During the siege of Sarajevo from 1992 to 1996, a period that witnessed the genocide of Bosnian Muslims, I recall joining multiple gatherings from the squares of Istanbul to the steps of Harvard’s Widener Library to protest the hypocrisy of the international community, the United Nations, Europe, and the United States. Genocide of Muslim populations of Bosnia occurred after the Cold War, at the peak of Euro-American normative self-righteousness about the end of history and the US military superpower status. Initial Islamophobic Euro-American discourses about the dangers and unacceptability of a Muslim majority Bosnian state in the middle of Europe clearly emboldened the Serbian plans to do ethnic cleansing. Against the perceived anti-Muslim racism not only of Serbians but the rest of Europe and the United States, there was a visible sense of mobilization of aid for Bosnians from Istanbul and Tehran to Riyad and Karachi, despite sectarian, ideological, and political divisions among Muslim societies.
Mobilization of Muslim support for Bosnia was symbolized by the visit to Sarajevo by two Muslim female heads of state, Tansu Çiller of Turkey and Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, in defiance of Serbian snipers. Both Çiller and Bhutto appealed to European and international norms when they called for a humanitarian intervention to save the Bosnian Muslims. Yet, at the same time, the suffering and struggle of Bosnian Muslims shattered all the pretentions of Western universalism that supposedly justified the global norms from humanitarian interventions to human rights. For some, Bosnia symbolized the darkness of twentieth-century Europe, inspiring alternative universalisms based on Islamic tradition. For the defenders of the West, such as Samuel Huntington, there was no double standard or hypocrisy in the genocide of Bosnia, because the Muslim societies supporting Bosnians, Russians or Greek Orthodox publics supporting Serbia, and Western Europe caring about the Catholic Croats just illustrated the nature of the clash of civilizations that would characterize the new world order to come.
What is remembered today of the genocide in Bosnia of the early 1990s, due to the suffocating influence of the post-September 11 narratives of the Global War on Terror and rising anti-Muslim right wing ideologies, is not Christian Serbians committing genocide against Muslims under the watch of international organizations and peacekeepers, but rather a small group of Muslim fighters going there to defend Bosnians. Thus, as a result, Euro-American and even global public opinions have almost forgotten the genocide against Bosnian Muslims that brought Arab Muslims there in the first place. The only group that keeps referring to it are the new Islamophobic right in Europe and the United States, justifying the genocide of Bosnian Muslims as a necessary defense of Christendom against Islamic jihad. The fact that Peter Handke received a Nobel Prize for Literature despite the common knowledge of his public denial of the genocide against Bosnian Muslims illustrates the Western public opinion’s amnesia about the events in Bosnia.
Darryl Li’s book takes the experience of multiple projects of humanitarian interventions in Bosnia during the 1990s as a laboratory to explore how contested narratives of universalisms have been reshaping the world after the Cold War. By focusing on the story of a group Arab fighters who joined the defense of Bosnian Muslims against Serbian and Croatian military assaults, Li examines the debates on Islam and the West, international law, racial foundations of world order, humanitarian intervention, and sovereignty, and helps us interrogate the idea of universality itself. Why is it that white Westerners are automatically assumed to be carriers of universal morality, humanity, and reason, while universality claims of the rest of the world are seen as derivative and in relation to this white universal? Decolonizing methodology of the book puts competing Eurocentric notions of universality in conversation with different notions of Muslim universality narratives.
In the particular ethnographic study of transnational Muslim fighters who joined Bosnian resistance, Li questions the use of the word “jihadism” to make sense of these attempts to fight for universalist goals by Muslims. While discussing jihad as a universalism, against the dominant depiction of it as a pathology rather than a contemporary claim to solidarity in the present, the book reveals all kinds of erasures and hierarchies (from race and gender to class) that each universalist project entails, especially in legitimizing competing notions of international law, empire, race, and war. In humanizing the Arab fighters’ stories and narratives of what jihad, humanity, and world order meant for them, Li does not give a simplistic account of an “alternative ’Islamic’ universalism.” On the contrary, the ethnographic critical genealogy presented in the book similarly deconstructs the proclaimed Pan-Islamic alternatives to the hegemonic Western-White imperial orthodoxies. Li does not posit Western/White and Islamic universalisms as simply enemies in the mirror, with entangled histories and cross-pollination of ideals. While showing the modern lineages of the ideas of ummah, jihad, and Muslim solidarity that inspired the Arab fighters to join the resistance in Bosnia, Li offers an intellectual path out of the crisis of foundational concepts of our scholarship by highlighting the positive and constructive aspect of the solidarity for the oppressed and weak. The much-demonized transnational Muslim fighters of the Global War on Terror (GWOT) era appears as a very human actor in this portrait, a person that Li can talk to not only about human rights and justice but also about bicycling, food, and homesickness. Their motivations include piety and ideology as well as ways of imagining solidarity to help the oppressed and to resist genocide.
The Global War on Terror produced an army of so-called terrorism and jihad experts, whose careers and income rely on racist discourses of the jihadist potential of every Muslim doing politics, especially across borders and through international organizations. More frustrating for Li is the power of Orientalism in academia that is still obsessed with finding references in classical texts of early Islam to explain everything about Muslims today, including Muslim volunteers joining the Bosnian fighters. As an alternative, Li brings both history and politics back to his ethnographic work, showing how each Arab fighter in Bosnia represents a complex genealogy of history and political aspiration. He illustrates how their thoughts and actions may include unexpected lineages, such as Yugoslavia’s non-aligned links to Arab countries, or Indian Ocean links between South Asia and Arabia created by the infrastructure of British and American imperial hegemony.
Thus, in Li’s account, jihad “draws from the enormous ocean of historically sedimented concepts, institutions, practices, genres and tropes that come together under the sign of Islam.” An Arab fighter who reads this book would see his own humanity well-articulated but also would be invited reflect on the fact that what is done in the name of the Muslim word, the ummah, and for the sake of God’s approval has a complex entangled histories that connect this jihad to Third Worldism, socialist internationalism, nationalism, and other lineages in the last two centuries. In his discussion of the roots of the discourses on jihad, Li challenges the flawed assumption that political violence emanates from readings or misreading of religious texts. Li offers one of the best discussions of the debate on essentialism in Islamic studies, by making a distinction between racist civilizational essentializers of the Samuel Huntington type, and anti-racist deconstructionists of Edward Said type. He concludes that the Saidian response of highlighting the diversity of Muslims is not sufficient, as it evades the question of why certain shared modern narratives of jihad, Islamic solidarity, and unity appeal to so many Muslims in different temporal moments.
As an alternative ethnographic account, Li demonstrates why and how, despite the diversity of Muslim experience, we still see the emergence of a transnational Muslim narrative or interpretation in the late twentieth century. His well-chosen examples illustrate these nuanced perspectives. For example, background of one of the non-Bosnian fighter, Abu Abdulaziz, includes Hyderabad, India, Saudi Arabia, ARAMCO-US Embassy-Saudi Airlines connections across Indian Ocean world. Similarly, he provides Abu Ali’s Mediterranean itinerary of colonial background and labor migrations from North Africa to Western Europe. Both figures who joined the war in Bosnia as transnational fighters eventually became victims of terrorizing state surveillance and policing, losing their ability to travel and live a normal life even though there were no successful legal charges against them. Li adds to these stories the many Bosnians who fought with Arab fighters or translated for them, learning their language skills thanks to Yugoslavia’s non-aligned connections to Baghdad, Cairo, or Damascus from the 1960s to the 1990s. It is clear that transnational jihad required rethinking and challenging both international law and the legitimacy of nation-state violence. Muslim fighters had to deal with and face both structures of state and international violence themselves.
Besides the main discussion of universalism, the book offers a deep critique of the theory of sovereignty in international law and political theory, showing how imperial legacies and racial ordering of the world still play a crucial role in individuals asserting their own agency as transnational and diaspora activists. While foreign fighters in Bosnia could challenge multiple layers of national authority and international regimes of control, they also had to face the brutal orthodoxies of the Global War on Terror, often implemented by extrajudicial military authority of the United States, with the forced support from the United Nations and a multitude of other nation states. In Li’s masterful theoretical discussion, we can see how the frenzy of the Global War on Terror against a small number of transnational Muslim fighters reveals the contradictions and double standards of all the basic norms of world order as it exists today—from the idea of national sovereignty to the impartiality of international law—while highlighting the continuing relevance of imperial control and racial hierarchies in a supposedly post-colonial world. Li demonstrates how this new imperial hegemony led by the United States relies on a novel repertoire of practices such as US-domination of existing smaller nation states, forcing them to violate all manner of international legal norms while still upholding their own claims to sovereignty and independence.
After presenting a very humane portrait of Muslim foreign fighters in Bosnia, and showing how and why they are no different than UN peacekeepers or others who cross national borders to engage in military conflicts, Li invites readers to clarify their criteria in critiquing one kind of transnational fighters and endorsing another kind. More importantly, Li does not give up on the idea of solidarity as a political tool, including the self-defense of the oppressed peoples, all the while rigorously examining the concepts and practices that sustain it in his depiction of Muslim foreign fighters in Bosnia. This is the most important moral implication of this book. Can we fight for human rights and dignity of oppressed people, while still questioning the very terms of humanity, rights, and dignity they presuppose? While the book is about non-Bosnian Muslims fighters in Bosnia, Li invites us to look beyond this essentializing Muslim marker and learn from this experience about the very nature of the contemporary unequal and racialized world order. With this intervention, he holds a mirror up to the foundational concepts of both the liberal international order and hegemonic concepts within fields of the humanities and social sciences.