Torn apart in the Cold War’s final battles, Afghanistan and Bosnia also became important sites for the globalization of Muslim solidarity, preceded only by Palestine in this role. While Afghanistan’s continuing violence has made it crucial for scholarship on this subject, the same cannot be said for Bosnia. Darryl Li is doubtless correct in attributing this neglect to the way in which Yugoslavia’s civil war was appropriated as part of a European history with its referent in the Holocaust. Yet, the fact that Bosnia had already achieved an uneasy peace by 9/11, while Afghanistan was hosting Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, surely accounts for the disparity he notes.
Afghanistan’s civil and proxy wars are routinely seen as providing the context if not origins of al-Qaeda’s global jihad, though recent scholarship, like that of the anthropologist Magnus Marsden, has tended to question and disaggregate this genealogy. Li’s objective, on the other hand, is precisely, and I will argue unsustainably, to place Bosnia within a genealogical narrative of this kind. He wants to show how the universalist projects of “foreign” and specifically “Arab” fighters, preachers, and aid workers there were defined as a set of varied relationships with others seen as being particularistic, and even with the rival universalisms of socialist nonalignment, peacekeeping, and, eventually, the War on Terror.
The last chapter of Li’s otherwise disappointing book, largely devoted to the post-9/11 fate of those “Arabs” left in Bosnia, is a highly original if occasionally chilling account of the way in which these individuals and the past they represented were themselves retrospectively appropriated as mere particularities into a new universal history, now entirely determined by the Global War on Terror. But what puzzled me upon reading it was why the rest of Li’s book should in effect mimic the retrospective view he criticizes here as an aspect of what he calls American empire, by insisting on the Bosnian war’s centrality even in its own time to global forms of jihad and the post-9/11 War on Terror.
Bosnia becomes such an exemplary site for the emergence of global jihad as to erase any difference between it and the post-9/11 world. Indeed, Li’s book lacks a real conception of historical change, the peregrinations of its subjects differing from their medieval predecessors only by setting. The book begins with two Algerians living in Bosnia who were among the first rendered to the prison at Guantanamo Bay, one lending his name to a Supreme Court ruling. And it goes on to import War on Terror categories into the Bosnian past, such as when negotiations between “Arab” fighters and the international community in 1993 are described as taking place between “humanity’s representatives and humanity’s enemies.”
Annoying as they may have been to UN personnel, can these marginal figures, notionally on the same side as the West in a regional conflict, really be described as enemies of humanity in the absence of any evidence? Li even calls Bosnia in the 1990s “an early battleground for GWOT,” or the Global War on Terror, in an anachronism that is only confirmed by his ethnography, which for the most part consists of the reminiscences of former participants in the Bosnian war pertaining to events occurring more than a decade in the past. Instead of taking these at face value, would it not have been more interesting to analyze them as the retrospective accounts they in fact were?
Much of Li’s argument is pitched against the “jihadology” of self-proclaimed terrorism experts. Though, like them, he also relies on secret wiretap evidence and monitored interviews with prisoners, sometimes as a lawyer or human rights worker and occasionally as an anthropologist. While Li is correct to call their methods and narratives into question, it is not clear why he needs to do so in an academic book. I have always considered such literally misplaced concerns with public education to be part of American scholarship’s residual evangelism. The problem with this missionary desire to correct popular perceptions is that it lowers the quality of debate rather than advancing scholarship.
What have scholars really gained from all the worthy books that have been written since 9/11, arguing that Muslim women are not all oppressed, or that scripture does not determine the actions of militants? Perhaps they serve as predigested arguments for their undergraduates and family members. It is now almost impossible to read or write a book about modern and sometimes even medieval Islam without repeating some of these corrective measures, and Li’s book is no exception. But apart from its claims to historical precedence and the European locale that he argues has hitherto left Bosnia outside the scholarship on global Islam, does the book contain anything more?
As is only to be expected, we are treated to by now well-worn and ritualistic disquisitions about the complex meanings of terms like jihad or Salafism. Added to these are accounts about the different ways in which “foreign” and “local” Muslims interacted in Bosnia, together with the relations between global and national visions of Islam that sometimes corresponded with them. Then there are descriptions of how fighters in a jihad can also be humanitarians and how radical Muslims become negotiating partners for their enemies. But we have seen many such narratives that do little more than treat Muslims like other human beings, so what do we get here in addition to local color?
This is where Li’s argument about universalism comes in. Taken largely from the work of Carl Schmitt on spatiality, it identifies the conceptual stakes of Islamic politics during the Bosnian war in terms of a tense and sometimes ambiguous political relationship between universalist projects and the ways in which they identified and processed difference in the form of particularity. This is an interesting way to approach the subject, one that displaces the “jihadologist” obsession with theological categories and therefore radical Muslim alterity by focusing, instead, on a general political language that allows Islamic and “Western” actors to share views and practices even as adversaries.
Yet nowhere in the book does universality, or for that matter particularity, ever appear as a truly ethnographic category, one debated by its subjects and part of different linguistic regimes. Like its title, The Universal Enemy, probably a reference to Schmitt but also appearing in another version as “universal adversary” in a US Department of Homeland Security document from 2003, the book’s chief category is deployed in a resolutely normative fashion that is external to the life-worlds of its subjects. Its existence, of course, is frequently implied in their discussions and actions, but never in its own name. This seems curious for a work of anthropology.
Perhaps because his work is informed by Schmitt’s ideas, Li’s view of universality seems to be entirely spatial in character. But Schmitt described different orders of spatiality, from the early-modern “amity lines” of Spanish and Portuguese imperialism to Britain’s “world empire” lacking in territorial integrity and America’s hemispheric Monroe Doctrine, itself inherited by the Cold War’s purely abstract conception of space. Li’s vision of spatiality, however, does not engage with this repertoire and is much more old-fashioned in its rather literalist and historically undifferentiated attention to geographies limned by the physical mobility of individuals.
This is in part because Li wants to show how the longstanding movement of emigrants, students, and exiles in the wake of decolonization could be pressed into new forms of universalism, such as that of Muslim solidarity and later the War on Terror. But he does not consider the possibility of universality without a spatial dimension, or, indeed, of spatiality without mobility. Yet, I want to suggest that it is in forms such as these that religion is often globalized, but which end up being obscured by the focus on movement and connectivity that has become commonplace in contemporary scholarship. Might temporality, for instance, offer a different way of understanding the experience or project of universality?
One of the most important ethnographies about war and religion in Bosnia, Elisabeth Claverie’s Les Guerres de la Vierge, attends precisely to the temporal dimension of universality. She looks at the way in which apparitions of the Virgin at Medjugorje in the early 1980s made it an important site of Catholic pilgrimage where local histories of conflict were mediated by the church’s transnational vision and the varied perspectives of pilgrims from around the world. Though it is set in the same place and time as his own book, and addresses many of the same themes, Claverie’s study finds no mention there, suggesting a religious partition of Bosnian history that reinforces the Muslim exceptionality Li wants to contest.
Demographically by far the most important expression of Muslim globalization, however, requires neither universality nor mobility. I am referring, of course, to the periodic if transient mobilization of Muslim protest over some alleged insult to Muhammad, all of which interrupt rather than coincide with jihad movements. Starting with those over The Satanic Verses in 1989, these controversies tend to begin among diasporic populations in Europe, but spread by television and now social media to their countries of origin and beyond, without being determined by any new movement of individuals, creation of ideological networks, or coordination of action. Exactly the opposite of Li’s narrative.
What makes such protests global, in other words, is precisely their forsaking of traditional modes of connectivity and transmission. These might still occur locally, but cannot simply be added up to produce a global event, which belongs to an altogether different conceptual as well as spatial order. And because these controversies do not presume the existence of a unified ideological or institutional form, indeed the contrary, their globalization cannot be understood in terms of a universalist project or politics either. In my view, 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 in a way quite different from the Bosnian war.
Now more than a decade old, my own work on globalization looks at how militant Islam serves to represent the political and intellectual problem posed by the emergence of this new arena after the Cold War. Is it possible to rethink politics here beyond instrumentality? How does the human race invoked by al-Qaeda assume a new reality within it as the globe’s only possible subject as well as object? Because he is so keen to tie global forms of jihad and the War on Terror to 1990s Bosnia, whose “Arab” fighters he is perhaps right to understand in the familiar terms of individual mobility and connection, Li is unable to grasp such questions and can only see them depoliticizing or pathologizing the relations of “actual” people.
Li’s fetishization of movement and connections not only allows him to ignore the abstract and inhuman dimensions of globalization, but also to dismiss arguments too close to his own as being merely parochial. Cabeiri de Bergh Robinson’s fine ethnography of jihadi outfits in Pakistani-occupied Kashmir, Body of Victim, Body of Warrior, is mentioned in a footnote to illustrate the contrast between “transnational jihads and locally circumscribed ones.” Li underplays Kashmir’s transnationalism, drawing in not just India and Pakistan but a worldwide diaspora. He also neglects to say that Robinson’s argument includes the Kashmiri jihad’s appropriation of international human rights discourse and practice.
Yet, if such universalist projects are possible without the endless shuffle of transnational circulation, having also been attributed to jihad movements well before Li wrote his book to labor the point, should he not at least acknowledge them? This is not a question of citational ethics, but rather of addressing the challenges posed by arguments similar to his own so as to refine its focus on subjects like transnationality. What if movement and connections are of little historical and analytical use in such projects? How then might the relationship of universal to particular be redefined? Unlike my own work, here is an issue well within Li’s frame of analysis.
Like the “jihadologists” he despises, Li tracks down his “Arabs” so single-mindedly, from Bosnian prisons into exile around the world, that he neglects to ask any questions about the wider and arguably more serious Muslim involvement with Bosnia. We find out a little about official Saudi and Kuwaiti assistance to Bosnia, if only because some of the “Arabs” Li investigated participated in it, and there are thumbnail sketches of the way in which Pakistani and Jordanian UN personnel engaged with the Bosnian war as Muslims. But Iran and Turkey, which were heavily involved either in the supply of arms or by way of a truly national mobilization on the basis of a specifically Ottoman history, receive the barest of mentions.
It would have been interesting to know about the relations, if any, between Li’s “Arabs” and the agents of these countries in Bosnia. Did they have any thoughts about revolutionary Iran or the region’s Ottoman past? Was there a sectarian dimension to their Islam, at least as far as Iran was concerned? These questions do not exit the charmed circle of “Arab” subjects within which Li operates, but his book is nevertheless unable to engage with any of them. For an analysis of Islamic universalism, it possesses a rather narrow range, especially given the small number of “Arabs” involved. But perhaps wiretap evidence and prisoner interviews only make so much in the way of participant observation possible.
As a book about the lives of “Arab” fighters in Bosnia this is a fascinating study. Its problems arise from Li’s anachronistic claim to speak about the globalization of jihad and the War on Terror. But he can only do so by betraying Bosnia’s own highly consequential history and dressing it up as something it manifestly is not, again much like the “jihadologists” he rightly criticizes. In the process his argument loses historical specificity and is forced into various kinds of subterfuge, leveraging Bosnia’s location and the temporal precedence of its conflict against its own belatedness to make self-satisfied statements about the book’s “ethnographically grounded and conceptually supple approach to universalism.”