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Monday, December 29, 2008

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

The Terrorist in Search of Humanity is in many ways a sequel to Devji’s equally provocative 2005 book, Landscapes of the Jihad. In that work, rather than concentrating on the spectacular violence that has been the focus of most experts, Devji argues that al Qa’eda’s real achievement is to have created “a new kind of Muslim”, one whose attachments to the traditions and institutions of Islam are radically unlike those of his predecessors. The new militancy cannot be understood by inserting it into a now-familiar history of Islamic extremism (Wahhabism, Sayyid Qutb, the Taliban, etc.), because what is significant about the jihadis of today is their relation to the present, or even to the future. “Al Qa’eda’s importance in the long run,” Devji writes, “lies not in its pioneering a new form of networked militancy... but instead in its fragmentation of traditional structures of Muslim authority within new global landscapes.”


This do-it-yourself approach to Islam is, of course, anathema to religious authorities. Clerics, backed by their patrons in government, have an interest in monopolising the right to interpret and thereby to reinvent tradition. This right is acquired only after a long immersion in the texts. Devji argues that the jihadis, on the contrary, stress the individual’s ability to interpret the tradition on his own, whether or not he has received a conventional religious education (and most jihadis have not). There is a fascinating debate in militant circles, for instance, on the question of who has the right to declare jihad: can any duly invested cleric do so, or only those who have some practical knowledge of war? Is the source of religious authority the mastery of a canon, or the individual’s experience in the world? For Devji, the jihadis’ confidence in the individual believer’s competence “signals a democratisation of authority in the Muslim world.” Their emphasis on the individual’s ability to make sense of his faith, and to do so without appealing to any institutional authority, turns these “new Muslims” into the vanguard of an Islamic Reformation, a version of what Luther called “the universal priesthood.”


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