Oh the humanity
Robyn Creswell contemplates the provocations of Faisal Devji, whose fascinating new book upturns conventional accounts of al Qa'eda by investigating 'the rich inner life of jihad'.
The Terrorist in Search of Humanity: Militant Islam and Global Politics Faisal Devji C Hurst & Co Publishers Dh216
The field of jihadi studies, situated at the crossroads of policy-making, intelligence work, journalism and academic research, sprang up almost overnight following the attacks of September 11. It now boasts all the infrastructure that comes with the discovery of a glittering new frontier, as fascinating in its way as superstrings or Martian ice. Conferences, courses and research centres are devoted to explaining the intricacies of holy war. Amidst this mushroom patch of interlocking institutions and individuals, the work of Faisal Devji - an assistant professor at the New School for Social Research in New York - sticks out like a rare flower. Devji's studies, which focus on the doings and sayings of al Qa'eda, are so at odds with what passes for common sense in this field that one sometimes wonders if he isn't merely thumbing his nose at received wisdom. In his latest book, The Terrorist in Search of Humanity, he suggests that al Qa'eda has in some sense inherited the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi. He also argues that the ideology of jihad is a "humanitarian" one, and that the militants of al Qa'eda are "the intellectual peers" of environmentalists and pacifists. What does he mean by such provocations?
The Terrorist in Search of Humanity is in many ways a sequel to Devji's equally provocative 2005 book, Landscapes of the Jihad. In that work, rather than concentrating on the spectacular violence that has been the focus of most experts, Devji argues that al Qa'eda's real achievement is to have created "a new kind of Muslim", one whose attachments to the traditions and institutions of Islam are radically unlike those of his predecessors. The new militancy cannot be understood by inserting it into a now-familiar history of Islamic extremism (Wahhabism, Sayyid Qutb, the Taliban, etc.), because what is significant about the jihadis of today is their relation to the present, or even to the future. "Al Qa'eda's importance in the long run," Devji writes, "lies not in its pioneering a new form of networked militancy... but instead in its fragmentation of traditional structures of Muslim authority within new global landscapes."
The nature of this fragmentation is most easily understood by looking at what Devji terms "the rich inner life of the jihad." Al Qa'eda's militants are not usually thought to possess a rich inner life, but what makes Devji's analyses compelling is precisely his attention to this realm of ideas, ethics and culture, an attention that is detailed and even sympathetic. In fact the jihad has a vibrant culture, most of it available online. Its creations run the gamut from geo-strategic manifestoes and propaganda posters to juridical opinions, documentary videos, magazines and collections of poetry. These varied productions belie the stereotypes of brainwashed suicide bombers and medieval-minded clerics. In Devji's account, the militants do not form a backward-looking cult, but an iconoclastic, experimental, almost playfully avant-gardist group (think Dada, or Surrealism), who unsettle the structures and hierarchies of Islam from the inside. They do so by taking up the building blocks of that tradition, its narratives and devotional forms, and re-scrambling them for present purposes. The result is a kind of postmodern pastiche: Islam in fragments. Devji argues, for example, that jihadi culture has borrowed its aesthetic - a "wild and disordered" landscape of caves, ruins and places of refuge - from the mystical Sufi tradition; that its emphasis on martyrdom is more characteristic of Shiism than Sunni fundamentalism; and that its leaders have openly identified with movements like the Khawarij, a heretical sect from the seventh century.
This do-it-yourself approach to Islam is, of course, anathema to religious authorities. Clerics, backed by their patrons in government, have an interest in monopolising the right to interpret and thereby to reinvent tradition. This right is acquired only after a long immersion in the texts. Devji argues that the jihadis, on the contrary, stress the individual's ability to interpret the tradition on his own, whether or not he has received a conventional religious education (and most jihadis have not). There is a fascinating debate in militant circles, for instance, on the question of who has the right to declare jihad: can any duly invested cleric do so, or only those who have some practical knowledge of war? Is the source of religious authority the mastery of a canon, or the individual's experience in the world? For Devji, the jihadis' confidence in the individual believer's competence "signals a democratisation of authority in the Muslim world." Their emphasis on the individual's ability to make sense of his faith, and to do so without appealing to any institutional authority, turns these "new Muslims" into the vanguard of an Islamic Reformation, a version of what Luther called "the universal priesthood."
An important characteristic of this vanguard, again according to Devji, is that its practices are ethical rather than political. Because Devji uses these terms in a technical sense, it may help to have an historical example. For Devji, the attacks of September 11 were a case of "ethical" action: they lacked any obvious rationale, those responsible made no clear demands either before or after the event and what they said about the sources of their grievance did not match the scope and nature of the attacks. Devji argues that in fact the attacks were not planned according to any geo-strategic calculus; after all, the militants had no way of predicting or controlling the results of their deed. For Devji, this lack of strategy is typical of jihadism. He describes suicide or martyrdom operations as non-instrumental, and therefore ethical actions: they are performances of piety rather than tactical moves meant to advance a specific political programme. This makes jihadism different from ideologies such as communism or nationalism, whose goals (proletarian revolution, national independence) are relatively well defined. By contrast, the martyr simply wants to make the rest of the world - which is to say, everybody who watches television - into witnesses.
For Devji, the shift from politics to ethics, from programmes to performances, is symptomatic of a new world situation in which "a global society has come into being." In Landscapes of the Jihad this society is conceived as a world of witnesses, a community connected, if only by its eyeballs, to a shared picture album of suicide bombers and ruined cities. In The Terrorist in Search of Humanity, Devji tries to give a more concrete, historical account of this global society, and he tries to show how al Qa'eda has been especially skilful in taking advantage of the possibilities it offers.
Devji's description of our new situation is based mostly on the writings of Hannah Arendt. Devji's debts to Arendt are extensive; her work on totalitarianism is one of the models for his analysis of Islamic militancy. This influence is evident in Devji's emphasis on the novelty of today's jihadis: just as Arendt insisted that totalitarianism was different in kind from earlier forms of tyranny, Devji often argues that al-Qaeda is not comparable with older groups commonly considered its precursors, such as the Wahhabis or Muslim Brotherhood. In his new book, Devji makes creative use of Arendt's claim that the Cold War, and in particular the creation of the atom bomb, meant that "for the first time in history all peoples on earth have a common present." It is in the shadow of nuclear apocalypse, Arendt argues, that we all become members of the same global community, that "humanity" names a real collective subject rather than an abstraction. "Thus it is mankind," Devji remarks, "which became the true agent of global events like the atom bomb or moon landing." Or, to paraphrase George Harrison, the time has come when we are all one.
For Devji too, it is humanity rather than national groups or ethnic identities that is the central agent of today's globalised world. If that fact is not yet clear, it is because we lack political institutions that would give this humanity a voice: even international organisations like the UN mostly serve as a platform for the policies of its member states. Devji argues that al-Qaeda militants - along with the humanitarian and relief groups that are their "intellectual peers" - have stepped into this void and fashioned themselves as spokesmen for mankind at large (whose suffering happens to be most vividly represented by spectacles of Muslim humiliation). In Devji's words, "Arguments about humanity take precedence in this rhetoric over the scriptural citations whose medieval exoticism has seduced so many of those studying al Qa'eda."
Al Qa'eda's attempt to pitch its message beyond the institutions of the moment and to speak for the sufferings of mankind at large is what recalls for Devji the example of Gandhi. But this is also where his argument begins to lose plausibility. For Devji, Gandhi is the great example of sacrificial humanitarianism. His non-violent campaigns for self-rule and non-cooperation exposed the narrowness of existing political institutions. He conceived of resistance as an ethical practice of sacrifice, or withdrawal, rather than as a direct engagement with the British colonial administration. And in this way, writes Devji, Gandhi can be seen "to provide an example for militant Muslims... because he addressed political parties and states without ever assuming the membership of such institutions, or making them the framework for his own actions."
But it is not clear, in the first place, how Gandhi can be construed "to provide an example" for the jihadis when they themselves have never taken any interest in him. If Gandhi's relation to them is not one of influence, however broadly understood, then what is it? This is never clear. More importantly, Devji's focus on the humanitarian aspects of both these movements seems one-sided. Gandhi was of course a nationalist politician as much as he was a spokesman for the universal value of sacrifice, though Devji gives us only the latter version. And while al Qa'eda's militants do occasionally adopt the aggrieved tones of a wounded humanitarianism, this should be chalked up to their hodgepodge rhetoric - where pan-Islamist sentiment and Third Worldism are mixed with human rights talk - which Devji elsewhere describes so well. To claim that, "Arguments about humanity take precedence in this rhetoric over the scriptural citations" is misleading. Scriptural citations and Islamic references are at the core of al Qa'eda's discourse (which does not make it exotic or backward-looking). Reading Devji, however, one gets the sense of al-Qaeda as a hyper-cosmopolitan group, whose religious rhetoric is only a kind of lip service paid by these new Muslims to the hidebound religion of their fathers. For Devji, al-Qaeda is "aligned with the future," and its actions are harbingers of "a politics yet to come."
Such claims are impossible to disprove. But they rely on a particular view of the present, in which buzzwords like "globalisation" and "transnationalism" shimmer with the promise of new frontiers. In this view, groups like al Qa'eda are more interesting, because they more fullly embody the future, than groups whose concerns are primarily local. It is worth remembering, however, that al Qa'eda's decision to go global was made from a position of weakness: it only came after the jihadis' defeat at the hands of powerful state apparatuses. And those groups who have made their peace, to one degree or another, with politics on a national scale - Hamas, Hizbollah, the Brotherhood in Egypt and even Iraq's Sunni groups - now seem to be in much stronger positions than al Qa'eda's militants.
Nationalism and ethnic politics have been declared dead more than once, but they may be a permanent feature of what we call globalisation rather than a stage to be left behind. In an article written in these pages after the recent attacks in India, Devji wrote, "The terrorism that revealed itself in Mumbai represents al Qa'eda's displacement from the cutting edge of militancy." He added, "The world's most celebrated terror network appears to have been swallowed whole and fully digested by the Pakistani outfits... which is the same as saying that the global has now disappeared into the local to animate it from within." This is a very different reading of the tea leaves than the one Devji proposes in his books, where al Qa'eda's globalism is precisely what "aligns it with the future." But it is a measure of Devji's seriousness, and his unfailingly original turn of mind, that one waits impatiently for his next provocation.
Robyn Creswell is a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at New York University.
Updated: December 26, 2008 04:00 AM