In his study of the jihad in Bosnia, Darryl Li performs what might be considered a “radical” move of his own. Instead of starting from the rarely questioned premise of “terrorism studies,” that jihad is a universal problem that needs to be solved, Li flips the gaze to scrutinize imperial universalism itself: that which claims a monopoly right to speak in the name of all humanity, while casting out its own particular enemies as hostis humani generis, the “enemies of all humankind”; that which exalts its own perspective as the “God’s-eye view,” while its own operations of power remain largely hidden from sight.

The result is an empirically rich and theoretically incisive analysis that, while focused on the particular time and space of the Bosnia jihad of the early 1990s, illuminates more general features of the universalist terrain as well as the mythologies perpetuating their obfuscation. These are features that have been molded by imperial dynamics long predating the jihad, and that continue to structure transnational exercises of violence such as the Global War on Terror waged in its wake.

The “universal” is not the opposite of its “enemy”

In the Manichean theology of the Global War on Terror, any insinuation of homology between those who George Bush called “evil-doers” and those who make war on them has been rendered tantamount to blasphemy. For instance, the fact that US troops—not Muslim “terrorists”—were actually “the most numerous ‘foreign fighters’ in Iraq” is an observation that should be “obvious,” as Li remarks. Yet, such observations are precluded as practically unthinkable by the presumption of American universalism. In Bosnia, likewise, salient symmetries between the jihad’s transnational Muslim fighters and other exogenous militarized bodies such as UN peacekeepers and NATO forces were obscured by the labelling of the former as “foreign” but the latter as “international,” a distinction entrenched in the Dayton peace agreement.

As critical studies of the history of hostis humani generis as a legal category indicate, those designated “enemies of all humankind” are less the demonic opposite than the disavowed mirror-image of those who claim the prerogative of making such universalist designations. The instability of the distinction is captured by St. Augustine of Hippo’s imagined encounter between a pirate—the original hostis humani generis—and Alexander the Great. To Alexander’s accusation that he has wrongfully “kept hostile possession of the sea,” the pirate retorts: “because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who do it with a whole fleet are called emperor.” The primary difference between illicit piracy and licit privateering was not in the nature of the acts themselves, but that pirates plundered for personal gain while privateers enacted their violence under the flag of a recognized sovereign. This recognition of sovereignty was itself inflected by racial discourses, as manifest in the Orientalist delegitimization of the North African Barbary States as barbaric “pirate states.”1

In the era of the Global War on Terror, the participation of nonstate actors in violence is not confined to the “terrorist” camp—with private military contractors like Blackwater profiting handsomely from conducting state wars on the one hand, and corporations commanding the resources of public police forces for private ends on the other. Yet, while “terrorists” have largely been placed outside the protection of law (subject to the violence of “bare sovereignty”), military contractors have for the most part been placed above the law (immunized from accountability). As assemblages of state-nonstate power continue to develop and evolve, the specter of illegitimate violence likewise continues to haunt the proclaimed divide between those who act for “universal humanity” and those deemed its “universal enemies.”

The “universal” is not spatially homogenous

The international community is organized around a multiplicity of formally equal sovereigns. Far from being a sign of the limited reach of imperial universalism’s power, however, this enables its operation with maximum flexibility and deniability. “Sovereignty is not the domination that the United States asserts over the world,” as Li observes; “it is, rather, the legal logic that channels, organizes, and legitimizes that domination through the agency of other states that are supposed to be independent and equal.”

Like mass that warps and curves the fabric of space-time, the productive tension between states’ formal equality and substantive inequality contours a global legal topography of uneven sovereignty. This makes possible the production of spaces where hegemonic powers may, to varying degrees, exert control without accountability and violence without responsibility. What are commonly referred to as the “legal black holes” pervading Global War on Terror practices such as citizenship-stripping and indefinite detention—some early, foundational cases of which are discussed by Li—are better conceptualized as existing not in “a space beyond law but rather a space between laws, in the interstices of multiple legal orders,” as Nasser Hussain argued of the US detention camp at Guantanamo Bay.

And so, US courts refused to extend the constitutional right of habeas corpus (the right to challenge one’s detention in court)to detainees held by the United States at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan; while US military power may reach overseas to occupy other sovereign territories, the US Constitution does not follow. In denationalization cases, strategic manipulation of the multiplicity of legal orders and sovereignties has enabled the creation of subjects who are not officially rendered stateless, but have effectively been denuded of the “right to have rights.” Bilal al-Berjawi and Mohamed Sakr, for example, were extrajudicially executed by US drone strikes in Somalia after being stripped of their British citizenships in 2010. The fact that they technically had second citizenships elsewhere through their parents—Lebanese for al-Berjawi, Egyptian for Sakr—was invoked so that they could be disowned by the United Kingdom without appearing to be cast outside the international state system altogether (which would have overtly violated international law).

The “universal” is not singular

If imperial projects have been consolidated through “a criss-cross of routes gradually thickening and congealing into fixed seas and lands,” the enduring existence of other pathways of memory and mobility evinces the incompleteness of imperial domination and its “worlding of the world.” As Li notes, for Muslims worldwide the Bosnia crisis was understood through circuits of memory inscribed on the undersides of colonial modernity: “the resonant historical parallels were not so much with the Holocaust but with the colonization of Palestine or even the fifteenth-century Spanish conquest of Andalusia.” Analogously, Li charts how the physical journeys of those who joined the Bosnia jihad tracked geopolitical circuits that have long linked the Balkans, Indian subcontinent, North Africa, and the Middle East—even as hegemonic regimes attempt to control mobility, both by forcing movement (renditions, extraditions, deportations) and fixing people in place (detentions, border controls).

While Bosnia has repeatedly been identified as a frontline in the supposed “clash of civilizations” between “Islam” and “the West,” Li instead portrays it as a borderland: a site where multiple universalisms meet, interact, and intersect. Participants in the jihad invoked not only Islamic idioms, but also appealed to European institutions like the European Court of Human Rights and concepts like citizenship and the nation state.

Understanding the Bosnia jihad as a project of universalism in its own right refuses to cede the ground to imperial universalism, reconfiguring the universal as contested terrain—albeit one marked by gross disparities of power. After all, it is Muslims who are required to frame their claims in terms derived from European political history to make them internationally legible, not the other way around. Still, provincializing imperial universalism as one universalism among many denaturalizes now-dominant ways of organizing power, violence, and authority: ways that limit some forms of violence while legitimizing others; that guarantee the “human rights” of some through claiming the power to determine who counts as fully human in the first place.

Reading The Universal Enemy in this time of the coronavirus pandemic highlights from a different angle what is at stake. As governments around the world declare “war” on this new “universal enemy,” our common biological vulnerability as humans is refracted through pre-existing differential distributions of social, economic, and legal vulnerability. Populations labeled “terroristic” by the governments colonizing and dispossessing them remain trapped in conditions conducive to viral spread: Palestinians in the open-air prisons of the Occupied Territories, Kashmiris under military lockdown, Uyghurs in concentration camps. As the virus crosses militarized borders and defies stringent immigration controls, migrants and asylum seekers are made to bear the punishing burden of these measures’ violently exclusionary force. In the face of this nonhuman hostis humani generis, the nonuniversality of humanity under imperial universalism is once again revealed.

Walter Mignolo has suggested that moving from imperial universalism to pluriversalism—a world with space for many worlds—requires “a way of thinking and understanding that dwells in the interstices of the entanglement [of multiple universalities], at its borders.” As Darryl Li has demonstrated, thinking critically, anti-imperially, radically from the borderland of the jihad in Bosnia is one excellent departure point.


  1. This bears contemporary resonances with the designation of states including Iran as “state sponsors of terrorism.”