Darryl Li, The Universal Enemy: Jihad, Empire, and the Challenge of Solidarity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019)
[This review was originally published in the Fall 2022 issue of Arab Studies Journal. For more information on the issue, or to subscribe to ASJ, click here.]
Could contemporary Islamic reform, Darryl Li asks, be a struggle for justice that is as much about civil rights, antiracism, cross-cultural dialogue, and human dignity as it is about the particular forms and merits of an Abrahamic faith? In considering this question, Li advances an equally provocative thesis: that Islamic jihad plays a central role in realizing this possibility would seem to make Li’s consideration of the question all the more tenuous. The Universal Enemy: Jihad and Empire After the Cold War offers readers a careful monograph focusing on predicaments that faced Muslim fighters during and after the Bosnian war between 1992–95. Conducting fieldwork between 2006–08, Li situates his study in a phase of US unipolar dominance characterized most broadly as a “war on terror” and instantiated by such prisons as that in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to which six of the first arrivals were Algerians who had been living in Bosnia. While documenting how US imperial designs informed Muslims’ lives in the region, Li also argues that jihad’s significance and meaning for Bosnian Muslims and the foreign fighters who rallied to their cause require us to move beyond viewing the phenomenon as a mere counter-response to Western secularism and its well-known cultural and colonial particularisms. According to Li, jihad is a “universalism,” a “loose set of ideals directed at all of humanity” (13). While anchored in a campaign to bring Muslims from across the world to Bosnia-Herzegovina, and in that way deeply connected to religious and ethical imperatives, jihad’s inflection in the region coexists with other universalisms, notably liberalism, nationalism, Salafism, the Non-Aligned Movement, international peacekeeping, and the Global War on Terror (the latter three of which form the titles of separate chapters in part 2 of the book). Universalisms may also be thought of as “horizons of belonging” (14); the ultimate purchase of Bosnian jihad is not only relational, then, overlapping with other universalisms, but also concrete and local. The goal of his study is to explore Muslim fighters’ contributions to engaging with these many universalisms in ethical struggles anchored in particular places, intersecting both religious communities and contexts of war and violence.
Employing his training as an ethnographer, Li focuses on the lives and narratives of his informants as well as his relationship to them. Theoretical insights and interventions are glossed in the introduction, for example, through a story about a middle-aged, Iraqi-born Bosnian named Fadhil. Once a foreign fighter, Fadhil gained citizenship after the war and became a human rights advocate, only to fall under scrutiny from the state and its international backers after 9/11 and ultimately be stripped of his citizen- ship. Such accounts gain traction through Li’s training as a lawyer. With attention to his own, and others’, efforts to secure rights and legal recogni- tion throughout the book, Li navigates brilliantly between documenting broader legal and security challenges that faced foreign fighters and their allies throughout the Bosnian jihad and their wrenching human toll. In an early disclaimer, he warns readers not to expect self-congratulation: “ethnography helped me see what the law cannot do, at least not without massive and sustained political pressure” (22).
The first and final chapters of the book frame Li’s arguments with an explicit focus on what he calls the most powerful form of universalism in recent generations: US universalism as expressed through the Global War on Terror. Chapter 1, entitled “Migrations,” focuses on the problematic ways in which the term “foreign fighter” comes to be applied to those who came from abroad to support the Bosnian jihad. The chapter is devoted to short biographical studies of two informants: an Indian-born Saudi Arabian named Abu ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, known by terror experts as one of the most dangerous jihadi leaders in the region, and a Moroccan-born fighter named Abu ‘Ali. Their experiences of migration make their perspectives on supporting the war different from their characterization by international observers as radical extremists committed to Islam’s vanquishing of the West. Abu ‘Abd al-‘Aziz asserts to Li that, although a veteran of the Arab-Afghan jihad, “I would prefer a secular Muslim state to a Crusader one.” He was raised, after all, in a diasporic Arab family that had known many generations of trade with pluralistic societies across the Indian Ocean. By the time he met Li, Abu ‘Ali had worked as a small tradesman in France and Italy, an experience which, though incredibly difficult and ultimately unsuccessful, imbued him with a profound sense of his own European identity. In the final chapter, entitled “The Global War on Terror,” Li considers the ways these and other naturalized Bosnians find themselves, along with their goals, identities, and communities, targeted in many ways precisely for helping fellow Muslims obtain their civil rights and legal recognition as citizens.
Universalisms develop and acquire meaning through particular structures of authority and communal belonging, argues Li. Chapter 2 focuses on the nation-state in Bosnia-Herzegovina and its relationship to religion, especially Salafism, Sufism, and other strains of piety. Although popular views typically contrast the nation-state and its universal ideals with religion and its exclusivist ones, Li argues, following his informants, that this contrast is ideologically fraught. Bosnian Muslims who joined the jihad sought less to establish an Islamic state or to bring Muslim struggles in line with strict Islamic prescriptions than to help conduct a war as Bosnians although through different principles than those prioritized in conventional interstate conflict. Wonderful attention is given to Bosniak fighters’ interpretations of Islamic legal texts and the way in which they gently push back against Salafi doctrinal exclusivism. Chapter 3, “Authorities,” concentrates on one of the most important institutional workshops for jihad’s overlapping universalisms: the all-Muslim military battalion, or katiba. Attention to the value of miracles allows Li to explore an ethics of solidarity that is counterposed to that of sovereignty, at least as theorized most famously by Carl Schmitt. With a discourse of miracles as their aid, katiba leaders are shown to secure a measure of independence from Bosnian state leadership and the national army, even while they remained indebted to states and state funding for their operations. Chapter 4, “Groundings,” delves into the ways in which fighters find Salafism helpful. An Islamic discourse on “virtues” (akhlaq) proves instrumental, as do commitments among kin, especially diverse family members brought together through marriage. Cued by his informants’ perspectives on the war and its aftermath, Li finds Salafism relevant for Bosnian Muslim fighters not as “Salafi jihadism,” pitting religious zealots against secular states and a Western-backed international order, but rather as a strain of universalism, one way to negotiate the many ethnic, religious, nationalist, and social differences that fighters encountered when interacting with one another. Part 2 of the book, “Universalisms,” comprises three final chapters on different universalisms at play. Entitled “Non-Alignment,” “Peacekeeping,” and “The Global War on Terror,” all bear centrally on race. Chapter 5, for example, traces the ways foreign fighters, especially Arabs, were racialized as darker and more threatening in the years following 9/11. Chapter 6 considers such changing racial hierarchies in the region’s United Nations Protection Force and the final chapter, covering NATO’s involvement from 1995 onward, explores surprising universalisms that foreign fighters could embody as they recommitted themselves to rising above profound racial, ethnic, religious and cultural differences so endemic to the international community.
Previous studies of contemporary Islamic jihad that give sustained attention to racialized nation-state formations, militarization, and global structures of systemic violence naturally complement Li’s approach. In Jihad Beyond Islam (2006), Gabriel Marranci explores the ways in which jihad works as a discourse keenly attuned to pressing crises of identity, no more so than among modern diasporic European Muslims. Bruce Lawrence, in Shattering the Myth: Islam Beyond Violence (1998), proposes that jihad be approached as an Islamic semantics and studied through its various symbolic systems; accordingly, jihad’s religious anchoring is intertwined with nationalism, probably the most dominant ideology of the twentieth century. Faisal Devji, in Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity (2006), explores how jihad discourse is saturated with the legal and moral architectures of colonial power. Global media coverage of Muslim violence and terrorism, especially televisual reporting on al-Qa‘ida, turns jihad into a “universal sign of loss” whose historical metaphysics provide Muslims with an ethical counter-response to secular Western institutions that have arrogated to themselves the privilege of protecting peoples’ freedom, rights, and self-determination. Cabeiri deBergh Robinson’s Body of Victim, Body of Warrior: Refugee Families and the Making of Kashmiri Jihadists (2013) offers readers an ethnography of jihad that most closely resembles Li’s study. Like Li, Robinson finds jihad to be an ethical resource for refugees precisely through its embeddedness in indigenous kinship networks and exchange systems. No longer seen as a collective fight for the sovereignty of the Islamic polity, jihad instead offers a pathway to “a notion of ‘rights,’ a hybrid of Islamic and global political ideas and practices . . . legitimized by the need to protect the bodies of Muslim people against torture and sexual violence” (Robinson, 4). What The Universal Enemy adds to these path-breaking studies is unprecedented insight into jihad’s historical relationship to competing universalisms in the context of a genocidal post-Cold War conflict, one setting in motion important mechanisms for American unipolar dominance.