The Sinner and the Saint

Review of The Terrorist in Search of Humanity: Militant Islam and Global Politics by Faisal Devji; Foundation Books; New Delhi, 2008; ISBN : 978‑1‑85065‑925‑9 ; 978‑1‑85065‑946‑4
Published in Biblio, Jan-Feb 2009

Dilip Simeon

This essay in the history of ideas traces the trajectory of Islamic militancy and its implications for modern politics, including the so‑called global war on terror, nicknamed GWOT by the author. Written from a South Asian perspective, it is a healthy antidote to the instrumentalist discourse that addresses the issue from the standpoint of Western security.

It is also a critique of modernity and the self‑deceptions of the international order: “liberalism has no presence outside the nation‑state, which is why the international order these states operate in has never been liberal”. Devji alerts us to the arrival of a globalised and mediatised phenomenon that may not be explained away. He notes that networks have infiltrated hierarchies as the form of political activity, and that bin Laden and his followers have dispensed not only with parties, but also with armies and battlefields. They have even ceased to pose a military challenge. And yet “the United States can no longer wage war, it can only mount enormously costly and destructive spectacles of deterrence or revenge”. The upshot is that war has been de‑militarised and made  a police operation, civil and military law have begun to overlap, categories of prisoners have been reduced to the status of slaves and Western political institutions severely compromised.

The Terrorist in Search of Humanity takes us back to the non-cooperation movement in the aftermath of the Great War, and reminds us (with reference to the Khilafat agitation) that Mahatma Gandhi was “the most creative modern thinker of the caliphate: a Hindu who received the adulation of Muslim divines”.  Not to mention his principled opposition to the Zionist idea in 1921, as Britain and France carved up the remains of the Ottaman Empire. Maulana Azad, Iqbal and Abul Ala Mawdudi all make an appearance, and their ideas seriously considered. Yet the argument that Gandhi’s non-cooperation was a “negative practice”, a “suprapolitical” manifestation of worldly withdrawal, that he sought the collapse of an evil politics without proposing an alternative, is unconvincing, as is his citation of these factors as disclosing a similarity between Gandhi and today’s militants. Devji observes that the militants’ practice of disclaiming of responsibility for their violence “possesses a profoundly negative core”; yet later in the book he tells us they have revolutionised Islam and offered us a vision of the future.

Devji’s observations on law are an insightful commentary on the de-legitimisation and fragmentation of the international legal order. He points out that arguments about humanity take precedence in radical Islamic rhetoric. Muslims are less a religious group and more the contemporary representatives of human suffering. Whereas imperialists cite humanitarian ideals in pursuit of their objectives,  both NGOs and militants accuse the West of hypocrisy in its promotion of human rights. Indeed, declassified interrogations and public statements show that hypocrisy is an obsession in militant rhetoric. The USA, UK and their allies have flouted international law and covenants, and even their own laws. The author points to the pre‑modern juridical custom of judging religious communities by their own laws and practices – a pluralism often invoked by militants under trial. Given the absence of a global politics says Devji, pluralism serves to “assign responsibility according to the divergent principles of multiple actors, which is why hypocrisy becomes such a foundational category for it”. This illustrates “how intimately terrorist practices are linked with those of their enemies, whose interventions also invariably kill some civilians in the name of protecting others…it might well be that this intimacy between the terrorist and the humanitarian is what lends militant Islam its popularity”. He examines the Guantanamo statement of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, “the 9/11 linchpin”, who adopted “the Gandhian practice of pleading guilty before a court he considered illegitimate, thus turning his hearing into one for the tribunal itself”. Militant pluralism has torn Islamic law “from its traditional moorings to become the source for a thoroughly individualized jurisprudence whose first and only rule is being true to oneself”. Terrorism has adopted the language of swaraj, or self-rule.

Thus a global society has come into being, but lacks political institutions adequate to its name. Islamic militancy represents the search for a global politics in an ambience where universally available images and information are consumed in individualised isolation. For environmentalists, pacifists and holy warriors alike, “global humanity has…replaced an international proletariat as the Sleeping Beauty of history”. I would make the caveat that the international proletariat was never the Sleeping Beauty, but the universal representative of human suffering ‑ much as today’s radical clerics portray the Ummah. And the idealised representative of universal humanity always requires an intermediary between itself and its oppressor, a Platonic tyrant to command its activity. It is precisely the violence embodied in the claim (whether made by an individual or a group) to represent an entire community, class, or nation that marks this militancy as yet another contingent of modernity’s loyal opposition. But that is another debate.

The book educates us with its intimate details about the world of Muslim radicalism. The central role of the media in the strategies of the militants underlines the global aspect of the phenomenon, and strengthens Devji’s argument about their need to converse with an abstract humanity. The motivations of the London bombers of 2005 derived not from personal experience, but the televised suffering of Muslims in other parts of the world. We learn of the website “Al Ansar’s Top 20” from Iraq, where insurgents send in clips of attacks that are ranked as in a music countdown. The pre‑recorded video‑tapes of suicide bombers convey to a global audience the discourse of victimised Islam, as the militant both owns and disowns responsibility for a calamity that the West and its cohorts have brought upon themselves. The tapes allow the militant to become responsible “in a prophetic and posthumous way, by broadcasting his impending death to ground this responsibility, while simultaneously withdrawing from its ubiquity.. Indeed, the suicide bomber can only ground responsibility in this dual sense by dying for it”. Devji sombrely reminds his readers that “this is the same thing as saying that the only good Muslim is a dead Muslim”. This reflection could be reinforced by the fact that Muslims form a large number of victims of jihadi terror.

At times the author’s theoretical ambition exceeds itself, as in the conjecture that irrational cruelty could be an “epistemological” pursuit of “the inhuman essence of enmity” or “man’s common humanity inside a foreign body”. Inscrutable violence is an age-old human experience – to depict it as an epistemological experiment is no more enlightening than to remain silent. Were the experiments of Nazi doctors upon concentration camp inmates any less epistemological? Addressing the concept of humanity, Devji says that its use in medicine, humanitarianism and human rights “transforms man into a kind of monster whose humanity is never quite fulfilled…modern man’s humanity remains abstract and dislocated…but in the victim reduced to bare life humanity finally comes to light in minimal form, as if violence itself were searching for man’s essence”. I think human rights workers in Chhatisgarh or Chechnya, and doctors attending to the wounded in Gaza have a clear picture of humanity that is not yet “purified of all dross”, nor reduced to Agamben’s ‘bare life’.

Devji sees a Gandhian spirit behind the militant’s rejection of his physical body leading to a posthumous recovery of his humanity. He goes beyond “this militant critique of an aggregated humanity” by suggesting that prosthetics and genetic engineering have made it impossible “to locate the human essence even in bare life”, since “such lives can only be described as posthuman in their combination of technical and biological parts…the all‑too real descendants of Frankenstein’s imaginary monster”. Wooden legs and gold teeth from bygone centuries come to mind. Of greater import is the use of ‘posthuman’ as an ontological description of militancy: “if the global Muslim community is seen by terrorists to represent the suffering of humanity itself…the virtues of courage and fearlessness can well be defined as the voice of humanity, though one deprived of human subjectivity”. Having destroyed the body as a subject, and dismissed life as the limit of humanity, suicide bombings “open up a space for the posthuman”. In his meditation on sacrifice as a form of sovereignty, Devji compares bin Laden to Mahatma Gandhi, who also rejected a politics based on fear and the management of life. “So both men value the kind of sacrifice that literally volatilizes the body to make its humanity manifest in fearlessness”. But “the body” is an abstraction, and glosses over the crucial fact that Gandhi wanted the satyagrahi to sacrifice his or her own body, whereas the terrorists are using their bodies to murder people who do not want to die. Gandhi did not want to instil fear in others, and insisted that “what is obtained by fear can be retained only as long as the fear lasts”. This is where Devji’s arguments cause me great unease. It is almost as if the tidal wave of pain and grief caused to so many ordinary people are mere ephemera, embarrassing details to be passed over by means of citations from Gandhi where he preferred violence to cowardice, or spoke of thousands of satyagrahis offering their lives to resist tyranny. Devji might well see the militants as the standard‑bearers of an unborn form of sovereignty, but to their surviving victims I suspect they appear as gatekeepers of the Abyss.

A provocative chapter named “Insulting the Prophet” discusses popular mobilisations around hurt sentiment. Devji highlights the contradictions of Western liberalism: “tolerance can have no moral content if it exists only as the legal provision of mutual indifference”. He hails the “positive, if particular” kind of tolerance that remains far more expansive than “the negative universality of liberal tolerance”. He criticises the Muslim liberals who have become the West’s preferred interlocutors for inter-faith dialogue, and sees such interactions as a ploy for a monotheistic alliance that occludes the fact that most Muslims live in proximity with polytheists. Referring to the October 2007 letter to Christians by such liberals, he points to the sponsored nature of such interventions, and the vast funds available for the promotion of “moderate Islam”. This line of reasoning raises the question of the immense financial support rendered by the USA, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan for the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980’s. It also neglects the significance of events such as the Jamiatul‑ulema‑e‑Hind’s mammoth rally against terrorism in Delhi on May 31, 2008, at which a fatwa denouncing terrorism and signed by leading clerics of the Darul Uloom was issued. The Deobandi ulema can by no means be regarded as Western sponsored moderates.

There is a more disturbing line of thought. After making compelling critiques of the controversies around the Danish cartoons of 2005 and the Pope’s Regenburg Address of 2006, Devji turns to the Catholic campaign (marked in South Asia) against the screening of The Da Vinci Code, a campaign that earned the support of Muslims. The film was banned in Pakistan and certain Indian states “without, it seems, endangering freedom of speech more generally”. Devji sees such demonstrations as examples of the “secular vocabulary of hurt”, suggestive of the moral rather than juridical character of community relations in South Asia. However, the re-cognition of sentiment in secular law (as in provisions against hate speech, or Section 153A IPC), does not indicate that the politics of hurt are as harmless as Devji suggests. Vicious campaigns have been mobilised around the representation (and fabrication) of hurt – foremost among them being the RSS-led movement for the destruction of the Babri Masjid. In India, hurt sentiment is the preferred pretext for the self-appointed commanders of identity to unleash mayhem disguised as crimes of passion. The latest example of this is Raj Thackeray, who fancies himself the defender of Marathi sentiment. I should mention that The Da Vinci Code may be freely viewed on TV.

For Devji, the spectacle of suicide bombers dying alongside their victims may be seen as “the dark side of humanity’s global brotherhood”. He names this the “language of violence”. For Al‑Qaeda, “terror is the only form in which global freedom and equality are now available”. “Its true purpose is pedagogical, to school these unbelievers in the forgotten language of ethics and principles”. He invokes Gandhi’s separation of self‑sacrifice from killing, suggesting that this separation is possible in militant Islam as well. (Gandhi and Osama are the main characters in the book). Thus, “the victim is becoming more and more a symbolic presence in the practice of militancy, one often dispensed with altogether”. Even if we agree with this interpretation of terror as a perverse language (the image of the killer expiating for his deeds by his own death goes back to an older tradition, notably to nineteenth-century Russia), we simply cannot gloss over the philosophical chasm that separates Gandhi and the violent men. At one point Devji argues that terrorist attacks against infrastructure “bring about a Gandhian resolution to the problem posed by an abstract humanity” – apropos Gandhi’s critique of the railway – by “participat(ing) in his enterprise of reducing an abstract humanity to a multiplicity of concrete individuals”. The same result may be observed in American or Israeli bombing attacks on infrastructure with their inevitable “collateral damage”. Would it not be absurd to see these as an inadvertent accomplishment of a Gandhian enterprise?

It is difficult to agree that terrorism’s victims are becoming “a symbolic presence”, if by that Devji wants to tell us that killing people is incidental to its aims. Fresh corpses may indeed be symbolic, but their appearance is central to the deed ‑ this is borne out by Devji’s own citations of speeches by bin Laden: “if it pains you too see your victims..then remember our victims”; and al‑Zawahiri: “if they taste some of what they are inflicting on our women and children, then they will start giving up their arrogance”. As Hannah Arendt observed, “the practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probably change is a more violent world”. The ‘language of violence’ ‑ and I doubt if Arendt (whom Devji often cites) would have thought the term valid at all ‑ is a semantic debacle that undermines the intended meaning of the act at the very moment of ignition.

Sacrifice does not make suicide bombers disinterested and selfless actors because of self-annihilation. Nor is proper to refer to their deeds as “destroying interest itself in spectacular gestures…that unite perpetrators and victims into a single humanity”. (Surely the dead qualify as posthuman?). Sometimes self-destruction is the only available relief for feelings of immense anger, humiliation and dis-empowerment. The difference between jihadi bombers and self-immolating Buddhist monks in the Vietnam of the 1970’s lies in the fact that the latter did not use their sacrifice to kill. An involuntary sacrifice is not a sacrifice in the Gandhian sense.

Devji believes that the militants have revolutionised Islam; and that “by operating in an arena without political leaders or institutions of its own”, they provide a vision of the future. He asks why “religion (has) come to provide the only vocabulary we have to describe this new world”. The ancient question of virtuous murder haunts this book, as does the unstated theodicean premise that terrorism will lead to some positive end. Rationalist secularism is founded on the scientistic premise that metaphysical questions such as the nature of sovereignty and humanity have either been settled, or lie within a religious province. It is not surprising that religious discourse appears to be the sole venue of transcendent speculation. But is it therefore “the only vocabulary” available to us? I think not. And the fascination with sacrificial death is not novel, nor peculiar to Islam, global or otherwise. Here is Ernst Junger, witness to the bloodletting of two world wars, in 1930: “With admiration, we watch how German youth, at the beginning of this crusade of reason…raise the battle cry…glowing, enraptured, hungering after death in a way unique in our history”. Lest we forget, in our time the Tamil Tigers were the first to convert human beings into walking bombs. No, these ghastly sacrifices have a hoary lineage, and I sincerely doubt they have resolved any serious questions regarding modern notions of ‘humanity’.

A bibliography would have been useful. So would a more carefully drafted index. Gandhi is cited (from a CUP version of Hind Swaraj) as telling his imaginary interlocutor, “What we need to do is to kill ourselves”, whereas the Navajivan translation renders the sentence “what we need to do is to sacrifice ourselves”. The difference is significant.

Devjis’ book is challenging, and deserves to be read widely. What it discloses most starkly is the optic schism in today’s world. Their cruelty renders the humanitarianism spoken of by Islamic militants a non-language, and melds it seamlessly into cannibalistic modernity. But the ‘surgical’ air strikes of Western “humanitarian warfare” are no less oxymoronic assaults upon meaningful speech. For the president of the USA to acknowledge America may have made ‘mistakes’, and may “not be perfect”, is a tectonic shift in the attitude of the US establishment, long addicted to Orwellian euphemism as a handy opiate for a pliant media. Barack Hussein could say no more. After George Bush and Co., our sighs of relief go to show how little we have come to expect. But in the eyes of many non‑Westerners, America’s double standard is breathtaking. Speaking only of Iraq, after a million deaths and the enforced migration of millions of refugees, after a war deceitfully launched and branded illegal by the UN Secretary General, after blatant violations of international law by the US and its closest West Asian ally, we learn that the defenders of the Free World are a degree away from perfection. Blink. You can say that again.