Suzanne Schneider, The Apocalypse and the End of History: Modern Jihad and the Crisis of Liberalism (Verso Books, 2021).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Suzanne Schneider (SS): Since the attacks of 11 September 2001, Americans have faced a steady stream of books attempting to explain jihad, including some excellent scholarly treatments. But this scholarly output has often been overshadowed by crass polemics, or screeds by the New Atheists—writers whose antipathy toward Muslims is matched only by their incredible ignorance of basic concepts of Islamic jurisprudence, of the histories and cultures of the peoples and regions in question, and so on. This book is my attempt to craft a scholarly account of the subject that is also broadly accessible to non-academic readers, and that encourages people to consider contemporary jihad in a new light.
By exposing the uncanny points of overlap that link today’s jihad to more broadly felt political and social crises, I hope to shift the conversation away from mystical invocations of “holy war” and toward a series of questions that are both central and yet often unasked: Who is the modern mujahid (one who engages in jihad) as a political and social subject? How does he or she think about their actions in the world? What assumptions about community, law, and governance proliferate in these circles? And why has a particular form of spectacular violence, inextricably linked to the pursuit of one’s own death, risen to such prominence within militant organizations like the Islamic State (or ISIS as more colloquially known)? Shifting the register of our conversation to these questions is not only fruitful in terms of gaining a better understanding of contemporary jihad as a political and social phenomenon, but it also opens vistas for comparative analysis that are otherwise obscured by the obsession of containing jihad, conceptually at least, within the tightly sealed world of Islam.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
SS: The book begins with the premise that there is no singular jihad that remains constant throughout the ages, and that contemporary jihad departs in striking ways from its earlier iterations for reasons that cannot be explained by recourse to theology alone. In that case, the first step to understanding a political formation like the Islamic State is not to scour the Qur’an for hints of how we got here. Nor is it sufficient to center the disastrous effects of the US invasion of Iraq, as the dynamics at play have been decades in the making and have as much to do with shifting notions of individual agency as they do post-war power vacuums.
So on the one hand, this book tries to historicize jihad within a longer timeframe, one that extends back to late-nineteenth century attempts to reconceptualize the bases of political legitimacy and religious authority. But it also tries to push our analysis sideways, so to speak, using the tools of political and social theory in order to dispense with some of the mystification that seems to attach to conversations about jihad in the West. To that end, I have organized the book around a series of concepts that are both fundamental to understanding the nature of contemporary jihad, but also gesture at questions of universal concern: individualism and authority, community, governance, violence, spectacle, and imagination.
I should note that I did not set out to write a comparative work, but the book evolved into one when I found that I could not account for what I was finding in the sources by staying within the comfortable bounds of Islamic studies or Middle Eastern history. The comparative element emerged organically, which is how a book about jihad also became one that speaks to mass shootings, right versus left populism, politics as spectacle, and finally, of what I argue is a shared sense of malaise that manifests in an inability to imagine worldly alternatives to the status quo here on earth.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
SS: I am broadly fascinated by the ways in which religions evolve, often dramatically, in conversation with material conditions and the real needs of their adherents, and yet continue to claim some sort of continuity with what came before. I think that looking closely at this history offers fertile ground to develop our theoretical toolbox a bit more, so that we can move beyond that old feud between materialists and those that would center ideology or belief as the premier driver of contemporary jihad. Looking at an organization like ISIS, it is apparent that yes, we do have to take the proclaimed motivations of mujahideen seriously rather than dismissing them as false consciousness, some sort of smokescreen for political or economic motivations. But on the other hand, the very ideology they espouse is only a few decades old at most, and itself the clear byproduct of several interlocking crises: of the post-colonial state and its legitimacy, of the ruling elite and their pathways to private wealth accumulation, of traditional religious authorities and the institutions they oversee.
Yet despite the rather obvious fact that religions change, that they are historically shifting and socially embedded, scholars must continue to disrupt the widespread idea that religions exist outside of history, that have some sort of essential stability such that we can speak of them as singular objects. One insight that emerged from my first book, which was a close study of religious education in Palestine, was that religions are contested social formations, and that it is a fool’s errand (at least for a scholar who is not part of the community in question) to try to parse the “real” expressions of religiosity from their “corrupted” forms. Adopting this stance toward jihad allows us to short-circuit the endless debate about whether groups like ISIS are “really Islamic.” It is far more productive, in my opinion, to view “the Islamic” as a site of contestation and real confrontation, something which is only possible if we cease thinking about religion in the singular.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
SS: I wrote this book for people who are genuinely interested in, or troubled by, contemporary jihad but not satisfied with the usual explanations, whether of the “they hate our freedom” variety or even more nuanced ones that nevertheless end up reproducing the notion of an impenetrable barrier that separates “our” world from “theirs.” But I also hope the book appeals to readers interested in history and contemporary politics in the West, and who will discover (I hope) that jihad is by no means a leftover from medieval times, but a hyper-modern phenomenon that has much to teach us about the unraveling of political and social life more broadly. I view this sort of understanding as necessary work if we want to build the sort of cross-cultural coalitions that are needed to forestall the worldwide slide toward anti-democratic, authoritarian “populism.” Finally, though it pushes back against many of the prevailing assumptions about security, governance, and sovereignty within the policy world, I do hope figures from the think tank universe will find the work worth engaging.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
SS: I am thinking about several new projects that pull in different directions. I am interested in fleshing out the hypothesis I advance in this book’s conclusion, that neoliberalism in the West might be conceptualized as a form of colonial blowback. I am also interested in a study of the first wave of revolutions in the MENA region, which I think are ripe for revisiting. Another idea is a more theoretical work about sovereignty, whether/how the concept is still useful in thinking about power outside of, or above, the modern state. I would also like to write a book on what I have termed the “culture of constant vigilance,” looking at the ways in which the Global War on Terror, alongside broader neoliberal shifts, has impacted the social experience of security and risk in the United States. Finally, I am in the midst of an oral history project with my father, which I hope to develop into a larger work about South Dakota, settler colonialism, and left politics in the Great Plains. I would also like to take a nap!
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction pp. 1-5)
On November 14, 1914, the chief jurist of the Ottoman Empire issued a fatwa declaring jihad on the empire’s enemies. The empire had recently, if reluctantly, been pulled into the Great War on the side of the Central Powers and suddenly found itself at war with Britain and France in addition to its historic rival, Russia. On the one hand this jihad was a largely traditional affair: declared during wartime by a recognized religious authority within the state administration, and in consultation with the Sultan-Caliph. The declaration was also right at home among propaganda efforts by other combatants, many of whom cast the struggle as a battle for God and country. On the other, the circum- stances surrounding the Ottoman declaration were quite unusual. This was a “holy war” fought in alliance with major Christian powers. It was, moreover, a “jihad made in Germany,” in the words of one contemporary observer.Eyeing the millions of Muslims living under British and French colonial rule, German Orientalists and administrators hoped that a declaration of jihad from the Sultan-Caliph would stir the masses to revolt. In this regard the scheme was an utter failure, having no measurable impact beyond the empire ’s boundaries. But it remains illustrative of the exotic quality Western observers have tended to ascribe to jihad— envisioning “holy war” as something apart from the quotidian mass slaughter taking place all around them.
During the closing years of the twentieth century, a wealthy Saudi man named Osama bin Laden declared a different type of jihad in his 1996 fatwa, “Declaration of Jihad Against the Americans Occupying the land of the Two Holiest Sites [Mecca and Medina].” In contrast to the Ottoman Empire, al-Qaeda was not a state, had no organized army or administration to speak of, and no citizens to draft. The organization’s structure more closely resembled an NGO or corporate entity, and it spoke in distinctly moralizing terms rather than those of realpolitik. Bin Laden’s jihad was not declared in the midst of a major war, but during what was supposed to be peacetime. Whereas the Ottoman jihad remained steeped in traditional forms of religious and political authority—of the Sultan-Caliph and the empire’s chief jurist—bin Laden, who studied civil engineering and business administration, was neither a ruler nor a religious scholar. Still, his networked organization managed to inflict serious harm to US targets overseas, like the 1998 embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, before bringing the war home in the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Fifteen years later, on June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen opened fire in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing forty- nine people and injuring fifty-three more. Twenty-nine years old with a penchant for violence and (in all likelihood) an undiagnosed mental illness—not to mention turmoil stemming from his own conflicted sexuality—Mateen fit well into the pantheon of American mass shooters. He used a semi- automatic rifle and 9 mm Glock, both purchased legally in the weeks leading up to the attack. With the benefit of hind- sight, law enforcement officials, gun vendors, and his former employers all pointed to numerous red flags whose warnings went unheeded. Though this was the 133rd American mass shooting of 2016 alone, the mystical conception of jihad proved irresistible for commentators eager to differentiate homegrown, white assailants from Muslim terrorists. Thus, Mateen was not a “troubled” young man like Adam Lanza or Devin Patrick Kelley—the perpetrators behind mass shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School and Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church, respectively—but rather a religious fanatic who had sworn allegiance to the Islamic State and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Joining the jihad no longer required migrating to a safe harbor for training or coordinating with operatives online, as it might have a generation earlier, but was rather a wholly self-directed affair. All that was necessary was a target and a gun, which—this being America—were easily available.
Between these three declarations of jihad there lies a world of difference so substantive that one hesitates to place them into a single category. We could do it, of course, but we would miss most of what’s important in the pursuit of commonality. Indeed, it would be akin to thinking that some great unifying thread links World War I with the war on terror, rather than acknowledging that war itself has changed. Taking these moments of rupture as a starting point, this book argues that contemporary jihad is neither the natural heir to its earlier forms nor a phenomenon that can be accounted for within the bounds of Islam alone. Yet, and despite the clear points of overlap that link jihad to the broader transformation of violence, the idea of “holy war” maintains its mystifying hold on much of public discourse. Jihad is most often regarded as a culturally specific phenomenon best accounted for by looking backward into Islamic history rather than sideways at the contemporary world. Such frameworks do the important job of Othering, of creating a sense of distance between “our” violence (which is supposed to be rational, proportionate, and just) and “theirs.” Useful as such paradigms are for nurturing a sense of Western exceptionalism, they are not much help in under- standing the emergence of a particular type of jihad over the last four decades or what its continued salience might teach us about the world as a whole.
In turning to these questions, I advance a number of overlapping arguments. The most elemental is that jihad became unmoored from its traditional keeper, the state, during the course of the twentieth century in a fashion that mirrors the broader shift toward factional and private violence. From a communal obligation that resembled traditional warfare (as in the Ottoman example above), jihad has morphed into an individual, globalized, and ethical struggle against the forces of “evil” everywhere. No longer a weapon of states, jihad has become a revolutionary force turned against them— a dialectical move that culminated in the Islamic State’s attempt to revive the Caliphate as a political alternative to the nation-state. Each of these pivots generated new ideas about authority, subjectivity, community, governance, and conflict that are firmly rooted in modernity and its crises. Indeed, we find that across the globe a series of changes are occurring that make violence less democratic, states more fragmented, knowledge less esteemed, identity more exclusive, and politics more fraught. Today’s jihad is not the leftover residue from a less enlightened time, but rather a political and social form that belongs firmly to the current era. Further, examining modern jihad’s intricacies offers insight into the political and social conditions that are reshaping life far outside the obvious boundaries of Islam—indeed, in the very heart of the West.
Understanding the hypermodernity of jihad requires first tackling the narratives that, despite their widespread acceptance, drive us to regard it as either an undifferentiated phenomenon or a medieval one. Such arguments are not only historically indefensible, but they serve to obscure the much more fascinating question at hand: not how people and traditions remain essentially the same, but how, and why, they change.