XQs XXI - A Conversation with Darryl Li

Posted by sepoy on May 11, 2020 · 34 mins read

The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the authors of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize, and promote new scholarship. We thank Zahra Khalid for conducting this interview. Please see the archive of previous twenty XQs.

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Darryl Li is an assistant professor of anthropology and lecturer in the law school at the University of Chicago. He is also an attorney licensed in New York and Illinois. The Universal Enemy: Jihad, Empire, and the Challenge of Solidarity (Stanford University Press, 2020) is his first book.

Q. What interested you in studying jihad, and how did you arrive at wanting to study the jihad in Bosnia ethnographically? What were some early intellectual (and/or professional?) influences that steered you in this direction?

I was never interested in studying jihad as such, thankfully. I began my career in the late 1990s motivated by a vague commitment to liberal universalisms, working in the human rights NGO world. As I tried to make sense of the emerging U.S.-led Global War on Terror, I noticed that its most prominent carceral practices tended to focus on what could be thought of as Muslims Out of Place. That is to say, most of those sent to the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay and nearly all of those caught up in the secret network of CIA-run “black site” prisons were not only Muslim, but had been abducted from countries other than their own. We know, of course, that the War on Terror has wrought incalculable and indiscriminate harm on Muslim communities and others worldwide. But there’s been less appreciation for how the notion of al-Qa’ida as a dispersed transnational network has shaped the imperial state’s fixation on policing Muslim mobility between different regions of the global south. Among the U.S. military, for example, one heard remarks along the lines that an Arab had no business being in Afghanistan on 9/11 unless they were terrorists.

As disturbing and obviously flawed as this narrative was, I realized that robust alternatives were not readily available. Defense attorneys and human rights advocates could claim that a particular captive had been an aid worker or a proselytizer, but making sense of such claims was exceedingly difficult given the paucity of social histories of mobility between the Gulf and South Asia. At the same time, I was growing more disillusioned with the human rights NGO world for a variety of reasons. So I went to graduate school with the notion of writing about the so-called “Afghan Arabs,” the volunteers who joined the jihad in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. I was deeply skeptical of the teleological narrative, embraced by left and right alike, that drew a straight line from that mobilization to the 9/11 attacks. I wanted to understand the context out of which al-Qa‘ida emerged but also to illuminate the many other pathways taken from that experience. And since Pakistan was a rear base for the Afghan jihad, I set off for preliminary fieldwork in the summer of 2006, based at the Lahore University of Management Sciences as a visiting researcher.

And then I hit a wall. Although those few months in Pakistan were incredibly productive and fruitful, I quickly confirmed that the jihad veterans I was hoping to talk to were basically on the run from bounty hunters or (later) drones. The kind of fieldwork I felt was necessary for such a project did not seem possible under the circumstances. But it was around that time that I came across press interviews given by Arabs who had settled in Bosnia-Herzegovina after participating in the jihad there a few years earlier. Bosnia, of course, was considerably smaller and safer than Pakistan. As importantly, the war and mass atrocities in Bosnia were a formative media event during my own coming of age and shaped my early interests in liberal universalism, human rights and so on. So in a way the shift to Bosnia allowed me to get back to the questions that set me on this path to begin with. And the time in Pakistan and otherwise learning Urdu/Hindi was not wasted: although The Universal Enemy focuses on the Balkans and the Middle East, connections with South Asia show up throughout the book, from discussions of Arab diasporas in the princely state of Hyderabad, to Ahl-i Hadith movements and their fraught relationship with jihad, to the continuities between imperial soldiering and UN peacekeeping.

Q. At the outset of your research, you wanted to keep your two identities—that of attorney and anthropologist—separate. However your legal training provided a means for an anthropological engagement with the law–such as when you served as part of the legal team representing a Saudi captive in Guantánamo. Your training also enabled you to sustain long term engagements with interlocutors that didn’t feel as unacceptably extractive as may otherwise be the case. You call this method “ethnographic lawyering.” How did this simultaneous inhabiting of both worlds shape the contours of your ethnography–on the one hand enabling your research, and on the other, circumscribing what was possible to research?

One of the ironies of my research experience was that just as I was trying to put my past life in the human rights NGO world behind me, it turned out that this background provided the most concrete basis for initially relating to my interlocutors! Understanding me as an NGO type, an “International” like the many others who have been in Bosnia was much easier than understanding me as an anthropologist.

But once I accepted this situation, I realized that I needed to be both creative and careful in weighing the distinct ethical obligations of research and advocacy. For me, ethnographic lawyering entails, among other things, theorizing from doctrinal artifacts, in the same way that anthropologists do with the everyday categories of all our interlocutors–this may be a bit different from what is normally called the “law and society” approach which tends to treat law and legal institutions primarily as empirical objects of study. Specifically, I thought about how to structure various attorney-client relationships to not only facilitate the research on a practical level but also as a productive contrast with the fieldwork relationship, which has very different ethical considerations. The book gives one example of this in discussing how I ultimately translated Abu Hamza’s request for a “token of friendship” [ʿarabūn al-ṣadāqa] into an amicus curiae [“friend of the court”] intervention that was undertaken on his behalf; this secured our relationship as ethnographic interlocutors, all while avoiding the entanglement of an attorney-client relationship.

As your question points out more eloquently than the book does, the position of lawyer-ethnographer was indeed both enabling and limiting. I was acutely concerned that my research was becoming easier as my interlocutors’ legal situation grew more precarious. As they went into detention and faced the possibility of deportation, they both had more time on their hands to speak and a greater incentive to get their side of the story out. I hope that these ethical concerns were at least partially offset by the fact that I spent time with most of these same individuals before and/or after their captivity, but readers will have to decide for themselves. On the other side, I had a heightened awareness around issues of confidentiality and disclosure, about digital security and hygiene, who can subpoena my notes– basically about how to minimize the potential overlap between the categories of “researcher” and “snitch.” I avoided inviting questioning on certain sensitive topics–for example, war crimes, since I could already draw on the ample documentation produced by the UN. I thought very carefully about the parameters of my interactions with folks who had been placed on U.S. government “terrorism” lists and how they would be different from more typical encounters.

Q. Methodologically, the research is based on a biographical database you compiled of over two hundred non-Bosnians who fought in the jihad, using archival documents, primary source publications, and your engagements with interlocutors. What did you feel were the political-intellectual stakes of having to be meticulous with informational accuracy in this way, especially given the content of your research?

Yeah it’s funny because narrow empiricism of this kind is a bit out of fashion these days, at least in anthropology, isn’t it? Typically, an anthropologist cares most about two audiences: the communities of ethnographic interlocutors and those of professional colleagues. Sometimes they are also dealing with other folks who write about the same stuff but from a very different set of methods or commitments. Anthropologists may decide to situate themselves in those conversations, perhaps in the hopes of attaining credibility or maybe as a gadfly. In my case, it was clear that when it comes to so-called “terrorism experts,” the only intellectually or ethically acceptable stance was one of antagonism.

The book lays out in detail how the literature on “jihadism” in Bosnia is riddled with glaring errors yet has nevertheless allowed some commentators to attain credibility as experts. In one case, they made millions of dollars in U.S. government contracts and helped send several Muslim defendants to federal prisons on dubious evidence. The larger stakes, of course, concern the broader terrorism studies scene, which has metastasized considerably since 9/11 and includes more individuals with basic language skills and academic credentials than before. While one can appreciate the differences and disputes within this cliquish and incestuous world–which, by the way, includes liberals who see themselves as bulwarks against openly fascistic forms of anti-Muslim animus–I can’t share its baseline desire to nudge the national security state into more enlightened and calibrated forms of violence through expertise. But simply dismissing them as Orientalists or as lacking formal academic qualifications also lets them off the hook. They can comfort themselves by saying the Ivory Tower types aren’t interested in jihadis, so they have to do the difficult but necessary work of Understanding the Enemy™. In contrast, calling them out while taking up an ostensibly shared interest in things like getting details right, careful handling of sources and evidence, and knowing languages hits them where it hurts. It puts on display the field’s inability to meet its own shoddy standards or ask any interesting questions outside the concerns of the national security state. Beyond that I have no desire to venerate cultures of expertise in this domain, or in replacing bad terrorism experts with better ones.

And while critically interrogating terrorism expertise is certainly a worthy pursuit, I didn’t want to get derailed from making the arguments that I felt were important, which is why this scene is treated in the book less as a target and more as a speed bump. Walking the reader through these issues was just a matter of basic academic integrity, or minimal ethical and political sentience. It was also a way to invert certain genre clichés: instead of telling some alluring story about how I managed to track down elusive ex-“jihadis,” I wanted to guide readers through the real discursive muck here, namely the terrorism literature. There is no heart of darkness, just an echo chamber of white mediocrity.

Q. In recuperating jihad from the depoliticizing trope of “terrorism,” you frame it as a universalist project of political violence. Given that the question of violence is central to your theorizing of jihad—as well as to discussions of jihad both within and outside the academy—the absence of an account of mujahids individually or organizationally grappling with decisions around violence is surprising.Why did you not approach this question explicitly through ethnographic means?

Aside from the practical challenge of not being able to conduct participant-observation ethnography of actual combat, I have become skeptical of the value of violence as a stand-alone analytical category for various reasons. In any event, I realized very early in the research that violence was undeniably important to the jihad, but what made violence significant wasn’t obvious. There are all of these vague notions out there that “jihadi foreign fighters” are different, that their foreignness somehow means they are nastier or more ideologically motivated. These ideas have not been rigorously tested and strike me as more enlightening about the methodological nationalism (or thinly disguised xenophobia) of the commentary than anything else. The jihad fighters I write about were peripheral players in this war and operated under roughly the same constraints as everyone else. Their battlefield tactics were not especially noteworthy. And while they certainly committed atrocities like the beheading of captured prisoners, acting as if this made them qualitatively different from local parties in this war with all of its unimaginable cruelties didn’t make sense. The book discusses both combat experiences and war crimes in clear and unflinching terms–topics that are most prone to sensationalization and amply discussed elsewhere–but it was the question of legitimacy that inspired more theorizing.

Specifically, what makes transnational jihad mobilizations like the one in Bosnia distinctive is their defiance of an assumption in the international legal order that violence should ultimately be grounded in state authority, whether actual or aspirational. We are accustomed to thinking about wars as armed struggles for control of state power, but not violence as an act of solidarity. These jihads entailed individuals joining conflicts without seeking the permission of any nation-state. But this did not mean a nihilistic rejection of all state authority altogether, as labels like “global jihad” often connote. In Bosnia, the jihad mobilized volunteers and funds in the name of the global Muslim community (umma) but also cooperated with the avowedly secular multi-ethnic nation state of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The battalion of jihad volunteers adopted an explicitly Salafi educational curriculum while taking orders from generals who were not necessarily practicing Muslims or even Muslims at all. For me, violence provided a window into thinking about the relationship between authority and solidarity in ways rarely appreciated.

Q. You recognize that speaking of jihad as a universalism entails violent hierarchies and erasures, despite its exhilarating possibilities. One of these exclusions is that it is deeply masculinized, and assumes women to be stationary (10). Yet, women are present throughout your book. Even if they are only shadowy presences, it is clear that Bosnian women played an important role in the geographical fixities and mobilities of mujahids (116-123). If you had had ethnographic access to women interlocutors, what questions would you have asked them? In what ways do you imagine this would have inflected your theorization of universalist aspirations and projects?

Among many other things, the book discusses masculinities in the jihad–including the celebration of some conventionally feminine traits as virtuous–in an attempt to complement the focus on women that has marked the literature on Islam and gender. As for women, the very few who traveled to Bosnia in connection with the jihad were wives and children of the more senior fighters. This is unlike some other transnational jihad mobilizations, such as in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, where women have gone with or without male kin for a variety of purposes. There are some obvious practical reasons for this difference, such as the relative difficulty of reaching Bosnia and the shorter duration of the conflict. But perhaps most significant was the absence of an Islamic state-building project that would encourage folks to raise their families and build a new society there. The emphasis on wartime solidarity over state rule in this particular jihad had the effect of masculinizing mobility.

Women were therefore connected to the Bosnian jihad primarily in two ways: as you allude to in your question, Bosnian women married jihad fighters, including Arab ones. Some of them stayed, others left the country with their husbands and even from the limited data I was able to gather, led very interesting lives later on–with or without those husbands. If I could have spent more time speaking with them, I would have done my best to understand how feminized forms of mobility, especially as defined through notions of domestic space, functioned as key sites for universalist practices–both a woman’s movement between households, as well as her role in the movement of households themselves. I would have asked them what they thought of the figure of the mujahida (the feminine of mujahid), if it was one that they recognized and if so, what were her ideal virtues.

The second category of women connected to the jihad was the most numerous and yet almost entirely absent in the book: those living throughout the world who protested, donated, and spoke out about Bosnia. More broadly, however, an account of the Bosnian jihad featuring these women as protagonists would have forced me to think about universalism less in terms of concrete mobility practices and to instead focus more on affective resonances across distance. One model I have in mind for such an approach would be Keisha Blain’s recent study of internationalist organizing by Black women in the United States, Set the World on Fire.

Q. You argue that jihad is a serious project of transnational alignment against U.S. empire. Given the presence of Arab mujahids in Bosnia, and contestations around whose version of Islam was universal, you suggest that a specter of “Afghanistanization” of Bosnia loomed as an unfavorable possibility amongst locals (54). How do such contestations affect the universalist claims of various jihads, such as the Bosnian, the Afghan, the Islamic State’s, and the Palestinian ones? What implications does this hold for present-day jihads as universalist projects of political violence against empire?

One of the premises of the book is that there can be no general political theory of jihad, at least on terms outside Islamic traditions. Believers have all sorts of different ideas of what counts as proper jihad and categories such as “jihadism” inevitably hypostatize some of these versions of jihad over others without any clear or convincing basis. Instead, the book treats jihad as an idiom through which universalist projects can be articulated, one that happens to emerge from an Islamic context and carries its own history of concepts, disputes, notions of legality that can be drawn upon.

That being said, the protagonists of this book live in a world where multiple armed campaigns denominated as jihad are going on. They are comparing these jihads and some are moving between them. In the early 1990s moment that the book focuses on, the al-Qa‘ida project of directly confronting the US worldwide hasn’t yet emerged. Instead, there are two distinct notions of jihad attracting the most attention. They aren’t mutually exclusive but they are distinct: there are conflicts with non-Muslims that demand solidarity from the rest of the umma, such as in Afghanistan against the Soviets and in Bosnia against Serb and Croat nationalist forces. And there are armed campaigns against regimes with Muslim rulers deemed oppressive or corrupt, such as in Egypt and Algeria. The latter are significantly more controversial among Muslim publics worldwide. In Bosnia, the fear of “Afghanistanization” referred to the slide from “good” jihad that was clearly directed against non-Muslim oppressors to a corruption of jihad as fratricidal warfare between Muslims.

Of course, many invocations of jihad as armed activity in recent decades have been focused on gaining control of a particular nation-state and draw almost exclusively from members of a single national group. This is true even when they claim to reject nationalism in favor of Islam–in such cases I think it’s more precise to say that they are actually trying to come up with a more “Islamic” nationalism. None of this necessarily makes these jihads somehow less universalist, since there is no inherent contradiction between universalism and nationalism. But it might make them less illuminating as examples for theorizing universalism. In fact, I never think about whether something is more or less universalist (let alone “truly” universal/ist), but instead ask what if anything particular situations can teach us about universalism or vice versa–and it’s often the outliers that are most helpful.

If we think about the times when nationalism is seen as more interesting or perhaps enchanted as a vehicle for universalism, the common reference point is the late 18th-/early 19th-century “Age of Revolutions,” including and especially the often silenced Haitian one. In that era, it was feudal or religious categories that tended to be the dominant ways of organizing universalist claims, which made Enlightenment-inflected liberal nationalism appear distinctive and, in that context, insurgent. But then as we become accustomed to the nation-state as the default framework for universalism, a certain staleness sets in and other categories like religion or ideology can appear more amenable as vectors for insurgent universalist projects.

Q. The book ends on a grave note. You name the global war on terror as the most powerful universalism today, and locate the ethnographic present of your research in the transnational network of extralegal prisons. In chapter 5, in the context of understanding universalisms as lived projects—be they Non-Alignment or jihad—you reflect that sometimes the “mortality” of these universalisms also has to be grappled with (152). Thinking through lived universalisms in this way, I wonder what, if anything, can be posited about the life and death of the dystopic universalism that is the global war on terror, even as it appears to vastly out-scale other universalisms?

You sent me this question just before the COVID-19 outbreak changed everything and it has an entirely different resonance now! The novel coronavirus has obviously disrupted so many prevalent assumptions about notions of threat and further highlighted the long-running rot of U.S. state institutions. So while the logic of the Global War on Terror was successfully normalized and mainstreamed in the 2000s, it has been arguably losing some of its centrality as a rationale for organizing the exercise of U.S. state power domestically and internationally. In this sense, The Universal Enemy now reads as an unintended epitaph for a certain phase of American empire. Of course, this is not to suggest that we will see an end to various forms of violence against Muslims–ar from it. Only that war on terror imperatives will have to compete more stringently with other considerations, including those that are more directly tied to the preservation of capitalism.

Q. One of your interlocutors incarcerated in Malaysia in the aftermath of 9/11 sought your assistance in translating and publishing his memoir in English. However, given your position and the litigiousness of the Global War on Terror regime, you could not offer to help. I was interested in what this moment indicates about the politics of “legitimate” knowledge production on jihadist political violence, both inside and outside the academy. Could you say a bit more about how you reconciled yourself with speaking for the mujahids, your “legitimacy” in doing so (as juxtaposed with their illegitimacy in representing themselves), and what kinds of negotiations this may have entailed with them, as well as other audiences, at your end?

In that particular case, my inability to help with translation stemmed very directly from laws criminalizing material support for terrorism. More broadly, it’s important to be explicit about the politics of knowledge production here: one of the very conditions of possibility of this book is that its author is not racialized as Muslim. The issue here is not just the legitimacy of the mujahids’ voices, but the incredible pressures exerted on Muslims in general in speaking about issues of violence and jihad.

I would go even further and say that the relatively limited pushback the research has received over the years has depended on the specific way that (yellow) Asians have been largely figured as apolitical and unthreatening (or, better yet, Not Black) in the post-1965 United States. The book ended up unintentionally leveraging this racialized invisibility for unexpected ends. Of course, this “non-threatening” figuration is highly contingent, and the pendulum is already swinging hard in the other direction.

I recall that when I was defending captives held at Guantánamo, I had to obtain a security clearance to access classified materials and to visit our client at the base. During my background investigation, the FBI special agent who interviewed me had zero interest in my research on jihad. He was instead most concerned with the potential espionage threat posed by the fact of my father having been born in mainland China shortly before the Communist revolution (his anti-communist family left for Taiwan short thereafter, while he was still an infant). I think this says a lot about how the state sees and classifies different racial threats.

Q. You continued to travel for research to Bosnia and other places across the world for several years after your dissertation was completed. Can you describe your research’s journey from dissertation to book? How did your materials and arguments (and/or key themes under examination) change during this seven-year period?

I think a lot about the temporalities and life cycles of this kind of scholarly production. Of course I often feel this book appeared years too late. But the passage of time helped the project grow and transform in many helpful ways, even if the overall argument and arc remained consistent throughout the transition.

Almost all of the research conducted outside Bosnia happened after the dissertation–including key interviews in Jeddah, Kuala Lumpur, Lahore, and London and archival visits in Kuwait, New York, and Rome. I exploited any funded opportunity I had to attend a conference somewhere in the world to track down jihad veterans or relevant libraries nearby. Some folks who had been incarcerated finally emerged, ready to speak; virtually none of the memoirs and secondary literature on Arabs and Non-Alignment Yugoslavia cited in the book even existed when I was working on the dissertation. Wartime videos that I laboriously tracked down over the years suddenly popped up on YouTube. The files on the Bosnia peacekeeping mission at the UN archives opened up, another reminder that my project was sliding from the realm of “current affairs” to “history.”

But as important was the evolution of the writing process. I redrafted almost the whole manuscript at the sentence level. I was very fortunate to have the time and resources to do this, as many scholars do not. In the dissertation, as is often the case, I was heavily invested in proving things–not only my empirical assertions with various forms of evidence but also of course my worth as a scholar, with the result that the text was solipsistically cacophonous. I needed to streamline the prose with an eye to advancing an argument and telling a story, and having these two processes support each other. I was also very intentional about using the endnotes as a parallel textual world, in the hopes of creating a multi-layered reading experience that could appeal to different audiences and invite readers to revisit the text and experience it in different ways.

Q. What are five books that The Universal Enemy is most directly in conversation with?

I always find such questions so difficult to answer because putting books “in conversation” with each other depends very much on the desires of a third party, namely the reader! I could list the books I’m arguing with; those that I took as models in some way; those whose concepts shaped my own; those that I think the book could be productively compared to. But instead, I would like to take the opportunity to list five novels I read while writing The Universal Enemy that informed in some way my attempt to make the dissertation into a book as an object intended to be approached and hopefully even enjoyed as a sensory experience with the linearity of first to last page, one that could gently handle histories and other protagonists. These would be: Octavia Butler’s Kindred, John Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Amitav Ghosh’s Flood of Fire, Nadifa Mohamed’s Black Mamba Boy, and of course, Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun.


Zahra Khalid is a PhD Candidate in Geography at the CUNY Graduate Center. She studies the geographical political economy of residential enclaves in Pakistan.