It has been fascinating to read Darryl Li’s The Universal Enemy at a time when national boundaries—not to mention political leadership, scientific expertise, and whatever remains of public health—appear to be undone, or overdone, by yet another “universal enemy” (after immigrants and terrorists, drugs and poverty, and communists, too). Li’s deployment of a vocabulary of solidarity, his reminder that solidarity is necessary as an alternative to “the logic of liberalism and its weaponized variant[s],” and that it too must cross borders and lockdowns, could not come at a better time—unless it is the worst of times.

The Universal Enemy is a remarkable and pertinent book, which does many things, even a number of things it claims not to be doing. One might then read the book as an exercise in “negative anthropology” (after the fashion of “negative theology”). And one could make quite a list of the things Darryl Li asserts he is not doing in this book. It is that list, I think, that has fed my obsession and brought me back, of all people, to Ernest Renan. Li is, for instance, very clear that he is not offering an anthropology of Islam, nor is he proposing a study of jihad, jihadi, or jihadism. He certainly does not wish to contribute to terrorism studies, nor provide yet another explanation of “the breakup of Yugoslavia.” His anthropology of law is not meant to show what the law can do, nor does he make claims of “empirical reality” with regard to universalism. The book is thus not a history of, much less a manual for, the practice of international solidarity, and it does not ground itself, therefore, in the “the confraternity of danger” documented most strikingly perhaps by J. Glenn Gray.1 Finally, the book is not a call to organize political violence across borders in the face of American empire.

Yet, it should be obvious to Li’s readers that The Universal Enemy is and does all of these things and more. And brilliantly so.

Indisputably, “the challenge of solidarity” is at the center of the book, the solidarity of struggle, and particularly of armed struggle. This is a struggle against empire, against the violence of empire, and “the global color line” it enforces and maintains. The struggle is for alternative grounds of solidarity beyond liberalism. There is hardly a more urgent question today.

Now, according to my dictionaries, the word “solidarity” comes from the French solidarité, originating in the Latin solum, which means “ground” and, more recognizable to the amateur philologist, “soil.” The term harks back to the physics of geology and agriculture and evokes, as well, geographic and political territories. If you like to track these things, or pay attention to the sole of your shoes, you might be led to the Latin solium, which evolved into Old French soel, suel, sueil, and modern French seuil, meaning “threshold.” A more obvious and immediate English cognate is, of course, the word “solid.” And though the French adjective solidaire briefly entered the English language (Macaulay!), and “solidarity” was explicitly mobilized—around the time of the Spring of Nations—with reference to its French origins, an earlier iteration is found in the adjective “solidary,” which belongs to the lexicon of law and jurisprudence, more specifically with regard to obligations and contracts.

But why Renan? An active and intimate associate of empire and of the settler colonial state in Algeria, Renan is somehow better remembered for his concern with solidarity, the old-new question of solidarity. Indeed, as Renan wrote in his famous (and oddly popular still) 1882 essay, a nation is not only “a daily plebiscite,” it is also “a large-scale solidarity” project, one that entails struggle and suffering.2 Writing that essay, Renan had set out broadly to explore the many varied forms of human society (“les formes de la société humaine sont des plus variées” he says in a sentence that was left untranslated), among these are

the vast agglomerations of men found in China, Egypt or ancient Babylonia, the tribes of the Hebrews and the Arabs, the city as it existed in Athens and Sparta, the assemblies of various territories in the Carolingian Empire, those communities which are without a patria and are maintained by a religious bond alone, as is the case with the Israelites and the Parsees, nations such as France, England and the majority of the modern European sovereign states, confederations such as exist in Switzerland or in America, and ties such as those that race, or rather language, establishes between the different branches of the German or Slav peoples. Each of these groupings exist, or have existed, and there would be the direst of consequences if one were to confuse any one of them with any other . . . Nowadays, a far greater mistake is made: race is confused with nation and a sovereignty analogous to that of really existing peoples is attributed to ethnographic or, rather linguistic groups. (emphases added)

I underscore the vocabulary Renan deploys to refer to the different “modes de groupement” of which humans have shown capable. Consider, though, that humans (and Renan does grant them all their humanity) are not, for Renan, equally capable of the same kinds of groupings, of realizing the same, or equally tolerable, forms of society. The analytic distinctions are therefore important (hence, Renan’s insistence that we not confuse them or mistake one for the other, the Greek cities for the Arab tribes, say) and they map—literally—onto geopolitical divisions that Renan never relinquishes over the course of the essay.

I wish, for my part, to linger on these grounds, and consider that solidarity in and out of the specific “laboratory of history” (as Columbia professor William Sloane designated the Balkans, back in 1914) continues to challenge us indeed, and push the limits of the imaginable, and the tolerable. One reason for that is that, whereas “the nation” has dominated political reflections since the nineteenth century, it never did so independently of other forms of groupements. Thus, Renan considers the nation in its differential relation to geography and to political rule, to race and to language, and to religion. (Benedict Anderson took after Marx and class, but volunteered imagination, with a little help from print capitalism; and Ivo Andrić has one fictional character add “hatred and fear.”) But how do we understand the nature of each of these? Or indeed their very distinction and separation?

It is hardly a random example that Renan points to when he describes “the Turkish system” as deploying an “absolute distinction between men in terms of their religion,” its “policy” operating by “separating nationalities according to their religion.” The crucial problem, then, is not only the understanding of each of these terms as distinct (national, religious), but also the way we consider their relation to each other, the role they play, or are allowed to play, in organizing collectives, in sustaining solidarity. Renan’s repeated mention of Slavs resonates still with the particularly obfuscated understandings (and methodological nationalisms) that Li battles against with regard to the former Yugoslavia, but also with regard to Islam, of course. Li explains, for instance, that “Yugoslavia was built not only on nationalism, but also on secularism, a logic of governance that continuously attempts to reconstitute and manage the boundary between categories of the religion and nonreligious.” Li also describes how the Bosniak (or is it Muslim?) community constitutes “a microcosm of Yugoslavia itself” in terms of “linguistic and national diversity” as well as in the variable proximity between “religion” and “nation,” in this case, between “the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church in Croatia, both of which were more closely tied to their respective national projects.” Interestingly enough, Li precisely here omits the role of “race” in the making and unmaking of Yugoslavia, a category he otherwise insists is central to the different solidarity projects, the different universalisms, he considers.

So what are the grounds of solidarity? How and on what basis does a collective become what it is? Is it language or is it race? Is it nationality or is it religion? Li is correct when he insists that the struggle against empire is the struggle against global hierarchies of race. What remains to be understood, though, is the way variable grounds—and race among them—relate to each other, the way each is constituted differentially, and thus hierarchically. The insistence that religion is not race or nation, for instance, is predicated on a distinction (even a historical transformation) that may or may not be valid, but surely functions, Renan exemplifies, as a mechanism of legitimation (and delegitimation) and as a limit to the imagination (of solidarity, among others). And just as the very existence of race can be called into question (at the same time as its ruling force continues to shape and destroy collective and individual bodies), we must interrogate the analytic and administrative operations that regard “religion” as nonpolitical, or as less tainted a category, less historical a designation, and less efficient an instrument of global hierarchy, than race. We must recognize that categorical divisions are blinding us to different forms of groupings that may hold some of the keys needed to weave new solidarities.

If there was one thing Renan understood, it is that race and religion, religion and politics, were not as easily distinguishable from each other as we might think. And what student of the Balkans—or of Islam—would disagree? More important, Renan understood the danger of alternative forms of solidarity (“modes de groupement”), of other universalisms. He was tirelessly working for the separation of religion and race, of religion from politics. He was also working for the annihilation of those he understood to embody intolerable forms of groupings, intolerable forms of solidarity that “conflated” religion and nation, religion and politics. Since William Robertson Smith at least, “Semites” was one prominent name for such intolerable solidarities, the intolerable conflation of religion and politics that we called, for a New York minute, “the Serbs,” and for much longer and today still, “Islam.” (There was, of course, another religion, race, nation—ah but which is it?—involved, but let us leave it aside, for now.) It is not surprising therefore that Renan, that famous universalist, was, already and finally, advocating a global war on terror, a war of terror, against “the Semitic thing.”

Arguments for Renan’s development notwithstanding, allow me to conclude with an excerpt from his inaugural lecture to the chair of Semitic studies at France’s most prestigious academic institution, the Collège de France.

As regard the future, gentlemen, I see in it more and more the triumph of the Indo-European genius . . . the definitive victory of Europe . . . European genius rises with peerless grandeur; Islamism, on the contrary, is slowly decomposing, in our days it is falling with a crash. At the present time, the essential condition of a diffused civilization is the destruction of the peculiarly Semitic element (la chose sémitique), the destruction of the theocratic power of Islamism; consequently the destruction of Islamism itself: for Islamism can exist only as an official religion; as soon as it shall be reduced to the state of a free personal religion, it will perish . . . There is the endless strife; the strife which will cease only when the last son of Ishmael shall have died of misery, or shall have been driven by terror into the depths of the desert.

To the desert, or to Bosnatanamo and beyond.

  1. It was difficult not to be reminded of the Spanish Civil War while reading The Universal Enemy; not to wonder, as I will in the remainder of this essay, about the grounds of solidarity, the possible comparisons between transnational “communism” and “Islam,” for sure, but also with regard to war and the comradeship it generates. See also Lisa A. Kirschenbaum’s International Communism and the Spanish Civil War: Solidary and Suspicion (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

  2. On Renan’s enduring popularity, see Stefan Collini, “The Enlightened Vote” and see for another example and a critical treatment, Joëlle Marelli, “Shlomo Sand, le peuple et l’exil,” Revue des Livres 8 (Novembre-Décembre, 2012), 17-26.