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.

An enduring debate among theorists of international politics concerns the appropriate level of analysis from which to examine interstate relations. Most scholars delineate three levels: the individual, the state, and the systemic. Academics preferring systemic analyses focus on the forces applied by the structure upon the states in the system. Their approach disregards domestic factors entirely. The ordering principle of the system’s structure – whether it is ordered by anarchy or capitalism – determines how states will act. The state is a “black box,” with its various internal components devoid of any agency. The literature originating from the neorealist school is the most well-known application of the structuralist approach. Their model of international relations explains the dynamics of the system with an examination of balance of power politics. The anarchical structure, as the ordering principle of the international system, compels policymakers, consciously or unconsciously, to balance against their competitors in the system. On the other hand, the first two levels of analysis – the individual and the state – acknowledge the effect of domestic factors such as the bureaucracy, “the people”, the leader’s personality, multinational corporations, non-profit interests, and/or culture, on international politics. Liberals are the most egregious employers of individual and/or state approaches, as evidenced by their extensive writings on Democratic Peace and Interdependence theories. I believe, however, that other schools of thought more persuasively argue that international politics should be approached with a focus on domestic factors. Rational-choice models, such as selectorate theory, and cultural models are viable alternatives that integrate domestic concerns into studies of state interactions.

The split between the domestic institutionalists and structuralists is deep but, in reality, the reductionism of each approach distorts examinations of international politics. The divide is not irreconcilable; rather, it can be resolved by integrating the structuralist and domestic modes of analysis. In this paper, I argue that domestic factors influence policymakers’ foreign policy decisions and that the structure of the international system, on occasion, also influences their decisions. Whether the structure’s influence on policymakers is conscious or unconscious is determined by their competency. While policy elites are active agents in the system, I contend that the structure remains the best determinant of the outcome of their decisions. To demonstrate my hypothesis, I will critically review the texts of two well-known proponents of domestic institutionalism: Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita’s The Logic of Political Survival. I chose these books because each acknowledges the influence of domestic factors while avoiding the idealism endemic to liberalism. While I differentiate these scholars’ understanding of core concepts from liberalism, it should be clear that my primary goal is to bridge the gulf between the domestic institutionalist and structuralist approaches.

In The Clash of Civilizations, Huntington contends that the world’s future conflicts will emerge from de facto borders separating the world’s great cultures – which are defined by the dominant religions. Though he is not a liberal theorist, Huntington appropriates the idea of interdependence – a concept often championed as a method of ensuring peace in the system. However, instead of viewing interdependence as a tool for conflict mitigation, he claims that interdependence via globalization produces discontents such as rural-urban migration and the West’s attempt to universalize its values. Adding the fact that “it is human to hate,”[1] globalization produces conflict between great cultures, each of which are attempting to assert their cultural identity globally. Essentially, Huntington argues that globalization intensifies identity politics at the global level which, in turn, fuels recognition of difference and the demonization of the “other”. The increasingly violent schism between culturally differentiated groups is, therefore, a product, of interdependence. The influence of a cultural identity has, in the past, proved to be a strong influence on states approach to international relations. Nazism, to use a worn example, typifies the state’s embodiment of cultural recognition and assertion on the international stage. Identity can be formally or informally manifested in state institutions or the leader’s ideology and is, therefore, a very real force in international relations.

Bueno de Mesquita, on the other hand, constructs an explanatory model of international relations that is indifferent to effects of culture and identity. His model, known as selectorate theory, predicts the outcome of interstate state conflict based on the relationship between national leaders and the group empowered with the ability to choose the leader, known as the selectorate. A sub-group of the selectorate is the winning coalition, which is the faction that supports a leader’s rise to power. In a modern democracy, the selectorate is the entire citizenry whereas in an authoritarian regime it may be restricted to a cadre of generals or an exclusive. The winning coalition in the United States’ most recent presidential election, though, would only be comprised of Democratic voters. According to selectorate theory, the leader, as an individual interested in remaining in power, must allocate public resources to meet the needs and or desires of members of the winning coalition to secure their continued support. If the leader is unable to retain the loyalty of his supporters, a challenger from the selectorate may persuade a sufficient number of the winning coalition to defect to his coalition.

In the realm of international politics, the leader, whose sole desire is to remain in power, pursues policies that allow him to maintain or enhance the level of returns to the winning coalition. According to Bueno de Mesquita, leaders of large coalition systems warring with other states are likely to expend more resources in the war effort because the coalition expects to receive significant returns. Large coalition systems also provide cover for the leader because of the difficulty for challengers to persuade more individuals to their cause than in a small coalition system. Concepts such as loyalty and affinity make attempts to challenge the leader in a large coalition system even more complicated. Therefore, large coalition systems are insulated and can fight for longer durations. Small coalition systems, in contrast, are less likely to exert a maximal effort in a military conflict because there is an enhanced and immediate threat to the leader if he diverts resources from the winning coalition to support the conflict. Thus, authoritarian governments are more likely than democracies to lose wars simply because of effort. The observation that democratic leaders are obliged to aggressively pursue victory also explains the reluctance of democracies to engage in war. This assertion directly refutes liberalism’s account of Democratic Peace Theory, which postulates that democracy cultivates a culture of political civility that influences policy elites and institutionalizes liberal economic policies promoting economic interaction and, ultimately, positive interdependence between states.

While Bueno de Mesquita and Huntington cogently interpret the manner in which domestic factors influence the practice of international politics, their theories are deficient because each discounts the power exerted by the structure upon states. In the opening pages of The Clash of Civilizations, Huntington instills in the reader the belief that cultural conflict is all but inevitable. He fails to acknowledge, however, that certain informal and formal institutions exist within the international system to mediate conflict. Culture may determine how states, or factions within states, view and react towards the global community, but the structure will determine the outcome of those actions. Balance of power politics, which only receives cursory mention in his book, is transcultural. In his discussion of China’s expected rise to hegemony, he unites present day Japan and the United States as balancers. As China becomes more powerful, Huntington assumes that Japan will become culturally aware and join the Sinic sphere; thus, the United States will fail to balance. Huntington’s framework of cultural schisms, though, forces him to discount the possibility of the United States and Russia, as members to two distinct cultures, cooperating in an attempt to balance China in the event that Japan defects. The adage “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” has remained resilient in the face of repeated arguments that ideological, cultural, or religious divides will hinder the ability of differentiated states to cooperate. One need only point to the US-China alliance during the Cold War or the Iran-Israel relationship during the Iran-Iraq conflict for evidence. Moreover, Huntington’s prediction of inter-civilizational conflict ignores the normative acceptance of international law by the units of the system and states emphasis on routine diplomatic contacts. Culture may determine state policies, but the structure of the system will determine the outcome of the unit’s actions. Balance of power politics will quash any attempt for domination and general recognition of international law and diplomacy will impede attempts to engage in active military conflict.

The Logic of Political Survival suffers from a similar inattention to structural factors. Policy elites need not be aware of concepts such as balance of power or international law to be effected by them. The relationship between the leader, winning coalition, and selectorate is a compelling model for explicating state (in)action at the international level but not as a predictor of states’ reactions. The structure strongly influences how other states will respond to the singular state. It may be true that democracies are more victorious in conflicts against authoritarian governments because they are large coalition systems, but their victory can only occur if permitted by the structure’s institutions. In other words, accurate examinations of international relations cannot be achieved through the abstraction of a state from the system. At the present time, the majority of states in the system are large coalition systems and, in accordance with Bueno de Mesquita’s logic, large coalition systems are unlikely to engage in military conflict because they have much to lose if they do not win. If the regime types were more equitably split between large coalition system’s and small coalition systems, the latter can be expected to ally in order to balance against a large coalition system at a reduced cost. Bueno de Mesquita’s hypothesis is empirically valid today but vulnerable if regimes trend away from large coalition systems. Structural examinations are more likely than selectorate theory to provide an enduring model for deciding the outcome of international politics.

In sum, many scholars view the domestic and structural modes of analysis as incongruous and, consequently, fail to grasp the legitimate contributes of each approach. The fact that each approach has utility necessitates a convergence of the two. Domestic factors undoubtedly have a considerable influence on states’ actions in the international system. The final result of international politics, though, is best predicted through a consideration of the system’s structural forces and not domestic policymaking processes.


[1] Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations: Remaking of World Order (New York: Touchstone, 1997), 130.