In recent decades, no figure has incited as much discourse and elicited as little insight as the so-called “jihadi”—especially those traveling across borders to fight in the name of a global Muslim community. The Universal Enemy is, most concretely, an exploration of one such transnational jihad: the peregrination of several thousand Arabs and other Muslims who fought alongside their co-religionists in the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It tells a story of how these combatants navigated national, racial, and doctrinal differences in service of a pan-Islamic vision, drawing on over a decade of ethnographic interviews and archival research in a half-dozen countries in Arabic, Bosnian, and several other languages.

Despite the ample commentary on “jihadism,” The Universal Enemy aspires to model a different sensibility and set different standards in approaching the topic. Specifically, this is a book that seeks to break free from the gravitational pull of the national security mindset, studying adversaries of the state but with no desire to advise it. And, perhaps more directly relevant for many readers of The Immanent Frame, the book also eschews the defensiveness and apologia that characterize even much of the critical writing on Muslims and the War on Terror. It does this by refusing to reduce the category of jihad to mere violence and instead uses this particular jihad to think about universalism.

Will the real jihadi please stand up?

One premise of this book is that there can be no general theory of jihad, at least outside Islamic traditions. Within these traditions, there have always been rich normative debates over what forms of struggle can be properly considered jihad and how jihad should be conducted. For many believers, jihad is defined in relation to traditions of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) but many others may use the term in ways that pay little heed to fiqh. Some usages of jihad refer to different kinds of armed activity, others focus on inner spiritual struggles or unarmed forms of protest. Among understandings of jihad that entail organized violence, these can be conducted by states or not, and with a wide variety of goals. For those writing on terms outside Islamic traditions, the most helpful starting point is also a rather banal one: to simply think of jihad as a term that Muslims may invoke to legitimize certain actions as religiously sanctioned.

While there are many jihads, constructing jihadism as an ideology, movement, or analytical category entails an impossible choice. One could embrace a pure nominalism, wherein jihadism would simply encompass everything Muslims call jihad, which runs the risk of incoherence. But the far more common path taken is to elevate some subset of the many versions of jihad in the world into a general category called “jihadism.” While the reasons for such choices are rarely elaborated, it is clear that jihadism is a label used for the phenomena that have attracted the most notoriety among Muslims and non-Muslims alike, such as al-Qa‘ida and ISIS. Thus, in order to be relevant to non-Muslim concerns, jihadism must model itself on the very forms of jihad that believers are less likely to consider as normatively sound. This is why studies of jihadism focus overwhelmingly on nonstate armed groups and hardly ever discuss occasions when states have invoked jihad to describe their own military activities, as Iran, Iraq, and others have done in recent decades—hardly a trivial oversight.1Which is not to suggest that such states are not otherwise pathologized through logics of anti-Muslim animus, simply that the more enlightened varieties of terrorism expertise are caught in the bind of distinguishing state and nonstate groups (often not unhelpfully) while nevertheless assigning labels such as “jihadism” on a selective basis without any clear criteria for doing so.

The category of jihadism perniciously weighs in on debates among believers while claiming the mantle of secular (or even objective) social science. As Talal Asad and others have taught us, the very act of delineating the religious and secular as distinct spheres is an exercise of power that itself must be critically scrutinized. Such an analysis tells us why the problems described above cannot be waved away with boilerplate disclaimers that jihadism is a “distortion” of Islam. Nor can they be solved with more refined and better-informed typologies of various “jihadi” groups peddled by terrorism experts, however informative they may otherwise be. Such distinctions are all too easily ignored in the environment of intense anti-Muslim animus that shapes these discussions. The logic that purports to distinguish authentic from inauthentic forms of Islam tends to conveniently map this distinction onto pro and anti-US foreign policy positions, respectively. It sets up a trap of toxic authenticity whereby Muslims are subjected to unending and insatiable demands to condemn violence by other Muslims in order to prove their loyalty.

If the secular logic of the jihadism category arrogates the right to settle questions purportedly committed to the domain of dispute among believers, then outright appropriation is not too far behind. We can see this in a bizarre 2018 press conference wherein US Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller berated the “terrorist” Taliban in Afghanistan for presenting themselves as mujahideen, the Arabic-origin term for those participating in jihad:

The terrorists call themselves, you know, they’re the freedom fighters, they’re the mujadeen [sic]. They’re not. They’re criminals. I think the Arabic word is takfiri [sic, so very sic]. They’re apostates. They hide behind Islam. They sell drugs. They kill innocent people. That’s not what Islam is. The Afghan army and the American—we’re, we’re the mujadeen! We’re the mujadeen. That’s the message.

Gen. Robert Neller, USMC (ret.) (image:

This statement elicited its fair share of derision on social media, but the good general’s enthusiasm helpfully reveals the assumptions behind so much of the discussion around jihadism. Neller’s stance is at odds with conventional wisdom, which would label the Taliban as jihadists but not the Afghan government. But the underlying logic of both positions is the same: faced with an armed conflict between an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (the official name of the Taliban) and an Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (the regime ruling Kabul), a secular decision is being made that only one of the two is “Islamic” enough for its violence to be classified as jihad(ism). And after all, if the US military can decide which forms of jihad count as jihadism, then claiming the label for themselves is only the next logical step.

The concept of jihadism thus sheds little light on contemporary jihad practices, but it usefully reveals how empire thinks, how it structures relations of compliance and enmity. Or, as more than one social media user joked in relation to Neller’s remarks, perhaps “the real mujahideen were the friends we made along the way.”

These confusions are why The Universal Enemy is a book about jihad that rejects jihadism as a framework for analysis. None of the issues described above, however, make the serious study of contemporary jihad practices undesirable or impossible. But such study does require formulating questions and concepts with more thoughtfulness about the politics of knowledge production than most commentators on jihad have shown thus far.

Whose universalism?

The Universal Enemy may reject attempts to theorize jihad as such, but it does address a significant category of contemporary jihad practices: namely, campaigns mobilizing volunteers from multiple countries to engage in armed solidarity in the service of a pan-Islamic vision. These so-called “foreign fighters” have been a recurrent feature in armed conflicts around the world in recent decades, including in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Kashmir, Chechnya, Somalia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Such movements spawned al-Qa‘ida and (to a lesser extent) ISIS, although they should by no means be reduced to them. And unlike many other contemporary groups invoking jihad that seek to repel foreign occupiers or overthrow governments, they are not necessarily fighting to gain for themselves a place within the international legal order of states.

But understanding the significance of these movements also requires situating them within that order, one which purports to ground all legitimate violence ultimately in the authority of some nation state or another. It is the willingness to embark on jihad without seeking the permission of any nation state that makes these individuals seem particularly threatening to state authorities. Yet, asserting a right to participate in armed solidarity abroad does not by itself require advocating the abolition of states altogether: in Bosnia and Yemen in armed conflicts in the 1990s, such transnational volunteers had no trouble fighting alongside recognized national governments. Moreover, a great many jihad volunteers simply returned home to ordinary lives and even participated in electoral or other state-oriented politics. Thus, instead of positing jihad or Muslims as a unique threat or problem, The Universal Enemy uses jihad to rethink larger issues of concern around empire and world order.

This struggle to balance respect for state sovereignty with reserving higher authorities for violence should be familiar to anyone who has followed the long-running debates over humanitarian intervention since the end of the Cold War. And indeed, many of the jihad participants invoked the failures of the “International Community” to respond to mass atrocities against Muslims in Bosnia as a basis for their actions, offering themselves as a supplement or alternative. It was in recognizing this common dilemma that the idea of studying these jihads as universalist projects emerged, albeit as universalisms that did not speak in liberal idioms and that lacked the firepower of Western armies. The book devotes considerable attention to elaborating an ethnographic approach to universalism, one that focuses on aspirations and practices alongside ideals and treats exclusions and hierarchies as features rather than failures of universalism. One of the heavier demands that this book may place on some readers is to parochialize their notions of universalism, which all too often has been seen as the exclusive preserve of familiar concepts such as empire, capital, and whiteness.

In positing the question of universalism, this book studies such transnational jihads as attempts to concretize a pan-Islamist vision in the face of national, racial, doctrinal and other forms of difference. Bosnia presents a particularly illuminating site for exploring such questions: its largely Muslim population has stood as a test for Europe’s aspirations to secular toleration while defying logics that racialize Islam as presumptively nonwhite. The book’s first half focuses on the jihad fighters’ manifold attempts to negotiate the tensions among themselves as well as with the Bosnian state and society. In order to do so, it traces the networks of mobility that brought volunteers to the Balkans as well as the fraught scene of local actors that they encountered. Much of the writing on jihad has ignored such questions of difference, treated them purely as challenges of organizational management, or reduced them to a superficial dichotomy between moderate locals and fanatical foreigners.

Approaching these jihads through the lens of universalism also opens up a richer set of conversations, to which the second half of the book dedicates itself. It traces the overlaps and connections between the Bosnian jihad and other universalisms, namely the Non-Aligned Movement, United Nations peacekeeping, and the US-led Global War on Terror. To be sure, meaningfully juxtaposing these very different types of formations requires a supple theorization of universalism that is attentive to historical contingency and questions of scale. To this end, the book’s ethnographic approach to universalism searches for ways to think about transnational mobilizations without resorting to stock categories such as “Islam,” “liberalism,” or “Marxism” as reified actors.

Finally, the book interrogates the dynamics that allow some to speak in the name of the universal more easily than others. Here, the observation that jihad is demonized as an enemy of humanity is far less interesting than asking what it means to make decisions on behalf of humanity in the first place. Instead, one is reminded that the very category of “foreign fighter,” after all, took on widespread salience during the US invasion of Iraq. It was meant to denote a particularly virulent kind of terrorist, rootless and ruthless, as opposed to the potentially pliable local Muslim. That the term “foreign fighter” could be propagated by an invading army without any self-awareness or irony is a potent a reminder as any of the stakes and urgency of these questions.