A new book takes on the problematic academic discipline of “Jihadism”

The study of jihadism generally takes for granted that organizations like Hezbollah, Hamas, the Islamic State, al-Shabab, the Afghan Taliban, and various Iraqi Shia militias should be grouped under one category. This grand category also happens to include solitary individuals engaged in acts of violence not directed by any organization. Huge disparities of geography, language, sect, and politics are more or less ignored in favor of a narrative understandable through the single term of “jihadism.”

“Consider for a moment three different things: the Irish Republican Army, the Republican Party in the United States, and Plato’s Republic,” Li told me, by way of analogy. “All of these employ the term ‘republic,’ and all of them somehow have a connection with violence. If you lumped them together and claimed they represent an ideology called ‘republicanism,’ that obviously wouldn’t make any sense. Yet that’s what the category of ‘jihadism’ essentially does.”

[…] “The discourse on jihadism has a misguided focus on individuals, particularly the idea that a meaningful understanding of political violence can be found by getting inside their heads,” Li said. “If you took a random sample of the motivations of U.S. military service members, you would probably find that some believed in their mission, some just needed a job, and some were sadists who wanted to kill people. But you couldn’t go directly from analyzing the mindsets of individual soldiers to understanding the political goals or causes of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

[…] In a way, the U.N. peacekeepers came to Bosnia for reasons not so different from the foreign volunteers who called their cause a “jihad.” Acting on behalf of a supposed “international community,” the peacekeepers bore arms under the banner of values that they proclaimed as universal and applicable to all of humanity. Many also happened to be Muslims. Some of the veteran peacekeepers that Li met in Islamabad, years after the Bosnian war, demonstrate that they saw no conflict with upholding two universal ideas at the same time: the defense of liberal values and their duty to aid oppressed coreligionists.

[…] Despite this, the perception of foreign fighters as radically evil by default — something like modern equivalents of pirates or highwaymen — tends to exaggerate differences between them and other combatants.

“People who invoke jihad are not necessarily any less brutal, callous, or hypocritical than other violent actors, and there is no shortage of things they can be condemned for. But there’s a world of difference between criticism and dismissal,” Li said. “Criticism requires spelling out some criteria and accepting that those criteria should apply to others too, including oneself. Dismissal is a refusal to think, it’s condemnation that doesn’t submit itself to standards or scrutiny.” More here.

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