Faisal Devji, The Terrorist in the Search of Humanity: Militant Islam and Global Politics, 2008

The notion of sacrifice for a greater common good, one that serves all humanity, drove religious thinkers and humanitarians in the 20th century to embark on various political and religious movements. Few figures promoted this doctrine as lucidly as Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi’s message of sacrifice exhibited a “suprapolitical character … which resided in the purposeful withdrawal from institutional politics and so in a certain sense from rationality itself.” Faisal Devji’s The Terrorist in the Search of Humanity: Militant Islam and Global Politics explores this conception of sacrifice as a central theme among modern day Islamic terrorists, most notably Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, controversially connecting Gandhi to what some might argue are his polar opposites.

Though Devji parallels Gandhi’s theories with Al-Qaeda, the comparison revolves around how ideas of sacrifice have been deployed by each in the name of greater humanity. “Mahatama resembles Al-Qaeda’s militants by his suprapolitical deployment of sacrifice, which like them he glorified in the form of a willingness to die for principles.” The modern terrorist movement, as represented by Al-Qaeda, constructs itself with the idea of the Muslim community as a global fact. This global community suffers for all of humanity, thus terrorist efforts to combat western influence serve as broader attempts to help all humanity. However, the reality of a “world Muslim community” presents a more complicated entity than traditional notions of nation states and displaced peoples. Rather reminiscent of Arjun Appadurai (who is thanked in the preface), the rise of media serves to promote terrorist aims by broadcasting various missives, constructs a social imaginary of a unified Muslim world while “grounding responsibility among militants, though it does so in a way that goes beyond its traditional role of publicity and communication.” In this way, the media unwittingly provides character building, making Al-Qaeda operatives and others as “respectable agents.” The absence of international political institutions or even institutions established by Al-Qaeda themselves means that any dialogue with said groups occurs without any real institutional response.

Al-Qaeda cleverly outmaneuvers sectarian division within the Muslim world by speaking of it as a generalized entity, thus, not differentiating between its competing actors. Additionally, the strategic use of the “caliphate” (utilized as a conceptual device not a strictly political one) to represent the future of all Muslims, binds the Muslim community across ethnicities and nationalities. For example, Bin Laden and others discuss the Arabian Peninsula as part of “Islam’s sacred geography rather than as part of the Middle East.” This maneuver diminishes the importance of “arabness” drawing in greater numbers of supporters from South and Central Asia, while also evolving a “whole history of anti-nationalist and anti-racialist feeling in modern Islamic thought.” As Devji points out, historians and others ignore the relevance of South Asians in the Gulf region and the globe more generally: “Such men are often treated by academics and journalists in the West as servants there only to take instruction from their Arab masters, with the issues that animate them seen as psychological rather than political in nature.” Of course, this connects to a larger argument by Devji in which few acts of terrorism are meant to address grievances of this global Muslim community. As such, Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda lack real control over their own movement, but rather function as a sort of umbrella organization fueled by western media which broadcasts its instructions. Importantly, Bin Laden’s audience often consists of the West itself rather than just Muslims: “His words are very deliberately directed at a global rather than Arab audience, often explicitly to the British and American people or their leaders.”

The concept of sacrifice binds militants together. This militancy replaces absent political institutions. Additionally, militancy is grounded in “humanitarian” rhetoric in which Al-Qaeda and suicide bombers sacrifice themselves violently for the good of humanity. Devji notes the striking similarities between this ideal promoted by terrorists and similar ones put forth by environmentalists and other humanitarian groups. Suggesting that out concept of humanity has fundamentally changed — “the humanist subject is being replaced by a statistical aggregate on one hand and by a post human politics on the other” — terrorists such as Bin Laden have successfully envisioned these alterations, providing a conceptual device (“the caliphate”), language (rhetoric of sacrifice and humanitarianism), and means for publicizing imperatives (the global mass media) outflanked moderate Muslims who continue to be bedeviled by ethnic and national constraints.

Devji’s arguments provoke strong reactions. His formulations connecting Gandhi and humanitarian movements with Al-Qaeda’s visions of a sacrifice serve as unnerving reminders of the plasticity of ideas. However, at times, the discussion remains disturbingly abstract. When exploring Gandhi’s ruminations on the Holocaust and the dropping of Atomic bombs on Japan, the rhetoric of sacrifice sounds trite, overly philosophical, and perhaps for some callous. Moreover, though arguing almost the irrelevance of nation states, Devji then goes on to argue that many moderate Muslims remained trapped within national logics without fully providing a detailed explanation.

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