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Review: ‘The Terrorist in Search of Humanity’


According to Devji the modern terrorist is not concerned with national states, which is why Al-Qaeda often recasts the geography of Islam, replacing political references like Iraq or Afghanistan with historical ones, like Mesopotamia and Khorasan that fall between rather than within political boundaries. The men and women inspired by Al-Qaeda consider Muslim suffering to be a “humanitarian” cause that like climate change or nuclear proliferation, must be addressed globally or not at all. These militants take the whole planet as their arena of operations, shifting their attention from one site of Muslim suffering to another as if in a parody of humanitarian action, which indeed provides the paradoxical model for their violence.

Anchored though they may legally be in the nation-state, human rights and humanitarianism in general provide militants with the terms by which to imagine a global politics of the future. In this way our terrorists have done nothing more than take up humanity’s historical role, which in earlier times was linked to the civilising mission of European imperialism. The promotion of human rights as a global project emerged within such empires while at the same time providing their justification. By way of example Devji gives the example of Britain’s abolishment of slavery not only within its jurisdiction but other jurisdictions as well and the abolishment of barbaric customs. In this manner imperialism is seen ostensibly dedicated to securing the lives and well being of human being in general.

Devji’s object in this book is to argue that a global society has come into being, but possesses as yet no political institutions proper to its name and that new forms of militancy like that of Al-Qaeda, achieve meaning in the international vacuum, while representing in their own way the search for a global politics. Words like human right and humanitarianism have since the Cold War been predicated on humanity as a new global reality, one whose collective life we can for the first time contemplate altering by our deeds either of omission or of commission. For the militants among us, victimised Muslims represent not their religion so much as humanity itself, and represent the effort to turn mankind into an historical actor.

The terrorist is concerned about humiliation not any personal humiliation but the humiliation of Muslims around the globe due to oppression. Osama Bin Laden himself or Ayman Al Zawhiri did not suffer any personal humiliation. The greatest humiliation for Osama Bin Laden and non-violent Islamists like Hizb ut Tahrir is the destruction of the Caliphate and the imposition of the small Arab nation states in the Middle East as a consequence of the Sykes-Picot agreement.

The idea of the Arab Island or the special status of the Arabian Peninsula as a region that should not be occupied after the collapse of the Ottoman Khilafat emerged in the writings of Abul Kalam Azad who was India’s first President. Azad, like Bin Laden did not think any foreign forces should be occupying the Arabian Peninsula.

The special place of South Asia and Afghanistan emerges after the destruction of the Khilafat with the Khilafat movement headed by the Ali brothers. This movement was also backed by Motilal Gandhi, whom the author believes was a disciple of non-violence and refers to as ‘Mahatma’. Gandhi was deemed by his RSS assassin to be a pan-Islamist for supporting the Khilafat movement and was assassinated for his supposed Islamic leanings.

The Hijrat movement in 1920s India led to thousands of Muslims leaving British India to live under what was supposed to be Islamic rule in Afghanistan. In many senses this migration prefigures the journey of Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda to Afghanistan. Devji therefore argues that the South Asian region has a historical significance for Islam in the Muslim world.

Devji considers Gandhi’s significant achievement as promoting non-violence through the Khudai Khidmatgars in what is now present-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. The Khudai Khidmatgars were brutally oppressed by the British through a series of massacres. Whilst Gandhi purported to believe in non-violence, Devji observes that Gandhi was willing to see his followers suffer violence through their acts of civil obedience to oust Britain from India. Therefore, Gandhi was prepared to entertain a bloody sacrifice just like a terrorist.

The terrorist is concerned with hypocrisy and the failure of the US to adhere to its proclaimed aims of respecting human rights. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed for example, told the US interrogators that he was concerned about killing innocents such as women and children in 9/11 but because you attack us we have to attack you in similar kind. Al Qaeda soldiers describe terrorism as the only language that the USA will understand so that terrorism becomes for the terrorist like having a conversation with the USA. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed expresses the view that Osama Bin Laden is doing exactly what George Washington did to Great Britain, both are struggling for their independence. Khalid further expresses his disappointment that amongst those incarcerated at Guantanamo as enemy combatants are former detainees of Al-Qaeda which included assassins from the Taliban that had attempted to kill Osama Bin Laden in Taliban controlled Afghanistan. So paradoxically Khalid Sheikh Mohammed asks like a Christian seeking forbearance, for fairness for those wrongly incarcerated though he does not like these particular detainees.

Devji studies the issue of the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed and states that most Muslims have not seen these, yet these have given rise to violence. The reason is that Muslims are outraged by the deeply held contempt for Muslims and Islam that those who produced these caricatures hold. For this reason, the protests are not against the cartoons as such, which many Muslims have not seen, but against the profound contempt entertained for Muslims. Muslims, through their protests, are seeking the traditional tolerance and understanding demonstrated towards other faiths by practising Christians. Devji asserts that in a global world we cannot be bound by the arguments for freedom of expression of nation states since we cannot give gratuitous offence to others around the globe without repercussions. Devji is one of the foremost Muslim thinkers and academics and explains,  “In so far as they were global subjects, then, Muslims and their Prophet were offended because they had been denuded of the protection that states and citizenship have to offer…As important as it undoubtedly is, we should remember that liberal tolerance was never meant to replace every other ethics in a civil society, but is instead a procedural and legalistic form specific to the functioning of the nation state. And yet this state has today become only one of the actors jostling for space on a planetary stage”.

Muslim protesters did not represent some religious tradition that needs to be schooled in the lessons of modern citizenship. Muslim protests which moved so far beyond the bounds of state and citizenship were informed by the new rationality of a global arena. Islam therefore provides a challenge to old fashioned nation-based liberalism because liberalism has no presence outside the nation state, which is why the international order these states operate in has never itself been liberal. Liberalisms premises and foundations are brought into question by the Global War on Terror and erosion of civil liberties in Western democracies.

The Terrorist in Search of Humanity

Author: Faisal Devji

Publisher: Hurst Publishers (2019)

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