Darryl Li, The Universal Enemy: Jihad, Empire, and the Challenge of Solidarity (Stanford University Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Darryl Li (DL): The Universal Enemy is an ethnographic and archival account of volunteers who traveled to wage jihad during the 1992-1995 armed conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It also follows their experiences of detention and deportation during the “global war on terror.” The book is a study of jihad that rejects jihad studies as a meaningful framework for analysis. It needed to be written because despite countless texts produced during the now generation-long war on terror, serious scholarly work on folks who travel and fight in other countries in the name of jihad—the people at the center of all of this concern—remains so scant.

I wanted to provide an alternative account of contemporary political violence denominated as “jihad.” Widespread anti-Muslim animus puts enormous pressure on anyone working in this field who is not a raving racist to disprove claims about Muslims being inherently violent. As a result, the bar for analysis has been set too low. Mainstream critics of Islamophobia and liberal supporters of the national security state have converged in a counter-discourse that basically says: do not demonize all Muslims, just demonize these specific groups of Muslims, however defined. These arguments are a dead end: without providing a useful way of thinking about transnational jihad groups, they cede the narrative to the national security state and its adjutant scribes. They distract from asking more interesting questions. And they are ultimately futile because racists cannot be convinced by better data and reasoning; they need to be defeated politically. Scholarship can play some helpful role in struggles against injustice, but the last thing I wanted to do was to produce one more book reassuring some imagined white liberal audience that ordinary Muslims are like “us” too. Not because that claim is not true, but because it is a truth whose realization requires transforming the conditions under which we live.

Instead of treating jihad as a problem to be solved, I asked to what is jihad being presented as a solution? For the protagonists of this book, the problem would be recognizable to any post-Cold War liberal humanitarian: a broken “international community” unable or unwilling to stop mass atrocities against Muslims in the Balkans. The difference was in providing an alternative response organized along pan-Islamic but non-state lines. It may be easy enough to ultimately reject the particular solution on offer, but in going through that process of critique rather than dismissal, one has already thought far more deeply and seriously about jihad than usual. And in the meantime, one can learn some unexpected things about broader questions concerning empire, world politics, and war. In other words, I wanted to write a book that would use jihad to help see the world anew from an underappreciated vantage point.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

DL: The Universal Enemy highlights how Arab and other jihad fighters in Bosnia navigated national, racial, and doctrinal differences between each other and vis-à-vis the local population. The book thereby attempts to theorize pan-Islamist solidarity without recapitulating tired narratives of Islam as civilizational monolith—issues of interest to a broad range of scholars working on Muslim societies. And by closely following the transnational carceral networks that swept up suspected jihad veterans, this study speaks to academics, journalists, lawyers, activists, and others following the war on terror.

The book re-examines debates over humanitarian intervention and the war on terror through the unique perspective of those who were cast outside the international system yet deeply invested in working to influence it. The Bosnia crisis is an ideal episode for telling a counter-history of the past quarter-century of American unipolar dominance. Arguably the most high-profile crisis of the early post-Cold War era, it was a milestone in debates around humanitarian intervention, human rights, and international institutions that got replayed in various ways later on in Iraq, Libya, and Syria. And Bosnia was also a notable site in the war on terror: it was one of the first places whence captives were sent to Guantánamo Bay: six Algerians who became plaintiffs in a landmark Supreme Court case on the prison.

Finally, The Universal Enemy is a transregional work, speaking to both Middle Eastern studies and scholars of ex-Yugoslavia. For the latter in particular, the book goes beyond the critique of nationalism that has dominated the past two decades by placing the Balkans within global hierarchies of race. The need for attentiveness to race (including the racialization of Islam) also applies to studies of post-socialism more generally, and in that spirit the book devotes a chapter to situating the jihad in Bosnia in the context of Yugoslavia’s Non-Aligned legacy and the social ties it engendered with Arab countries.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

DL: Aside from the audiences mentioned above, the conceptual crux of the book concerns the question of universalism, especially as discussed among anthropologists. Often universalism is reduced to liberalism or Marxism, which then gets us into the familiar debates about whether true universalism is possible or desirable. In contrast, I want to treat universalism as a way of understanding practical activities in the world, one that need not operate according to familiar logics from the West. If we jettison the category of universalism altogether because we associate it with empire or capitalism, then it becomes very difficult to make sense of any alternative form of mobilization that is not strictly local. This is why, as mentioned in the excerpt below, the prevalent anti-essentialism in Middle Eastern studies is inadequate for understanding pan-Islamist jihads. A robust concept of universalism instead provides terms to meaningfully compare and contrast these jihads with more familiar universalist projects like human rights or peacekeeping.

And although this is a work of scholarship more than it is an explicitly political intervention, I also offer this book to anyone who broadly identifies with the left and has struggled with how to think about “jihadists.” The prevailing responses have been to decry the disproportionate attention paid to them and to cast their emergence as the “blowback” of the disastrous and destructive policies of the United States and other states. These responses are not wrong, but they accept the liberal consensus that this violence lacks any political character and is simply evil or pathological. Such misunderstandings lead more easily into strange positions like demanding the expansion of the war on terror to include extra-state forms of white supremacist violence, which is basically expecting arsonists to act as firefighters. We have to do better, and this book is an attempt to share in that collective task, by highlighting jihad as an opportunity for the left to refine its thinking about solidarity and violence—across borders, without states, and in the face of empire.

J: How have your experiences as a lawyer shaped this book?

DL: I was trained concurrently as an anthropologist and an attorney, and this background shaped the book in many ways. My familiarity with the techniques, language, and effects of human rights institutions became a kind of resource during my fieldwork and the book describes how I navigated some of the methodological and ethical dilemmas that arose, especially in the immigration detention center outside Sarajevo where some of my interlocutors were held captive. It is also worth mentioning that while in law school, I joined a legal team representing Ahmed Zuhair, a Saudi citizen held in Guantánamo Bay who was one of the longest-running hunger strikers ever at the prison. As it turns out, Mr. Zuhair also spent time in the Balkans during the 1990s, so the case dovetailed with my own research interests. I spent eighteen months working on the case, shuttling between a federal courthouse in Washington, DC, a “secure facility” near the Pentagon housing the classified evidence in the case, and the Guantánamo prison itself. This demystified many aspects of the national security state for me. Mr. Zuhair was transferred to Saudi Arabia in 2009 and, after several more years at a “rehabilitation center” there, was freed without charge. I am unable to write much more about the case because the US government has kept most of the material secret, but the experience exposed me to many of the issues that would shape the questions behind the book.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

DL: I am researching a book on mercenaries, or rather folks who I think of as migrant workers in the military sector. I look at those coming from poorer countries in contrast to the overexposed stereotype of the Blackwater type of contractor who is white, overcompensated, and operates with impunity. I am interested in studying military work as a distinctive form of labor that raises issues of coercion and sacrifice and about the historical overlaps between soldiering and slavery.


Excerpt from the book

From the introduction:

Jihad, most often and sensationally glossed as Islamic “holy war,” can of course mean many things, from a spiritual struggle for self-improvement to armed confrontation. Even when jihad is more narrowly defined as armed activity sanctioned by Islam and grounded in its various norms, however, it is a label that has been applied to very different types of conflicts. This book does not purport to arrive at any “correct” interpretations of the term. Focusing on doctrinal rectitude would only reinforce the flawed assumption that political violence flows directly from readings—or misreadings—of religious texts. Instead, this book is dedicated to understanding some of the many different ways jihad is used to justify and organize political violence.

To this end, distinguishing violent from nonviolent uses of jihad is only the first step; even violent forms of jihad can pursue radically different political projects. Fighting against non-Muslims in situations of occupation or civil war is one; revolt against Muslim rulers is another; yet a third—associ­ated with the organization that came to be known as al-Qaʿida—has been war against the United States in an attempt to force a military withdrawal from Muslim-majority countries and end its support for repressive regimes. Some jihads have combined elements of these projects, most notably the self-declared Islamic State in Iraq and Syria that rose to global prominence after declaring itself as a caliphate for Muslims worldwide in 2014. Confounding things further has been the rise of attacks by individual Muslims living in the West who have appeared to act without belonging to any organizational formation. The Global War on Terror has conflated all of these phenomena wholesale under the rubric of a single overarching threat, reserving special concern for those who have crossed borders as part of their armed com­mitments.

Against such conflation, this book does not seek to analyze all forms of violent jihad. Indeed, I do not believe any useful all-encompassing ex­planation to be possible, since there is no compelling conceptual reason to group all kinds of violence claiming the label of jihad and to separate them from all the others. … As the stories recounted in this study will make amply clear, treating jihadism as an ideology or a movement is untenable. While there may be some people who are committed to pursuing jihad for its own sake, that still does not tell us what jihad is or why it is a useful category when it is applied to a wide range of very different kinds of political conflict. Moreover, insofar as jihad is considered an obligation, that does not mean it necessarily comes to define those who engage in it. … For these reasons, the words jihadijihadism, and jihadist will not be called upon to do any conceptual work in this book, since the work they seem most fit for is confusion.

Writing about jihad has for too long been overdetermined by the politics of anti-Muslim animus which, like all forms of racism, distorts critical think­ing by setting up notions that are both easy to debunk and yet tenaciously enduring. There have been two prevailing approaches in public debates and scholarly discussions about violence and Islam. We can think of these as lump­ing and splitting, often associated with Samuel Huntington and Edward Said, respectively. The former emphasizes the threat posed by a coherent object called “Islam” or “Muslims.” The latter responds by rejecting this essentialism in favor of emphasizing diversity, particularity, local context: there is no sin­gle Islam, but rather many Islams. Faced with transnational jihads, lumpers reconfirm a monolithic notion of Islam as a worldwide militant conspiracy while splitters dismiss them as marginal or sometimes emphasize their enmity against some fellow Muslims to demonstrate a lack of religious authenticity. The lumpers, with their glaring lack of analytical subtlety and complicity with racist and regressive politics, have been widely criticized and require no further comment here. More interesting are the shortcomings of the splitters, who have tended to be more dominant in critical scholarship on Islam and the Middle East. For all of their merits, their focus on critiquing essentialism has left us few tools to understand the acts of sacrifice that do occasionally take place in the name of Islam between people who seem to lack any other tie of commonality or interest. In this view, the call to jihad can seem only like empty rhetoric manipulated by elites or the preserve of scattered fanatics. Here, anti-essentialism can work invidiously as both wedge and bludgeon, separating “Good Muslims” from “Bad Muslims,” as defined by conformity to the diktats of the United States government.

Anyone looking for an answer to the question of whether jihadis are authentically Muslim or whether Muslims are authentically peaceful is un­likely to be satisfied by this book. As W.E.B. Du Bois warned audiences at the outset of his magisterial study Black Reconstruction in America, readers who fundamentally refuse the humanity of those being written about “will need something more than the sort of facts that I have set down.” This book is instead directed primarily at those fellow travelers who already reject the demonization of Muslims, but who recognize that this is no substitute for serious conversations about political violence. This need is especially urgent given the plain insufficiency of the most common critical responses, which tend to read armed jihads as nothing more than manipulated tools of West­ern powers and their favored client states or as epiphenomenal “blowback” of their destructive policies. Such arguments are not only unsatisfactory as explanations, they effectively cede the narrative about these armed groups to “terrorism experts.” This latter body of work has been assailed for bias and ignorance, but even in its more enlightened versions, it remains fundamentally hobbled by a framework of servicing the national security state with usable insights. The framework of national security treats state violence as merely a normalized response to threat—a characterization that is especially perverse in the case of a state built on a foundation of genocide and slavery and that remains deeply invested in racial violence at home and abroad.

Finally, it should go without saying—but sadly does not—that the concept of “terrorism” is today useful only in delegitimizing the political actions of those stuck with the label. In other words, to call someone a terrorist is to deny any political dimension to their use of violence—and, paradoxically, only serves to reconfirm that this violence is political, even as it takes moral­istic forms (as “evil”) or technocratic ones (“extremism”). So notwithstanding some shared topics and sources, this book does not purport to contribute to terrorism studies. If anything, it hopes to chart the fundamental limitations of that field by showing how serious scholarship on contemporary jihad groups—which terrorism studies have hitherto mostly failed to produce—actually requires centering a critical analysis of empire. The best way to study terror­ism, it turns out, may be to do the one thing that terrorism studies can never do: refuse to take for granted the globalized order of racial violence that the national security state aims to protect.

The debates over humanitarian intervention and terrorism that have marked the world order of the past quarter-century meet at an impasse. Whenever either type of war is challenged, the ultimate retort of power is one that remains unchanged: “Something must be done” and “Doing noth­ing is not an option.” Between this something that proves too little and this nothing that says too much, The Universal Enemy hopes to offer a different perspective on radicalism, solidarity, and violence. Since the end of the Cold War, the choice presented has too often been limited to “nonviolence”—which often is ultimately too comfortable with accepting state violence—and nonstate violence dismissed as unaccountable spec­tacle. Yet a grounded and reflexive approach to violence, including in the work of solidarity, is something that radical movements cannot do without. And working toward such a project requires clearer criteria for evaluating claims to solidarity and tools for understanding how they may work and fail in practice. For all their commitments to and alignments with reactionary politics, those mobilizing in the name of jihad have been among the few actors in recent decades to have taken seriously the challenges of organizing political violence across borders in the face of American empire. Their efforts and errors merit closer attention than has been paid so far, and radicals of all stripes ignore them at their own peril.