The great attention given to death and the afterlife within the popular media of the Islamic movement is a sign for many in the West of a diseased Muslim culture, one preoccupied with violence and destruction, and inexorably epitomized in the figure of the suicide bomber. In this paper, I challenge this widespread understanding through a close analysis of the way death is configured in everyday discourses of contemporary Muslim life in Egypt. Instead of focusing on the question of political violence, I explore how popular media on death treat the problem of providing appropriate medical care to the sick and dying. To highlight some of the unique dimensions of these discourses, I contrast them with arguments put forward in the context of the contemporary ethical and legal debate in the United States on the rights of the terminally ill. I give particular attention to how distinct conceptions of death inflect the way that the human body becomes an object of biomedical attention and management. The differences that emerge from these contrastive views, I want to argue, should not be understood in terms of an opposition between a “culture of death” and a “culture of life,” as some have crudely suggested, but as the product of distinct sensibilities for the place and meaning of death and its structuring significance for human life.
Charles Hirschkind; Cultures of Death: Media, Religion, Bioethics. Social Text 1 September 2008; 26 (3 (96)): 39–58. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/01642472-2008-003
Download citation file: