In The Universal Enemy, Darryl Li offers an entirely compelling anthropology of universalism, showing “how universalist claims are made and enacted especially by people who are not ordinarily associated with ideas of the universal.” Drawing on “ethnographic lawyering,” as well as extensive fieldwork among “men who came to Bosnia for jihad, those described as ‘transnational volunteers,’ ‘foreign fighters,’ and, of course, ‘terrorists,’” Li’s monograph confronts us with our complicity in casting “participants in transnational jihad . . . as the enemy of mankind . . . declared as such by those whose right to speak in the name of the universal is often taken for granted.”

In telling “a kind of ethnographic history from below,” Li offers rich detail and rigorous analysis to make his argument that “[u]niversalism is something that should be approached as specific and concrete; there is no single ‘Islamic universalism’ or ‘Western universalism’ as such, but rather multiple universalist projects whose primary idioms may describe themselves as broadly Islamic or Western and which strive for the ability to invoke such categories with a force that is convincing.” Delving into and interrogating a complex and entwined field of issues—“Islam, international law, empire, race, and war”—Li’s study follows the lives and narratives of mujahids to argue that certain jihads “are more usefully thought of as universalist projects in their own right.”

Engaging with Li’s impressive work of scholarship from the position of a sociolegal scholar, I have been struck by how his book does indeed “help to make the jihad legible in political terms rather than in pathologizing or moralistic ones.” Li “brackets questions of explaining and solving the ‘problem’ of the jihad and instead asks how these jihads can help us see the broader world differently than we may otherwise.” Seeing the broader world differently matters, of course, and Li’s bold argument, combined with his thorough analysis and sustained ethnographic research, makes this book an effective and important tool for illuminating a broader world that is too often eclipsed for readers in “the West.” In a perhaps somewhat contrapuntal response to the provocation to see the broader world differently than we may otherwise, as I read Li, I found myself reaching more and more (possibly yearning for a schema of predictability in the context of Covid-19’s uncertain horizons!) for Victor Turner’s thinking on social drama.

In Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors, Turner uses “the notion of social drama as a device for describing and analyzing episodes that manifest social conflict.” Turner identifies social drama as consisting of a four-stage model. The first stage is breach, “of some relationship regarded as crucial in the relevant social group.” The second is crisis, “when sides are being taken, coalitions formed and fissures spread and deepen.” Stage three is the “legal or ritual means of redress or reconciliation between the conflicting parties,” and finally, with stage four, “either the public and symbolic expression of reconciliation or else of irremediable schism.” Set out in this manner, social drama may look straightforwardly sequential but Turner highlights, “there are a number of variations possible with regard to the sequence of the phases and to the weight accorded to them. Again, when there is a rapid sequence of social dramas, it is hard to tell whether what one is observing at a given moment in the series is breach, crisis . . . or the application of redressive machinery.”

What if the War on Terror were approached as an episode of social drama in transnational law? In the US state’s narrative, the events of 9/11 constitute that initiatory phase one—breach of a crucial relationship—and the War on Terror constitutes phase three: a necessary moment of legal redress. However, narratives of blame and innocence, cause and effect, are, as we know, highly ideological. In The Universal Enemy, by tracing the movements of people and ideas located in Bosnia, but backgrounded by claims to the universal dating from “Afghanistan since 1979, but even more after the 1991 end of the Cold War in places such as Kashmir, Iraq, the Philippines, Chechnya, Somalia, and Syria,” Li details a universalism with a different sense of time and sequence from the US state’s War on Terror narrative.

Additionally, if “legal,” in modernist accounts of law, is tied to nation-state sovereignty and “the formal juridical equality of independent nation-states,” then Li’s “[c]lose attention to empire” links questions of law to how the United States, “a state built on a foundation of genocide and slavery,” revitalizes the structures of its Cold War hegemony to conduct the War on Terror as a “globalized order of racial violence.” Marrying Turner’s social drama to Li’s anthropology of universalism helps illuminate how US accounts of War on Terror “justice,” do not effect a stage three legal redress or reconciliation between the conflicting parties. Instead, these accounts and actions of seeming legality keep conflict mired in stage two: the taking of sides, coalition-formation, and the spreading and deepening of fissures.

In other words, recognizing these deeper foundations of the United States as empire, and national law’s susceptibility to overt and covert imperialism, offers one way to dismantle the cause-effect narrative of the United States as innocent victim of 9/11, and counterterrorism as the provider of “security.”

Indeed, Turner’s hopeful stage three of legal redress or reconciliation seems thwarted by how “legal” is a category that has taken on a new range of meanings in the context of the War on Terror. Li’s ethnographic lawyering and his fieldwork with transnational mujahids render the “legal” dimensions of the War on Terror acutely visible. Accounts of citizenship revoked, detentions without trial, torture, assassinations, renditions, and US pressure on Bosnian courts, all these ethnographic details put flesh and blood on the skeleton of the “legal” in the War on Terror. By repudiating (doctrinal) law’s account of “legal,” and showing how the War on Terror effects “an open exercise of war powers untethered to any sovereignty but that of the United States, directed at ‘nations, organizations or persons’ deemed by the president to be enemies,” Li underscores the bleak deepening of what Turner would have seen as stage two fissures. In the face of this entrenching of conflict in the guise of “justice” and “law,” I look to Turner for hope; for a possible way past conflict.

Arguably, the value of Turner’s model of social drama to grappling with universalisms in relation to political violence and transnational law is two-fold. First, for Turner it is important to highlight the processual structure of social action. “The social world”, he emphasizes, “is a world in becoming not a world in being.” In the dynamic moments between phases, liminal moments hold the potential of radical openness: “all previous standards and models are subjected to criticism, and fresh new ways of describing and interpreting sociocultural experience are formulated.” Nothing, he stresses, is fixed by grand design when it comes to “living action for the human species.”

For us, in this era of perpetual war, with vast public resources devoted to battling imagined precarity such that populations are left unprotected from actual precarity, Turner’s lens of social drama offers a way forward; a way past perpetual war’s deepening fissures. Turner emphasizes that the episodes in social drama can unfold rapidly, or over centuries. The sense of time and sequence in Turner’s social drama offers one way to turn the conceptual gaze of transnational law away from the hegemonic, the episodic, and the disembedded. Such a turn would be consistent with Li’s project of understanding universalist projects on their own terms, in part by approaching universalism as “specific and concrete.” There is concrete specificity in Li’s reframing of transnational law in relation to empire and the legal fictions of sovereignty. If transnational law situates events as phases in social drama, there is a better chance of thoughtful action toward legal redress or reconciliation; a better chance of avoiding polemical, ahistorical interpretations that escalate conflict. Or, if social conflict arrives at “irremediable schism” rather than reconciliation, we can bring more awareness to the manner in which law’s violence navigates that schism.

In offering an anthropology of universalism, Li is clear about the parameters of his project. He details the ambivalences and complexities generated by nationalism, secularism, cross-cutting universalisms, war, law, empire, and the co-constitutions of universalisms and the particular, to help readers know a world rarely accessible to those shaped by dominant, US-scripted narratives. He “brackets questions of explaining and solving the ‘problem’ of jihad” to instead “help us see the broader world differently.” But perhaps reading The Universal Enemy with Turner in mind seeds hope for me because, in showing us how to understand universalism “as practice—and not simply as ideology,” and by demonstrating the value of regulating and redefining difference without perpetuating “dehumanizing, coercive political projects,” Li offers us a way to move past the entrenched conflict of our present.