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A New Book Leads the Jihad Against the Problematic Academic Discipline of “Jihadism”

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As long as there have been wars, there have been people volunteering from distant lands to join them. Over most of the 20th century, the typical volunteer foreign fighter was a left-wing activist fighting for the cause of international socialism. During the Spanish Civil War, tens of thousands of foreign volunteers took up arms on the side of the republicans, among them a young George Orwell. A romantic image of the idealistic foreign rebel became a familiar archetype in popular culture, celebrated in literature and film.

By the 1990s, the picture had shifted. The Cold War was over and left-wing internationalist movements were in terminal decline. To be sure, the world was still wracked with crises and injustice which were crying out for remedy. Yet the ideologies people used to mobilize to address them began to change. Into the void created by the decline of the left stepped a new language of political solidarity: one based on identity and religion.

This change has had the most serious consequences in Muslim-majority countries, many of which are still grappling with the traumas of dictatorship, military occupation, and economic injustice. As once-powerful leftist movements in these countries faltered, they were replaced with political movements drawing solidarity from religious identity. There has also been the emergence of a new type of volunteer foreign fighter: the mujahid, a Muslim fighter engaged in a religious struggle — or militant jihad.

Image: Courtesy of Stanford University Press

This controversial figure is the focus of a new book, “The Universal Enemy: Jihad, Empire, and the Challenge of Solidarity,” by Darryl Li, an assistant professor of anthropology and social sciences at the University of Chicago. The book is an anthropological study of a group of veteran foreign fighters who volunteered in Bosnia in the war of the early 1990s. Li’s research takes him across the world to meet former mujahids: from coffee shops and offices in Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom to remote detention centers where many of them found themselves trapped amid the U.S.-led global war on terrorism.

All of them can be said to have been involved in a collective political project — in this case, the defense of Bosnian Muslims facing genocide — as opposed to the atomized mass shooters and truck attackers often seen in recent years. Li reconstructs the motives and experiences of these volunteer fighters with a diligence often missing in other accounts. But his book also stingingly criticizes the field of “jihadism” as an academic discipline connected to the national security state.

“The heart of the problem is the refusal to recognize........

© The Intercept