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.

How Much Anarchy?

May 30, 2009

Realism and neorealism make five central claims about the international politics: 1) An international system exists; 2) The system is anarchic; 3) States are sovereign and the primary units of the system; 4) States seek power; and 5) States act rationally. While each claim complements the others, I believe that realism’s understanding of anarchy is the nucleus of the tradition’s analyses of interstate relations. In this essay, I explore the validity of the proposition that anarchy determines the nature of state interactions in the system. Ultimately, I determine that realism’s strict definition of anarchy is a beneficial tool for understanding international relations in a broad historical sense but deficient when analyzing the current era. Anarchy exists in degrees of intensity dependent on state behavior and the orientation of the great powers. Here, I distinguish two types of anarchy: hard and soft. I use the former label to describe a state of more anarchy and the latter to describe less anarchy. Of note, my use of the term realism in this study encompasses the neorealist approach.

For realists, anarchy is a product of the multitude of sovereign states within the international system. States are free to pursue courses of action without any structural restraints. Without a hierarchical structure providing rules for state interaction, states are situated in relationships of self-help and, consequently, are in direct competition with one another to secure their national interest defined as power. In the realist conception of international politics, power is both an ends and a means. The zero-sum game ignited by anarchy compels states to act rationally, otherwise there is a chance that a competitor will become more powerful and, therefore, threaten another’s national interest. Despite the omnipresence of rational-egoism in the system, cooperation is not absent from the realist model. In fact, anarchy compels states to cooperate – but only temporarily to enhance their interests. Kenneth Waltz’s defensive realism, which articulates the effects of anarchy on balance of power politics, explicates cooperation’s role in the realist framework. In order to protect national interest, Waltz says, states will ally to negate the ascending power of another. Once the power equilibrium is restored, the allied states pursue their interests independently, only to balance again in the future when one state disrupts the distribution of power.[1] International institutions do not play a role in softening realism’s anarchy because no international body exists to extricate states from the self-help principle. Basically, international institutions are a tool for enhancing national interest against the welfare of other states. Thus, zero-sum competition is an enduring feature of the international system.

From the Treaty of Westphalia’s establishment of the nation-state as the primary unit of international relations in 1648 to World War II, realism’s anarchy offers a compelling longe duree perspective of the motivations of states and interstate conflict. During that time, the insubstantial information flows between nation-states exacerbated the question of other states’ policy intentions. Realism’s strict interpretation of anarchy, however, seems anachronistic considering the technological advances of the mid- to late-twentieth century that connected nations and facilitated the integration of national economies into the complex global economy.

Contrary to the central assumption of neo-realism, anarchy is not the sole determinant of state behavior in the modern era. One need only open the newspaper for evidence that states are subject to formal and informal constraints. Liberal theorists like Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye agree that the international system is anarchic but contend that international economic institutions, though voluntary, reduce interstate tensions by linking economic welfare – a rational component of the national interest – to stable and contention-minimizing relationships.[2] In the liberal model, states are concerned with absolute gains instead of relative gains, thus rationalizing anarchy as an opportunity instead of a burden. Institutions need not be located in brick and mortar buildings; instead they can be norms widely accepted by the states in the international system. In today’s world, for example, virtually all states agree that war is only considered ‘just’ if waged for defensive purposes. By and large, the ‘institution’ of just war restrains states from aggressively pursuing military conquest.

The question that then arises is whether the tempered anarchy of the twentieth century is a temporary or permanent deviation from realism’s rigid interpretation of anarchy. Some liberals insist that institutions, once formed, acquire a logic and agenda separate from their constituent states; thus becoming pseudo-sovereign agents in the international system.[3] If this is the case, then a system defined by soft anarchy may be a constant. Another way to predict the degree of anarchy in the future is to question the effects of technological progress through history. From steamboats and the telegraph to television and the Internet, human innovation has created an increasingly interconnected and culturally homogenous world. As the globe becomes smaller, institutions are utilized to mediate between disputant agents and formulate responses to the ills produced by the virtual elimination of spatial barriers. Conversely, anarchy may be intensified by a myriad of factors – ranging from resource scarcity to violence perpetrated by non-state actors. In today’s world, it is not outlandish to imagine a state attempting to protect its national welfare from non-state militant groups by wantonly violating the sovereignty of weak and/or unwilling nations while disregarding formal and informal international institutions. In this case, a system marked by hard anarchy is likely to result.

As demonstrated in the paragraph above, predicting the future severity of anarchy is a tenuous task. One alternative model examines anarchy as the product of vacillating norms of international society. In “Anarchy is What States Make of It,” constructivist Alexander Wendt advises scholars of international relations to examine processes of state interaction instead of focusing on the conditions of interaction. The degree of anarchy in the system is determined, he says, by states’ identities as constructed by the interaction of an ego with alters. In other words, at any one time the system can be more or less cooperative based on the socialization process of states.[4]

The soft anarchy defining the current period of the international system can be attributed to the unipolar dominance of the Untied States and the states socialization vis-à-vis the institution of a single great power. Great powers are informal institutions that play a substantial role in creating norms in the international system either through their interaction, as in a multipolar system, or their unrivaled power, as in a unipolar system. In the former case, the system is likely to be more anarchical. Yet, if a single superpower dominates the system and promotes the idea of absolute gains, as the United States does, then a challenger or coalition of challengers is less likely to emerge. In other words, a loose, non-obligatory order built upon common norms and understandings simultaneously sustains anarchy but also provides structure. The degree of anarchy in a unipolar system, though, is contingent upon the identity of the great power. An aggressive great power with a zero-sum interpretation of interstate events will plunge system into a hard anarchy.

In sum, as long as sovereign states remain the primary actors in the international system, anarchy will remain as the structure influencing states’ action. However, the system can at times be more or less anarchic. The realist and liberal arguments concerning anarchy are both correct when situated within an appropriate context. Constructivist’s process-centric analysis of international politics reconciles these two school’s understanding of anarchy. It accepts the idea that hard and soft anarchies are variant conditions of the system dependent on states’ socialization. To understand the international system’s structure of anarchy, one must look at the dominant institutions mediating state interaction.


[1] Kenneth Waltz, “Anarchic Orders and Balances of Power” in Neorealism and its Critics, ed. Robert Keohane (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 129.

[2] Robert O. Keohane “Neorealism and World Politics” in Neorealism and its Critics, ed. Robert Keohane (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 18.

[3] Richard K. Ashley, “The Poverty of Neorealism” in Neorealism and its Critics, ed. Robert Keohane (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 275.

[4] Alexander Wendt, “Anarchy is What States Make of It,” International Organization 46 (1992): 405.