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

May 28, 2009

"We love death the way you love life." These words uttered by Shehzad Tanweer, one of the London suicide bombers, in a video issued on the first anniversary of the attacks on the city's transport network on 7 July 2005, have proved more incomprehensible in the West than perhaps any other statement made by contemporary Mujahidin. Indeed, they are so alien to the Western outlook that they have been cited as proof that the attackers were nihilists at best, if not cultish death-worshippers. Faisal Devji's book invites us to think more carefully about them.

Remarkably little public consideration has been given to the often extended jihadist arguments, including Osama bin Laden's carefully staged statements to the trial proceedings of 9/11 organiser Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The "War on Terror" has been conducted with a resolute determination to refuse a hearing to the "enemy", whose motives Western governments have more or less made up for themselves. But perhaps the enemy has something to say.

Tanweer's declaration is a case in point. Our fixation on the sanctity of human life is, as Devji's finely nuanced analysis reminds us, relatively new, and represents an impoverishment of our cultural roots. By placing so much emphasis on love of life, he suggests, today's humanists have divorced their conception of humanity even further from Christianity than Islam.

He uses the thinking of Mahatma Gandhi to make clear just how limited the Western conception of life has become. And he points out how "the primacy given to life in the definition of planetary humanity makes it prey to every kind of fear and anxiety". Our obsession with security has, as the House of Lords' Constitution Committee recently warned, seriously unbalanced our sense of civic values and has also increased our vulnerability to terrorism so that, in effect, terror increasingly determines our public agenda.

Devji's phrase "planetary humanity" is central to his argument. The key to understanding the world view of contemporary Islamist militants, he says, is the global reach of Islam as "the natural religion of humanity" - a religion that Robinson Crusoe might discover by purely rational means on his desert island. While they might ideally wish to convert the Western world to Islam, they would be happy to induce it to return to the principles of Christianity.

Devji points out the centrality of charges of hypocrisy in Islamist critiques of Western - above all US - policy: "It is no exaggeration to say that hypocrisy represents an obsession for militant rhetoric." His analysis of militancy is subtle and persuasive. As he concludes, men such as the London bombers do not fit the old stereotype of "professional terrorists": they are "self-conscious amateurs", and there is very little in the way of a "conversion narrative" or a moment of decision to be found in their lives. If he is right, the British authorities' determination to scrutinise the Muslim community in search of such patterns is likely to do more harm than good.

Devji's analysis can at times seem - as he says - "somewhat abstract". He has a fondness for rhetorical questions, and some readers will not share his confidence in the political perceptiveness of literary critics such as Maurice Blanchot. But even hardbitten empiricists are likely to find his thoughtful account of the Khilafat Movement in northwestern India after the First World War illuminating.

Here was a moment when an essentially secular Islamic institution, the caliphate, provided the basis for a general movement under the authority of Gandhi, a Hindu. Devji's assertion that Osama bin Laden is "the Mahatma's alter ego" is perhaps the most challenging of his invitations to rethink the Western refusal to engage with the mind of the "enemy".

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

By Faisal Devji. C. Hurst & Co 224pp, £45.00 and £15.99. ISBN 9781850659259 and 9464. Published 15 February 2009

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