Social scientists have debated the origins and goals of militant Islam for years. Some have adopted variations of Samuel Huntington’s argument that inter-cultural animosity is the result of an inevitable “clash of civilizations” in which ethnically homogenous blocs attempt to preserve their interests in the face of encroaching globalization.1 Others contend that the violence is purely a vengeful response to socio-political indignations caused by Western states.2 Yet, with an intricate and compelling thesis, Faisal Devji’s The Terrorist in Search of Humanity upends these conventional analyses of Islamic militantism. Through a dialectical examination of al-Qaeda and others’ proclamations, Devji contends that Muslim terrorists perversely mime Gandhi by acting out of a moral, non-ideological conviction that aims to create a post-humanist global politics.

The Terrorist in Search of Humanity takes it inspiration from the philosophy of Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers, both of whom noted that the atomic age ushered in an era of global politics that, because of the destructive potential of the weapons in the context of the Cold War, introduced humanity as a single entity into the global conscious. Militant Islam, says Devji, envisions itself as a contemporary moral representative of a threatened humanity in which the ummah casts itself the “global victim.” This role is made possible by the extremists’ non-ideology. In opposition to those claiming militant Islam promotes a revolutionary political agenda, the author points out that Muslim extremists, unlike traditional agitators, have yet to detail the future political landscape for which they strive. In militant communiques, the aims are vague and emphasize the suprapolitical, in reference to the establishment of a moral global order.

The non-ideological character of Muslim extremists, however, is ineffective without the pluralism it affords. Devji finds this significant in two respects. First, pluralism refers to the globality of moralism. In other words, the pluralism of al-Qaeda and its spinoffs allows it to take up the banner of the disposed and downtrodden, regardless of their religious orientation. To support this argument, Devji cites multiple examples of fundamentalist Muslims championing Hindu causes and vice versa throughout the twentieth century and extremists’ adoption of environmentalism. Second, pluralism allows militant Islam to appeal to the morality of individuals in Western states. Devji explains that this endogenous pluralism accounts for why ostensibly secular Muslims take up the banner of extremism in their host countries. While this partially explains why fundamental Islam gains adherents, it does not answer the question of: Why violence as a means?

To affect change, Islamic militants believe that they must absolve the West of its previous transgressions by redeeming its morality through a mutual recognition of suffering – an awareness that can be triggered by spectacular violence. It is not, as some political leaders and commentators contend, the aim of these militants to subject the West to a modern Caliphate (the specifics of which, as mentioned earlier, have yet to be outlined). Rather, Islamic militants seek to stimulate the West into a non-religious conversion that accepts and establishes suprapolitical concerns as political. As such, Islamic militants are engaged in a friend/enemy dialectic with their Western foe, an interaction that Devji notes is sustained at the human level through detainee abuse in Western facilities. In this relationship, punishment is an act of love.

The West’s transgressions against humanity, though, are not directly related to economic or physical violence against Muslims and others, but the inability of the West (or, in theory, any other offender) to practice the moral standards it espouses in the global arena. The United States’ hypocrisy of preaching human rights while torturing detainees at the Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib detention centers is not lost on the Islamic world. Devji refines this idea further by arguing that liberalism is unsustainable globally because the values of liberalism are restricted to the institutions of the nation state:

Such limits [of liberalism] are evident in the circular definition that has marked liberalism from its founding days: only those will be tolerated who are themselves tolerant. Such a definition deprives tolerance of any moral content by making it completely dependent on the behavior of others. Tolerance therefore becomes a process of exclusion in which it is always the other person who is being judged…the definition is severely limited, because its circularity works only within the bounds of a nation state.3

To Devji, this shortcoming is untenable in the globalized world. To demonstrate, he points to Muslim uproar over the 2005 Mohammad caricatures published by a Dutch newspaper and Pope Benedict XVI’s controversial statements about The Prophet’s supposed endorsement of violence in 2006. The source of the Muslim community’s subsequent furor was not the blasphemy but the mass interpretation of these acts as a calculated insult coupled with the inability of an institution-less Islam to respond. What is needed, then, is for tolerance to be interpreted as a moral, not legal, concept. The establishment of suprapolitical norms would bypass the rigid legality that denies liberalism a global flexibility.

In an interesting juxtaposition interspersed throughout the text, Devji notes that the tactics and goals of Islamic militantism are perversions of Gandhian resistance. Both, for instance, support a politics of sacrifice which, through the act of martyrdom, transforms self-violence from a political expression with worldly ends into an existential statement. Through this self-negation, militants, like Gandhi, mean to symbolically actuate more morally acceptable inter-human relations by withdrawing from the objectionable realpolitik. The spectacle of this rejection allows for the emergence of the new suprapolitics. By employing Gandhi as a foil, Devji explicates the universal duality of the moral. Simultaneously, the moral motivates individuals to deliberate pacifism or violent barbarism. Without this deconstruction, Devji is unable to formulate his conclusion: that the establishment of a global politics premised on suprapolitical concerns is necessary to avoid the conflict endemic to the liberal system.

For all the intellectual weight of Devji’s argument, The Terrorist in Search of Humanity is deficient in some respects. For example, questions linger regarding the intentionality of Muslims extremists when making their pronouncements, on which a bulk of the book’s hypothesis rests. The author appears to waver on whether to take the militants’ words at face value, and the timidity is justified. Considering that direct access to these individuals is scant, his interpretations are impossible to substantiate. Additionally, Devji’s approach avoids analysis of extremist violence perpetrated in the pursuit of national aims, which has been explored by Robert Pape and others4. If news reports are accurate, how can the organized al-Qaeda inspired groups attempting to undermine the Iraqi government on sectarian grounds be labeled globally pluralist, much less concerned with the state of human morality? Certainly, al-Qaeda’s pluralism attracts individuals, but it is these individuals that create networks of resistance – the goals of which are dependent on the context. Devji’s dogged focus on pluralism neglects this aspect of militant Islam.

Despite its shortcomings, The Terrorist in Search of Humanity is a revolutionary piece of literature on the subject of terrorism. By questioning both the Other and the Self (an approach often ignored by positivist social scientists) Devji constructs a cohesive and ahistorical argument that transcends the polemicism indicting either Islam or Western liberalism as the source of militant violence. The true culprit is instead an essential human demand: the ever-present insistence for morality in human actions.

1See Samuel Huntington, Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Touchstone, 1996).

2See Michael Mousseau, “Market Civilization and its Clash with Terror,” International Security 27 (2003), 5-29.

3Faisal Devji, The Terrorist in Search of Humanity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 176.

4See Robert Pape. “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” The American Political Science Review 97 (2003), 1-19.