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Youthful Energy, Same Old Errors: Misrepresenting Jihad in a New Generation
by Stacey McKenna
Last month, in one of the last public lectures before universities shut down in-person gatherings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Darryl Li, an assistant professor of anthropology and lecturer in law at the University of Chicago, ventured to Philadelphia to address an audience of about twenty-five graduate students and professors at the University of Pennsylvania’s Middle East Center (MEC).
The topic was his new book, The Universal Enemy: Jihad, Empire, and the Challenge of Solidarity, which deals with the Balkans crisis of the early 1990s. Li was introduced by MEC’s interim director, John Ghazvinian, who made a point of noting that the Center is a federally funded National Resource Center under Title VI of the Higher Education Act. Ghazvinian said that, in practice, that meant attendees were requested to fill out evaluation forms to be reported back to the government. Given the ongoing concerns expressed by several members of Congress about the misuse of Title VI federal funds by Middle East studies centers, Ghazvinian’s request might have been a savvy strategy to demonstrate Penn’s commitment to transparency and apolitical scholarship. If so, he only partially succeeded.
Ghazvinian introduced Li as “extraordinarily talented” for having obtained both a Ph.D. and J.D. and, quoting Li’s faculty page, said his book “develops an ethnographic approach to the comparative study of universalism using the example of transnational ‘jihadists’ -- specifically, Arabs and other foreigners who fought in the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia Herzegovina.” Much of his evidence comes from his interviews with these former volunteers who fought on the side of the area’s besieged Muslims.
Li, a young, charismatic academic, claimed the ‘90s Balkans war had the “United States looking for a justification or organizing principle for its sort of geopolitical supremacy or primacy in the world.” That this war coincided with the fiftieth anniversary commemorations of events during World War II and the Holocaust led the U.S. to conclude “that the prevention of mass atrocity and humanitarian [crisis] would be an ideal way of justifying this particular set of affairs.”
The aim of his book, Li noted, was “to blow up the little story” — the story of the jihadis who came from all over the world to defend the Bosnian Muslims — to illuminate the larger story of the new liberal Western view of humanitarian interventions.
“This sense of acting in the name of a universalist project … there’s this idea of defending not only Bosnians because they’re Muslims too and we’re Muslims, but also this idea that Islam represents a potential horizon for human existence … that the Ummah is sort of a flexible category that has the possibility, however hypothetical and remote, of encompassing all of humanity.”
Li said conventional assessments of why a Muslim from Egypt, for example, would travel to a strange land he’s never seen and risk his life for people he’s never met were inadequate. Ascribing the drive to do so to “a ruthless fanaticism” or a strong commitment, Li argued, is unsatisfactory. Such approaches miss what he called a more interesting approach, “a denser, and historically rooted web of transnational and transregional connection that make these mobilizations possible.”
As an example of this “transnational and transregional connection,” Li cited the case of Abu 'Abd al- 'Aziz, a Saudi fighter born in India to a family originally from Yemen. Li highlighted al- 'Aziz because his “diasporic background and upbringing and repertoire facilitated his role as a very early participant in the jihad in Bosnia.” This, in turn, illustrates that a large number of the foreign jihadis in Bosnia “were already migratory or diasporic in some way.”
Though not native to Bosnia, jihadis influenced the local population, whether by intermarriage or religious practice. But upon their arrival, “most Bosnian Muslims at this time think of Muslim more as a category of nationality than as a category of religious practice,” Li claimed.
Overall, Li was a genial and conversant — if not overly polished — lecturer. He demonstrated a good eye for detail and only occasionally afflicted his audience with academic jargon on gender and race. But he had a clear agenda: by focusing on the “transnational” aspect of the jihadis, he downplayed (though he did not ignore) their religious motivation. He also used his argument to critique the West.
Li noted that some jihadis originally came as aid workers, while other fighters ended up working in aid organizations. Some did both. But he underplayed the degree to which the foreign fighters radicalized some of Bosnia’s traditionally more moderate Muslims.
In December 2017, the Counter Extremism Project found that based on the number of jihadis fighting in Iraq and Syria, Bosnia had the “second-highest number of foreign fighters per capita out of any European country after Belgium.” By over-emphasizing the migratory aspect of jihadi participation in Bosnia, Li downplayed the Islamist foundation of jihad and terror.
Equally disturbing was Li’s penchant for dismissing Western, and especially American, willingness to come to the rescue of embattled Muslims. Two comments in particular revealed his biases.
Early in his presentation, Li said “for the West it’s ‘we’re not sure how much humanitarian intervention these people deserve, because we’re not sure they’re really good liberal subjects...’ Journalists like Samantha Power said that they drank and they ate pork, so maybe they’re okay.”
About ten minutes later, Li expressed these thoughts in more detail: “The U.S. is basically saying – and again I really want to emphasize is that – in the war on terror and its liberal logics, national differentiation is really warped. So the U.S. in Bosnia, it’s not like right-wing Trump anti-Muslim racism, it’s like highbrow, sort of, it’s like ‘you know, the United States is actually the guardian of Muslim pluralism, because we’re protecting the good, moderate Bosnian Muslims from the bad sort of Salafi ones. We’ve read Edward Said and we are, you know, engaging in anti-essentialist critique.’” He punctuated this with a brief giggle.
But this dark reading of American motives is countered by both contemporary actions and later accounts of the war. Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and former U.S. ambassador to NATO, argued in 1998 that the American-led military intervention in Bosnia was prompted by the massacre of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica. It wasn’t, as Li would have it, an instance of choosing to protect “good Muslims,” but of reacting to Europe’s failure to protect innocents regardless of their religion.
This same motive was behind the influential foreign affairs author Robert D. Kaplan’s advocacy of American intervention in the Balkans. In a 1995 article debunking the allegation that his 1991 book Balkan Ghosts was isolationist and had convinced Bill Clinton not to intervene early in the conflict, Kaplan argued that not only did his book include “exceedingly little” about Bosnia, but that “I myself have been an outspoken hawk.” Kaplan’s thesis rested not on saving “good Muslims,” but on preventing a massacre of innocents.
After the Clinton administration’s eventual intervention, author, former CNN chairman, and Clinton insider Walter Isaacson argued in 1999 that for then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright – hardly a hawk – “standing aside in the face of atrocities was not an option.” Her diplomatic “hand-holding” at home and abroad had as its goal, he says, to “compel the Europeans (and her Washington colleagues) to act.” No appeal to aid “good Muslims.”
Moreover, Li’s downplaying of the violent, religious nature of jihad exemplifies, as Daniel Pipes demonstrated a year after 9/11, the ahistorical stance of Middle East studies academics. Harvard professor Roy Mottahedeh’s apologetical September 30, 2001, New York Times op-ed summed up this dominant view: “a majority of learned Muslim thinkers, drawing on impeccable scholarship, insist that jihad must be understood as a struggle without arms.” Yet as Pipes and others have shown, the “basic meaning” of jihad – “warfare against unbelievers to extend Muslim domains” – is beyond question. Middle East scholar David Cook argues this point in Understanding Jihad (p. 164): “From an outsider’s point of view, after surveying the evidence from classical until contemporary times, one must conclude that today’s [violent] jihad movements are as legitimate as any that have ever existed in classical Islam … .”
As a young scholar, Li and his allies are set to extend the decades-long politicization of Middle East studies with taxpayer support via Title VI grants -- a practice that should end. Though he described important characteristics of foreign fighters who traveled to Bosnia to defend that nation’s Muslims, he was cynical about the West, and willfully blind to the theological motivations for jihad. The consequences of such errors aren’t confined the campus. Combined as they usually are with leftist efforts to stigmatize and silence historically accurate understandings of jihadism, they lull America and the West into a false sense of security, weakening their resolve to confront and defeat an enemy they no longer recognize.
Stacey McKenna is a development associate at the Middle East Forum. This report was sponsored by Campus Watch, a project of the Forum.