A review of Darryl Li, The Universal Enemy: Jihad, Empire, and the Challenge of Solidarity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019).
What is it about the foreign fighter that makes him inherently suspect in international politics? Darryl Li argues that jihadists represent “the universal enemy.” They are perceived as the enemy of all, but they are also universalists in their aspiration for a transnational Muslim fellowship through jihad. This fellowship poses a challenge to international society, which deploys United Nations peacekeepers and engages in a Global War on Terror. The versions of the universal that these missions promote do not recognize the jihadists’ universalism and cannot speak for them. Arab and African mujahideen fought in the Bosnian war in the 1990s in the name of a different universalism: global Muslim solidarity. Attached to a political project that exceeds the nation-state, these men struggled to define themselves as citizens with a claim to belonging in Bosnia-Herzegovina after the conflict. Li’s ethnographic history of their lives reveals that foreign fighters are feared as much for their mobility across borders of belonging as for their ability to become rooted in one place. As an original study of transregional mobility and political belonging, Li’s anthropological take on international law and history of empire upsets common assumptions about the politics of identity and solidarity in the context of contemporary warfare.
Who is the jihadi and what does he want? Since September 11, 2001 and the Global War on Terror, politicians, scholars, journalists and anxious citizens have pondered this question without getting any closer to an answer. Li suggests they have been asking the wrong questions. As a universalist project, jihadism unites people in a shared aspiration for a different world, but it does not define who they are. Li’s ethnographic history upsets any preconceived notion that a jihadi arrives ready-made to fight.
Transregional solidarity is a driving force for foreign fighters who join “other people’s wars.” Li argues that this universalist aspect of jihadism has been overlooked by analyses that focus on how Islamism operates within nation-states. The efforts of Bosnia and Herzegovina (territories of the former Yugoslavia) to seek independence faced armed opposition from Bosnian Serbs, leading to civil war. Political leaders in Bosnia-Herzegovina soon recruited volunteer fighters who claimed allegiance to their struggle as fellow Muslims. Some joined the fight from abroad, but many of the Arab and African men who became mujahideen in the Balkans arrived first as students in Yugoslavia during the 1970s and 1980s, in the era of the Non-Aligned Movement, then stayed and later joined forces with political Islam. Jihadism was for them not a preconceived aspiration but a cause that emerged in a context of political alignments in the early 1990s. What united these men, Li argues, is how they came of age through this journey into a joint cause. Jihadism provided them a rite of passage into becoming their version of better Muslims and better men. Through conversations with mujahideen who fought in the Balkans, Li maps their lives from fighting in the field to retirement after the conflict. Some gained citizenship in Bosnia, while others migrated elsewhere or returned to their countries of origin. Li allows us to encounter the mujahid before and after the fighting. We meet the veteran mujahid as a street peddler, asylum seeker, aid worker, scientist and, above all, a family man.
In framing his study as a story of the lives of those who fought in a conflict over national and ethnic affiliations that they did not properly belong to, Li is not rewriting the story of the Bosnian war. Rather, he uses the presence of foreign fighters in this conflict to argue that the mujahid is driven by a universalist project that is not attached to a specific nation or nationalist call for sovereignty. As a political figure committed to a project that exceeds the national framework, the mujahid is opposed to the citizen-soldier, as the ideal (masculine) political subject who volunteers his life for national sovereignty. This tension was explicit in the Bosnian war, where the mujahideen were respected by Bosnian Muslims for their supposed authority as Arab Muslims, but also viewed with suspicion because they were fighting for global Islam, whereas their Bosnian comrades fought for national recognition and territorial sovereignty.
Is it possible for one to fight in solidarity with the other’s cause without compromising it or adopting it as one’s own? Solidarity is an action motivated through a unity or agreement of feeling where two parties recognize a common cause without erasing the difference between them. Solidarity is distinct from universalism which attempts to transcend difference. How, then, does solidarity as a relationship grounded in difference translate in jihadism? Li argues that jihadism as a universalist project transcends racial and cultural difference. But jihadism is a specific kind of universalism, defined in separation from other universalisms as represented by “international society.” It attracts followers who are excluded from, or do not identify with, those universalisms.
What did jihadism as solidarity mean to the mujahideen? The fighters in Bosnia came from different places and this diversity was apparent on the battlefield. Nationality is a “neutral category in the jihad” (13), Li asserts, yet nationality is certainly not neutral in the Balkans, a region painted “precariously white” on the European map, as he rightly observes. The Arab fighters differentiated between one another by nationality—”al-masri,” “al-kuwaiti”—nicknames they still use to remember each other. But in relation to their Bosnian co-fighters, whose battle they fought in, Arab fighters were grouped together as one—the mujahideen—and their battalion was commonly known by its Arabic term, the katiba. The mujahideen recount to Li how they were racialized by their Bosnian comrades, who viewed them as “undisciplined” and “dangerous.” The mujahideen often fought on the front lines of combat because they “scared the enemy,” as one former fighter recalls. Their experience of being identified as racially distinct reveals how they were not only united in difference, but also united as different by their Bosnian comrades, who identified as white Muslims.
In Bosnia, the presence of Arab jihadis produced a general fear of the Muslim foreigner as a racialized subject. This racialization manifested as well in the routine discrimination of Asian and African humanitarian workers at checkpoints. As Li observes, there is a twist to this conflation of racial identities, with both at times posing as the other: Some fighters did attempt to “pass” as aid workers, while aid workers sometimes posed as soldiers or expressed allegiance to the armed forces in order to benefit from their protection and material support.
The Limits of Brotherhood
Racialization on the battlefield did not block sentiments of solidarity between the mujahideen and their Bosnian comrades, who called them “partisans” (ansar). Yet those who stayed after the conflict were treated as unwelcome migrants (muhajireen). In post-war Bosnia, calls for Global South and transnational Muslim solidarity through Non-Alignment and jihadism were replaced by the state’s commitment to join, and benefit from, another universalism, represented by the Global War on Terror and the European Union. The mujahideen who became citizens in Bosnia-Herzegovina through their army service had their citizenship revoked a decade later, when the Bosnian state deported many of its former fighters by declaring them terrorists. This decision was made under political pressure from the United States, and in an effort to be welcomed into the European Union by helping to “secure” European borders.
In one such case, an Arab ex-jihadi and long-term resident of Bosnia who was deported appealed for his family rights under European law. Although his children were born in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Bosnian government judges him, quite explicitly, too Muslim to properly integrate into the “multicultural” society that Bosnia aspires to be. Their judgment implies that as a jihadi he cannot also be a family man. Having stayed and built a home and family in the place where he fought generates suspicion rather than empathy from the government. Foreign fighters, like everyone else, become attached to the places they inhabit. But the Bosnian state rules the jihadi as always already foreign and therefore suspicious. The mujahid represents a double threat to the nation-state by being at once committed to a transnational political project and locally attached in ways that upset the national order of belonging between citizens and foreign fighters.
Li contrasts the “too political” jihadi who overstays his term with the UN peacekeeper. Peacekeepers supposedly operate on politically neutral grounds, yet as Li notes, they too are foreigners employed in warfare on universalist “terms directed at all of humanity” (171). Li draws parallels between peacekeeping and colonial warfare, where the British and French recruited volunteer fighters in the name of imperial belonging. Similar to Indians in the British army, and to the Arab mujahideen, UN peacekeepers from the Global South encountered the limits of universal brotherhood in the Balkans, where they too were marked as racially out of place in a supposedly white conflict. Due to their shared sense of being othered, Li suggests that the peacekeeper and the mujahid “are not clearly either friend or foe,” but more like “kin grown distant under different flags who might have had trouble recognizing one another” (172).
In a scene that illustrates how whiteness in Bosnia signified the norm while non-white or blackness the abnormal, two men from Yorkshire, England meet on the battlefield. One is a British army major dressed in a UN peacekeeping uniform while the other is fighting with the Bosnian battalion. The two men are not only differentiated by their warring parties—the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) and the Bosnian army. The white British major identifies the Black mujahid as emphatically different before he is able to recognize him as possibly, in other ways, similar or equal to himself. The peacekeeper recalls with surprise how “a black” spoke in an accent close to home, but then, in an attempt to pacify him, he calls out to the mujahid, “We’re all Yorkshire brothers.” His fellow Brit, the mujahid, however rejects this belated claim of a brotherly bond.
In Li’s reading of this encounter, the insurmountable difference between the two British fighters is political, not racial; they are fighting over who gets to speak for the universal. The mujahid does not deny that they come from the same place, but his commitment to a universal cause here turns former neighbor into a potential enemy. Yet the mujahid’s rejection of sameness might tell us less about his commitment to jihadism than it does about his experience growing up Black in Yorkshire. The major’s gesture of racial blindness ignores how this experience differs from his own. If nationality was used to identify one another in the war, here the experience of race overrides that recognition. The difference between them was produced at home and cannot be transcended, however far they travel from that place. Li presents this scene as one where national solidarity is foreclosed by opposing universalisms, but is solidarity between these two men possible regardless of their ideological stance? How can people commit to solidarity without erasing the importance of differently lived experiences?
Li does not attempt to solve this problem for the reader. He understands politics as driven by tension and difference rather than consensus and sameness. As a work of breathtaking reach and intrigue, The Universal Enemy explores how political identities form and collide through claims of belonging to a project larger than oneself, whether it is called umma or international society. Aspiring to a transnational fellowship, the mujahideen cannot escape the problem of difference in the places they fight, where they often come up against their own status as racially different from their comrades. A comrade in battle, the foreign fighter easily turns enemy when his version of the universal falls out of favor with its political time, as was the case for the mujahideen who were honored with citizenship after fighting only to have that emblem of belonging revoked a few years later. Their experience of exclusion tells a more universal story of how fickle political solidarity can be when forged in a context of opposing universalisms.
[Anna Simone Reumert is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Columbia University.]