Universal Enemy: Jihad, Empire, and the Challenge of Solidarity

Author:   Darryl Li
Publisher:   GRFDT
Reviewer:   M Abdul Fathah

Universal Enemy: Jihad, Empire, and the Challenge of Solidarity

Author: Darryl Li

Reviewer: M Abdul Fathah

Citation: The Universal Enemy: Jihad, Empire, and the Challenge of Solidarity, by Darryl Li.Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019, 384 pp.

In a world were citizen-soldier is the paradigm of legitimate violence and the ‘foreign fighter’ his illegible and illegitimate other, Darryl Li ventures into the legible life-world of immigrant Mujahidinthrough the particular time and space of Bosnian jihad of early 1990s. Picturing Mujahidin as fighting over a national and ethnic affiliation they did not belong to, but also how they come of age in solidarity for a transnational cause, he unsettles the received wisdom of sovereignty, solidarity and universalism as the preserve of some diasporic forces: the Global War on Terror (GWOT), UN Peacekeeping, Non-alignment among others.

Though Li does not attempt to rewrite the history of Bosnian genocide, this fascinating case opens him to the broader universalist project claimed by the demonized jihadis living as diaspora in Bosnia. The first section describes Bosnia as an illuminating site to deconstruct logics of empire, nation-states and the diasporic mobility: its immigrant Muslim history that unsettled Europe’s claims to secular tolerance and simultaneously defied the racialized images of Muslims as non-white. The temporal significance of the genocide happening in the wake of cold war amidst the zenith of America’s self-righteousness about the end of history had made it a space of fantasy projection for people across the globe: among them the ‘Katiba’, the Arab immigrant Mujahidin, formally known as Odred Elmudzahedina, who came to fight alongside their Bosnian co-religionists and for whom this country is a European pariah left alone and inviting alternative universalism based on Islamic identity. But a similar number of diasporas joined the rival Serb forces, and a much bigger contingent of foreign UN peacekeepers entered much earlier. Li however treads a tight-roping analytical path when he goes on to importWar on Terror’s trope of ‘Universal Enemy’ into the Bosnian past, recognizing the negotiation between Arab Mujahidin and international community in 1993 as consolidating the notion of “humanity’s representatives and humanity’s enemies”. Scholars like Faisal Devji has thus characterized Li’s understanding of the confrontation as an early battleground for GWOT as lacking real conception of historical change.

The book is not just an ethnographic history, but also an anthropology of diaspora and political theory and is thus ambitious in scope as well as methodology. First half of the book grasps with the particulars of immigrant Mujahidin’s universalism, with its own notions of ‘inclusion and exclusion’. Li is eager to contest, primarily through a Schmidtian lens, the run-of-the-mill understanding that the notions of political theology and therefore the kind of universalism and solidarity they produce are exclusively tied to the sovereign state, privileging them over any alternative diasporic solidarities. Often, it is the inclination of immigrant Mujahidin to sidestep the agency of the host government to carry out violent activism and freely violate the national borders that makes them a person non-grata. But often, their way of asserting right to violence is not opposing the nationalist project altogether, but considering it more as a nuisance, or even as a conveyer belt,as they seek a much moreambitious universalism. In the Bosnian jihad, the immigrant jihadiswaged war under the flag of the Bosnia-Herzegovina, often earning the Bosnian citizenship or rather returning to their own countries and even participating in electoral politics. Quite unsurprisingly, Li’s ethnographic detail about the Mujahidinebbing in and out of their diasporic site reveals why they are feared much for their rootedness in one place as they are for their mobility. While Bosnian Muslims respected diaspora’s authoritative Arab genealogy, their Salafi view of Islam and perceived global project was out of congruence with much of local Bosnians who adhered to Hanafi-Sufi doctrine, producing resentment and suspicion.Thus, a challenge of transnational solidarity is produced as Arab immigrants are racially discriminated by their white hosts on the one hand andwhen Bosnians joining the Arabbrigade are considered ‘not so religious’ and a religious instruction is mandated for them on the other. But simultaneously, a fictive “brotherhood” is invoked among immigrant Arabs and local Bosniansin the jihadthrough Islamic notions of virtue and afterlife, a trope that incessantly conjures up as Li tries to revealhow logic of transnational solidarity works in ways that neither venerate nor resent the logic of state sovereignty.A historically cognizant reader will quickly come up with another catalyst of this solidarity between local and foreign jihadis: that the very Bosnian nationalism face the dilemma of rival Croatian and Serbian nationalists calling Bosnians as settler diasporas of Turkic past who did not belong to this land.

Li’s reference to Carl Schmitt’s ‘Universal Enemy’ is unambiguously captured in the title of the book, but also runs piecemeal in each section. Nevertheless, Li’s understanding of universality centers around diasporic life ofMujahidin and the notion of exile that doesn’t capture the expansiveness of Schmitt’s spatiality, which need not require physical mobility, but spans to include immobile pan-Islamic agitations.This telescoping is clearas Li starts from the broader concept of universalism as the backdrop of his book and then narrows down to specific solidarity activities in the form of travel for jihad across the borders, a change effected by the long fifteen years of Li’s project- a period from the height of confidence in US led global order to the present when it is up for grabs. It is this change that is mirrored as we move from the title to subtitle and that makes challenge of solidarity the central concept in the book. Darryl Li also concedes the downsides of such a shift, manifested most cogently in focusing on the masculinized figures of the immigrantMujahidin to the exclusion of women activists and fundraisers agitating against genocidein their home country, but also the non-Arab elements, including theTurkish mobilization in Bosnia on the basis of Ottoman diasporic past that he conveniently misses.

The book’s exquisite tracing of the immigrant Mujahidin in the war, beyond and on the move across borders, does much more than the typical migration studies that writes linear histories of assimilation and rejection by fixating on arrival and departure. As a person who has carried the burdens of his racialized Asian-American immigrant background throughout his life, such an attempt is not surprising from the author. In the book, Li chartsa pool of seventeen foreign and eleven Bosnian protagonists who we meet as Li’s decade-long story strands in their locations, taps into their line of events or realm of expertise. We face a complicated and dangerous moment as they are interviewed not such in situ, but are on the run from theprosecution of imperial universalisms and immigration detention centers in Sarajevo. But his portrait is very much a typical diaspora with whom Li talks not just about warand exile but also familyand homesickness.Moving, as he says, beyond snapshots of single moment in time, and following Mezna Qato’s meditations on “the politics of listening” certainly advances Li’s theory. Hefollows the geopolitical and ideological linage of Mujahidin across Balkans, Arab countries, South Asia and North Africa, the labor migration and colonial entanglement of those regions that contributes to complex genealogy of their transnational jihad, even as hegemonic sovereign states try to constrain their movement. His work rest not just on figures, but also on how immigrantuniversalism ischallenged and reimagined through stories andsupernatural elements, a picture reflected in Oman Khouri’s fabulous cover for the book showing the Mujahidin helped by the intervention of the angels. Li is equally interested in the circulation and receptions ofjihadi pamphletssuch as Imad El Misri’s “Notions That must Be Corrected” whose analytical purchasing power is not just about their hermeneutic value, but how they are received, sold, carried and despised among the Mujahidin and Bosnians.This work thus stands out for the author’s mastery in anthropologic lawyering, his fluency in a multitude of the languages the subjects speak, and more importantly, the ethical and professional responsibility researcher have for his interlocuters exposed to dangers of detention and prosecution. Having beena lawyer in the “litigious space” of Global War on Terror representing Bosnian jihadis in the Guantanamo Bay, these are characteristics wedged deeper into Li’s experience.But doesn’t Li’s reliance on secret wiretap evidence and monitored interviews pay lip service to the methodology of jihadology or terrorism studies he is bend upon criticizing?

Albeit being a book aboutjihad, the book is premised upon a critique against jihadology or the terrorism studies that seek to read transnational jihad as ineligible in political terms and reduce them to pathologistic terms that demand no serious political approach. Spending many years reviewing classified documents near Pentagon, Li is aware of the discrepancies with which transnational Muslim mobility is understood by security establishments. Attempting to move away from such an exercisegives Li with a venerable stand to probe into the complex sociogenesis -both religious and political- of the Bosnian jihadand explore it as yet another form of political violence that conceptualized its own form universalism and attracted its own kind of diaspora as much as the UN or the GWOT did. A similar scholarship in the recent period is that of Stathis Kalyvas who censures the exceptionalism in the treatment of jihadism as a uniquely radical category from other ideologically motivated entities and resolves this by situating Islamic State as a revolutionary group in line with the Marxist insurgencies of Cold War.

It is in the final section where he digs into transnationaljihad as a subject and an object of comparable forms of universalism, the Non-Alignment Movement,Peace Keeping and GWOT, that he ends his ethnography, ‘the diaspora’s point of view’, and begins analytic-synthetic endeavor. Not everyone of hisinterlocutors would self-consciously entertain their transnational jihad as a kind of universalism, but it is also what makes the sheer complexity of diasporic biographieshe has excavated minimally and politically legible. Li thus does not see jihadand other universalism as enemies in the mirror,but as interstices of entanglement and cross-pollination with each other’s diasporic networks.The many diasporas who fought in the Bosnian jihad first arrived as students during 1970s and 1980s as a result of Yugoslavia’s Non-alignment connections to Baghdad and Cairo, while their counterparts in Bosnia who translated for them learned their language skills thanks to the same lineage. Many who Li meets years after the war saw no conflict of interest in becoming a diaspora for upholding two universalisms, the defense of their Muslim brothers through jihad and liberal values of UN through peacekeeping, with many like Malaysian Abdul Manaf Kasmurire turning to Bosnia to join transnational jihadafter initial service in UN Peacekeeping (UNPROFOR). The Mujahidin’s conception of universalism was thus not a preconceived one, but emerged in the wake of transnational political alignments and migratory networks of 1990s. It is this cross pollination, as suggested by Walter Mignolo much earlier, that allows Li to conceptualize Bosnia not as a ‘frontline’ of polarizing clash of Islam and Western civilization, but as a ‘borderland’ of immigrantsintersecting with their own competing universalisms.

This brings Li to his billion-dollar question that resonates throughout the book:what are the dynamics that allow some to speak in the name of universalism and be a legitimate diaspora more than others? what impels his readers to call the immigrant Mujahidin and their universalism as the ‘Universal Enemy’while entertaining peacekeepers and the private military contractors of GWOT who but follows a similar trajectory of transnational violence?The irony that is followed when an imperial army with its purported god’s eye view calls Mujahidin the “foreign fighter”is employed by the decolonizing methodology of the book to reveal the lopsidedness of all the relevant legal norms of our time, the sovereignty of nation state and impartiality of international law.The reality is all the more contradictory as Li details the repertoire of racial practices and the legal logic of state sovereignty over mobility that GWOT uses to claim itsexclusive right for universalism.In one instance, we see a Moroccan Mujahidin wanting to cross to Bosnia casually responding to the question of border police: “That’s where I wanted to go!”. The author uses this different sense of place and timethe immigrant Mujahidin has inhabited to show why War on Terror has constrained the migratorynetworks that made their universalism possible. Quite contrastingly, as Jothei Rajah has pointed out, the same sense of time and sequence more or less drives the immigrant life of present-day Mujahidin as they continue to take up similar causes. Further, in a showdown climax of the book, we see the Bosnian state finally turning to GWOT and European Union in an attempt to counterweight Russian influence and the past represented by diasporic Mujahidin retrospectively appropriated as mere particulars of this new GWOT universalism. In the process, the Arab Mujahidin’s version of universalism falls out of favor and the Bosnian government strips him of citizenship, despite that he married Bosnian women and his children are born in this host country. Under pressure from the War on Terror establishments, Bosniajudges him too Muslim to be a part of multicultural society they aspire. And the Universal Enemy (hostishumani generis) is finally born.

To this end, the book persuades to think about diasporic and transnational mobilizations without the stock categories of Islam, West or Liberalism but as a universalismand with the nuance it demands. He doesn’t intend to put the universal project of diasporic Mujahidin above critique, but above dismissal. In the face of the pandemic, which is yet another universal enemy, and the reality of European states exhorting their citizens tojoin the universal fight against Russian aggression and be a similar diaspora, Li’s illumination of the imperial and racial hierarchiesin how diasporic violence is representedandthe legal mythologies perpetuating them is all the more relevant. Li’s attempthas also exponential research potential: the one that comes to my mind is expanding the comparative framework to include other transnational Mujahidin struggles, including the immigrant Fedayeen fighters of 1970s Palestinian struggle that well precede the Bosnian jihad. If nothing else, Li’s conceptualization of a political theology that crosses state borders and involves immigrants and diaspora, a long overdue from Schmittiantradition, would surely facilitate that.


Bio: M Abdul Fathah is a graduate student at IGNOU in Political Science and a Research Student at Jamia Madeenathunnoor Cultural and Religious Studies. He has presented academic research papers at University of Warwick, University of Gujarat, Shahid Beheshti University among others. Besides being a Founder Editor at Katib Media Collective, his articles have been published in English and Malayalam portals such as Café Dissensus New York, Ulumuna Journal, The Companion Journal, Risala Weekly, Tibaq.in, GRFDT etc. Currently, he is also a research intern at GRFDT and DRAS.

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