Bad Arabs: How Hollywood vilifies a people, Olive Branch Press, 2014. You can see the documentary here.

Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion, Fortress Press, 1963.

Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion, Beacon Press, 1993.

Amy Wilentz, A Zombie Is a Slave Forever, New York Times, 30 October 2012.

Safdar Ahmed

Artist, flaneur and volunteer with Refugee Art Project.