. The Universal Enemy: Jihad, Empire, and the Challenge of Solidarity by Darryl Li | Ceasefire Magazine

Books | The Universal Enemy: Jihad, Empire, and the Challenge of Solidarity by Darryl Li

If the global War on Terror has taught us anything, it is that it is very easy to write badly about Muslims, particularly in the context of conflict. Darryl Li's ‘The Universal Enemy’ stands as a salutary antidote to so much that passes for scholarship on the subject, writes Asim Qureshi in his review.

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Detail from the cover image of The Universal Enemy, which depicts the 1995 Battle of Vozuća (Credit: Omar Khouri)

The conflict in Bosnia that began in 1992 opened an arena of jihad on the European mainland that had previously never been considered by global mujahideen as a potential site of defending Muslim populations. Bosniak Muslims being attacked by their Serb neighbours and troops evoked imagery of ‘white’ Muslims requiring protection from ethnic cleansing. Over the course of the following three years, Bosnia would attract a number of foreign fighters and humanitarians from across the Muslim world, including from Muslim diaspora populations in the West – a story that, this far, has been inadequately studied.  

If the global War on Terror has taught us anything, it is that it is very easy to write badly about Muslims, particularly those who are engaged in conflict in various contexts around the world. There are a few texts that stand out in this tradition that should be noted and praised. ‘The Enemy We Created’ by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, as well as ‘No Good Men Among the Living’ by Anand Gopal should be read as truly exceptional for their sound and empathetic ethnographic work.

Darryl Li’s ‘The Universal Enemy: Jihad, Empire, and the Challenge of Solidarity,’ has been perhaps one of the most anticipated books within the field of jihad scholarship in recent years. The work showcases, and benefits from, the author’s culturally robust anthropology background, his fluency in a number of languages his subjects speak, and understanding of the legal and political complexity of their lives. Perhaps more than anything else, it is his ability to write of the men and women in this world with a great deal of empathy – which has culminated in a work that does not just speak of the past, but also of who we are now.

From the very start of the book, Li refuses to engage with the polemics of terms, preferring instead to write of the history from the perspective of those who lived it. For Li, to call someone a ‘terrorist’ is to deny them any political dimension and to reduce them to false moralistic terms [p.25]. This does not mean at all that somehow Li is apologising for the decisions or actions of any actor; rather, he does an incredible job of remaining truthful to the history by letting the subjects themselves describe their own lives:

This book argues that the most useful way of understanding the contentious phenomenon of the jihad in Bosnia is through the lens of universalism. Thinking more clearly about questions of universalism will help to make the jihad legible in political terms rather than in pathologizing or moralistic ones. To tell this story, I have resorted to a kind of ethnographic history from below—one that unfolds across different regions and seeks grounding in local contexts without being limited by them. Such an approach also sheds light on other universalist projects, especially more powerful ones organized along nation-state lines. It traces the Non-Aligned Movement, United Nations peacekeeping, and the Global War on Terror in ways rarely apprehended before and provides a set of terms for comparing them. [p.9]

It is this story of universalism that is so central to Darryl Li’s book, but it is of a universalism that disrupts so many of our assumptions about ‘foreign fighters’ and notions of umma as he complicates what constitutes the ‘local’ versus what is understood as ‘foreign’. Were all Arabs present in the Bosnian jihad ‘foreign’ fighters with a separatist mentality as has been regularly depicted in the works of popular terrorologists? As Li reminds us, those who come from foreign lands were not more foreign than the International Community troops and bureaucrats who had entered the conflict during that same period, yet their treatment was very different to the latter but – as Li goes on to show – the foreign mujahideen exceed the local/foreign distinction [p.10].

This history has been skewed by the global War on Terror, as basic bigoted mistakes by so-called terrorism experts have resulted in key figures being presented as arch-terrorists. For instance, it is in Darryl Li’s meticulous attention to detail that almost two decades into the War on Terror the record is finally set straight about how supposed experts had been conflating two different people named Abu ‘Abd al-‘Aziz for 25 years. This type of amateurish confusion may sound like the stuff of farce, but it had serious implications. As the early work – in this case that of Evan Kohlmann – was never checked, the community of terrorism ‘experts’ spent years replicating one another’s work until they had established their own ‘facts’:

Among the manifold ironies of this echo chamber of follies is that even when experts serve state imperatives they also act autonomously, indeed recklessly: Kohlmann’s mistake seems to have been his alone and does not appear on US government terrorism lists. Terrorism experts are less faithful scribes of empire than they are enterprising vendors eagerly hawking new wares in the hopes of catching the eye of a fickle and easily distracted patron. [p.35]

As an antidote to this flawed epistemology, the first part of the book opens with the story of the first Abu ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, one of the most significant figures in the Bosnian jihad, who was instrumental in organising foreign fighters’ passage into the country. His own entry into Bosnia was very much reminiscent of the call so many have had to make, to place one’s life on the line for others, a call intimately familiar to the oppressed [p.30]. Li describes Abu ‘Abd al-‘Aziz and those men who joined him as ansar – those who have come to the conflict as helpers. This wasn’t as peculiar a choice for words as some might think; Li would go on to interview others, for example in London, where comparisons would be made between the footage from the Omarska concentration camp and the images of the Holocaust [p.45].

The presence of the foreign mujahideen did not come without points of contention. Funding from Gulf countries led to the emergence of a particular theological curiosity: a little booklet entitled ‘Notions That Must Be Corrected’, which presented a very specifically Salafi view of Islam and was out of congruence with the majority of Islamic worship and practice within Bosnia itself [p.53], which largely adhered to a Hanafi jurisprudence and variations of Sufi theology. This led to some resentment among the local Bosniaks, though Li, once again, is careful not to exaggerate its scale and impact, particularly within the structure of the main foreign mujahid unit – the Katiba [p.82]. Within the Katiba, there was a predominant view that they were Ansar, helpers to the Bosniak people, and therefore should subsume themselves as best as they could into the formal structures of resistance, albeit with their respective flavour of Islamic practice [p.54].

It is in the middle of this merging of cultures within the context of fighting and resistance that a limited universalism emerged, one that centred the notion of Umma and connected Muslims across the world by their faith rather than the minutiae of Islamic religious cultural manifestations. This jihad, in Li’s view, is one form of universalism that can be understood as connecting people within its specific circumstances:

And if nationalism can realize the universal in any number of ways, it can also connect the particular to different kinds of universalism. In the case of Muslims in Bosnia, all of the things that made them deficient in terms of national categories—the overlap of apparently incongruous identities such as Muslimness and Europeanness—also multiplied potential points of connection with the outside world. They could speak in multiple universalist idioms: not simply Western versus Islamic, but within and across those categories as well. Bosnia, with the messiness of its categories and names, should be understood as an exemplar, and not an exception, of the ambiguities of nationalism and universalism. [p.61]

Above all, Li’s notion of universalism rests on the sense of solidarity – expressed through political theology – connecting Muslims across the world. What Li is quick to highlight, however, is the way that the very notion of political theology is too often tied to the political theology of the state itself – privileging the latter above any other form of solidarity. The state of exception allows the sovereign to suspend the law as part of the moral theology of the state:

This logic of exception withdraws the extraordinary from the ordinary while remaining in relationship with it: sovereign power possesses violence that can transgress all law but that is nevertheless always legal—a paradoxical framing… [p.84]

As foreigners coming to Bosnia for a multitude of reasons – many of whom ending-up engaged in the jihad, some even predating the genocide – a moment emerged where the hegemony of liberalism was brought into question. The jihad produced ‘a’ universalism, with its own set of ‘exclusions and inequalities’ but based on a different organising set of principles. Some of the complexities of multiculturalism within liberalism took on entirely different meanings, as Bosniaks who ‘benefitted’ from ‘whiteness’ as understood within the generally known “hierarchies of race” were eventually, “partially offset by the perception that they were less authentically Muslim than Arabs” [p.104]. A somewhat bizarre inversion of hierarchies that have existed in other parts of the world, but Li is careful in his presentation of this complexity as being a very specific phenomenon.

The presence of those who were already in Bosnia, or joined the jihad for the specific purpose of engaging in fighting, took on meanings that in many ways have defied the received wisdoms of the global War on Terror. In many ways, the most remarkable aspect of Darryl Li’s work, is the way in which he has been able to disrupt hegemonic narratives on what the Bosnian jihad meant, but also about who the men involved were. This level of analytic complexity could only have been achieved by spending considerable time trying to understand these men in their own language and through their own words. This is very hard and very necessary work that takes time, but as mentioned at the start of this review, also requires a great deal of empathy. Li understands the violence of the world we live in, which is why he acknowledges:

the Global War on Terror has been configured as an intensively litigious space—contrary to accusations of “lawlessness,” it has been a campaign marked by an anxiousness to frame actions in legal terms, even if done so in ways that may seem to clash with liberal norms and commitments to the rule of law. [p.18]

‘The Universal Enemy’, thus, stands as an antidote to so much that has been written on the subject that is so wrong. I was in Bosnia in May 2007, when Li’s expertise on the region was well established. I had the privilege of interviewing a number of the men mentioned in this book and learnt about their lives and the difficulties they were having. Seeing this book out, and seeing how Li has done their stories justice in a way that I was never able to do is significant for me personally, but I know will mean everything to the men who have been subject to so much violence. These men who literally placed their lives on the line for the sake of protecting the Bosniak people, but had their involvement pathologised by the racist logic of the global War on Terror, and thus had much of their nobility reduced to something that was dangerous.

My hope for this book is that it will go on to represent another important reminder that there are ways that we can try and understand one another if we choose to do so. If we are willing to take the time to listen to each other, to listen to the multitude of ways in which we are complex, beyond the reductive tropes that seek to land violence on our lives. If we can do these things, we may actually find a way through the global War on Terror and the many other structural injustices that plague our world.

The Universal Enemy: Jihad, Empire, and the Challenge of Solidarity
DARRYL LI
DECEMBER 2019
384 PAGES
FROM $30.00
Hardcover ISBN: 9780804792370
Paperback ISBN: 9781503610873
Ebook ISBN: 9781503610880

Asim Qureshi

Asim Qureshi graduated in Law (LLB Hons) and LLM, specialising in and Islamic Law. He is the Research Director at CAGE, and since 2004 has specialised in investigations into the impact of counter-terrorism practices worldwide. In 2009, his book, Rules of the Game: Detention, Deportation, Disappearance, was published by Hurst, Columbia University Press and, later, by Oxford University Press. In 2010, he began advising the legal teams involved in defending terrorism trials in the US and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

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