In the few months since its publication—and notwithstanding the emergence of a global pandemic that has irrevocably altered imaginations of enmity and humanity—The Universal Enemy has occasioned a number of stimulating and challenging conversations. In a spirit of gratitude for those who have taken time and care to engage with the text in this forum and beyond, what follows is a brief reconsideration of some of the book’s major themes.
Universalism and mobility
One of the more unexpected conversations concerning The Universal Enemy arose from an invitation to speak online with a book club comprised of Arab women professionals, educated in English and mostly hailing from the Gulf states. For these readers, the text reanimated half-forgotten memories of the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina as a cause widely discussed during childhood or adolescence in Friday congregations, fundraisers, and other spaces. They expressed appreciation for how the book filled in some of the gaps of what actually transpired in the Balkans beyond the media portrayals of victimization that they had consumed in their younger days. Some recalled family acquaintances who had traveled to Bosnia and back for various purposes.
In a way, the conversation pointed to the possibility of closing a loop that the book had inadvertently left open. Like Cemil Aydın’s recollections of protesting for Bosnia as a graduate student in Massachusetts, these readers’ reminiscences were echoes of the affective resonances among Muslims worldwide that the war elicited. The everyday experiences of solidarity that populated these women’s memories comprise most of the pan-Islamic activism in the world: people agitating in their own communities in service of faraway causes.
Such efforts are described in the introduction to The Universal Enemy as a backdrop to the project but then largely left behind as the focus shifts to a narrower subset of solidarity activities, namely travel for jihad. As is readily conceded in the book, this telescoping has its downsides, most prominently in confining the analysis of gender to masculinized forms of mobility. The book makes a similar conceptual move: it starts by elaborating an anthropological approach to universalism but then turns to transregional ethnographic history to understand the specific universalist project of the jihad in Bosnia. An exploration of universalisms that operate at a distance from their sites of concern—say, the mobilizations for Bosnia that the book club readers lived through—may have taken up themes of affect and mediation more than The Universal Enemy’s attention to migration and connection and would likely have been more expansive in its treatment of gender.
The book club discussion highlighted to me the untapped potential of thinking about these two forms of pan-Islamic solidarity in relation to each other. Such conversations would be foreclosed, however, by Faisal Devji’s suggestion that “movements and connections are of little historical and analytical use” in studying contemporary jihad practices. This is a curious claim, since movements and connections between different geographies and cultures are a major part of what makes transnational jihads so appealing to their participants and so threatening to their critics. At stake here is not merely the relevance of the empirical against the speculative but rather the uneven conceptualization that continues to afflict discussions of jihad.
Devji expends many words refuting claims that The Universal Enemy does not make.1Especially puzzling is the charge of anachronism: “Li even calls Bosnia in the 1990s ‘an early battleground for GWOT.’” It is Devji, however, who imposes the temporal qualifier “in the 1990s” on the quoted text (p. 7) while disregarding explicit references to post-9/11 events in the very next sentence. His assessment of its shortcomings as a study of the “globalization of jihad,” however, helpfully illustrates why the book never took up the category of globalization to begin with. Devji frequently invokes “the global” and its variants—“Muslim globalization” or “global jihad”—by way of contrast from unspecified “traditional modes of connectivity and transmission” and “unified ideological or institutional form[s].” He comes closest to substantively theorizing the global in declaring that “Islamic militancy after 9/11 also belongs to this new arena of action, in which local causes are minoritized by the enormity of their global effects.” This insistence on disjuncture between cause and effect over all else reduces jihad to spectacle for its own sake, a kind of performance art that calls forth musings like “Is it possible to rethink politics here beyond instrumentality?” Such a question, however, would only make sense if one presumed politics to be a purely instrumental activity in the first place. Yet by leaving little space for thinking seriously about politics, this idea of the global ironically reinforces the conceptual primacy of the nation-state. This is why after indicting The Universal Enemy for not employing his theory of globalization, Devji dismisses the book for not being an account of conventional state-driven pan-Islamic solidarity either.
One of the many ways to leave behind this tired dichotomy between nation-state politics and global nonpolitics lies in the work of Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, who theorized the strategic logic of al-Qa‘ida’s struggle with the United States as an asymmetric contest between an imperial state and a transnational nonstate actor, the latter engaging in “a conscious and acted-upon departure from state-owned, state-acted, state-defined, and state-regulated violence.” However, even this confrontation is structured by an international legal order with its own longstanding genealogies of enmity, as Azeezah Kanji outlines in her intervention. Indeed, The Universal Enemy shows how going beyond states does not mean escaping the state system altogether. Ould Mohamedou’s depiction of jihad fighters seeing the state “as nuisance, an obsolete thing getting in the way of a more ambitious outlook” might ring true for describing Osama bin Laden’s relationship with the Taliban. But it is less apt for those who waged jihad in the name of the umma and under the flag of Bosnia-Herzegovina at once. This is entirely understandable: while both exceeded the nation-state, they nonetheless pursued different political logics: al-Qa‘ida saw itself as waging war against the United States, whereas the jihad fighters in 1990s Bosnia did not. And while the Bosnian jihad sided with a recognized national government, the jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s sought to replace one state regime with another. The “uneven sovereignty” that Kanji describes as an instrument of imperial power in the international legal order also presents jihad groups with opportunities to fight selectively for, against, or in indifference to states both weak and strong. But this rich landscape of diverse and overlapping political projects is left illegible if our choice of conceptual categories is limited to the state and the global.
From universalism to solidarity
The Universal Enemy is in some ways a story about people caught between very different historical moments. Jothie Rajah astutely notes how transnational jihad mobilizations operate “with a different sense of time and sequence from the US state’s War on Terror narrative.” For them, the world did not change on 9/11, at least not in the way Washington imagines. Such jihads responded to crises afflicting Muslim lands (Afghanistan in 1979, Syria after 2011), often with a particular timeline of Islamic history in mind whose key moments would more likely be 1492 or 1948. But in contrast to the choice between stagnancy and reconciliation presented by Rajah’s reading of Victor Turner, the research has led me to think of historical change with Walter Benjamin’s angel of history staring at an ever-growing pile of catastrophes in mind. The victory over the Soviets in Afghanistan gave way to infighting among the jihad factions there; the Bosnian war ended in a stalemate but after 9/11 jihad veterans there became, in Mezna Qato’s words, “noncombatants in a war against them”; even the US-led Global War on Terror (GWOT) appears to be receding in its dominance as an overarching principle of US governance without any promise of diminishing anti-Muslim violence.
The sense of time lumbering on, even if not in a clear direction, also shaped the research in ways that Qato’s meditations on method and the “politics of listening” brought to my attention for the first time. Qato notes the slow, laborious pace of the research; indeed, it was only in seeing these individuals over a number of years that I was able to sketch their fraught trajectories through historical time. Perhaps the most frequent type of conversation with my interlocutors that did not appear in the book are those about political events of the day. Sometimes they opened up vivid personal recollections, other times they felt more like ways to parry my research questions. But they together remind me now that accepting ethnographically coeval terms with one’s interlocutors requires going beyond snapshots of a single moment in time. Instead, we must dwell in the shared and everyday reckoning with histories yet to be written.
In this way, the book as a text is marked by a stitching together of different temporalities. The Universal Enemy was born from research that began in 2004 and finally appeared in print fifteen years later. This period spanned from the height of the GWOT to a moment when long-established areas of political consensus in the US-dominated global order seem more up for grabs than before. This transition is mirrored in the gap between the book’s title and subtitle, the move from universalism to solidarity. Yet, the treatment of these terms is not equal. The book takes on universalism as its central conceptual category while gesturing to solidarity more as an aspirational horizon—indeed, its appearance in the subtitle only occurred very late in the pre-publication process. The need to reclaim a more critical notion of universalism was uppermost in my mind in earlier years, but today it is solidarity that urgently calls for deeper theorization, especially in response to revitalized Black and Indigenous-led radical movements.
In this spirit, I am grateful to Gil Anidjar for further pushing my thinking on solidarity with a turn to etymology. Solidarity comes via Latin notions of a solid (solidum) and, further back, soil (solum). Taking these two senses of the word at once, we can think of solidarity as a way of sticking together while standing one’s own ground. This conceptualization of solidarity overlaps with the book’s insistence on centering the processing of difference in the analysis of universalism. Universalism and solidarity both require recognizing and working with difference rather than erasing it. Universalism, however, explicitly speaks to all of humanity; solidarity may or may not. Similarly, solidarity is grounded in mutuality, while not every universalism is. The Universal Enemy shows how the jihad in Bosnia fell into both categories; the United Nations peacekeepers who feature in the book, on the other hand, were engaged in universalism but in a logic of humanitarianism that espoused neutrality over solidarity.
The grounded nature of solidarity is also part of its messiness: what a transnational critical or revolutionary politics looks like can be very different depending on the ground where one stands, and who one’s closest adversaries are. This is no less true as the Covid-19 pandemic further strains the already vexing contradictions between shared human vulnerability and unequal regimes of dehumanization. For those situated in the United States, solidarity with “Palestinians in the open-air prisons of the Occupied Territories, Kashmiris under military lockdown, Uyghurs in concentration camps”—all groups who Azeezah Kanji rightly identifies as facing greater risks than ever before thanks to the virus—would each pull toward conflicting alignments. Similarly, even as The Universal Enemy emerges from debates primarily concerned with anti-Muslim violence produced by US empire, it is mostly set in a country where many Muslims appeal to Washington as a necessary counterweight to Russian influence with growing desperation. As Aydın reminds us, the sympathy for Balkan Muslims among Western elites that accompanied the height of the humanitarian intervention fad in the early 2000s was always fragile and in danger of fading with the passage of time. So just as the grounds of history have shifted under our feet over the life-course of this book, it is my hope that the text will continue to travel in the form of a future Bosnian edition—that it will stage new conversations and in turn find new orientations, in new language, on new grounds.