Faisal Devji is an author, who specialises in studies on Islam, globalisation, violence and ethics. Presently -Reader in Indian History and Fellow of St. Antony’s College at the University of Oxford where he is Director of the Asian Studies Centre. Devji has authored books such as Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity; The Terrorist in Search of Humanity: Militant Islam and Global Politics; The Impossible Indian: Gandhi and The Temptations of Violence; and Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea. Devji’s latest book Muslim Zion forays into the geopolitical paradoxes entangling Pakistan and argues that India’s arch-rival has never been a nation-state in the conventional sense. Revealing how Pakistan’s present troubles continue to be shaped by its past, Devji’s fresh offering also gives a fresh perspective debunking existing theories. In a candid conversation with Riyaz Wani, Faisal Devji opens up on his latest book (Muslim Zion), Indo-Pak politics and Islamic militancy.
Edited Excerpts from an interview.
You once compared global terror to environmentalism, saying both of them are ethical practices rather than coherent political programmes.
While they are clearly very different movements, both environmentalism and al Qaeda’s style of terrorism grapple with a specific question. How are we to deal with what they conceive of as global crises, whether of humanity in peril from climate change, or the world’s Muslims allegedly at threat from a largely imaginary oppression? This question is a novel one because we have never before had to deal with such global issues, or rather pretended that we can or should be able to do so, not least because entities like the human race or the worldwide Muslim community have only very recently become something more than intellectual abstractions.
Environmentalists are concerned with the fate of humanity as a whole, since they know that phenomena like climate change cannot remain confined within national borders, which also means that pure national campaigns to cut carbon emissions are meaningless. All our political institutions, after all, including international ones, are founded on the nation state. None is therefore capable of representing or appealing to the human race as an entity in its own right, which means that the latter has no political existence of its own.
The lack of political will to address the environmental crisis, can thus be seen as deriving from the lack of an adequate institutional infrastructure for the global arena. And this turns the various individual and even collective acts and campaigns to promote recycling, etc., into ethical rather than political gestures, since they have little or no direct and instrumental effect on the global problem that they would address.
For al Qaeda, the global Muslim community is not only seen to represent humanity itself as an oppressed and victimised entity, but, like it, is also recognised as possessing no political or even institutional reality. The worldwide Muslim “community”, in other words, does not really exist, and can only manifest itself in transient and highly ritualised mobilisation, generally over some “insult” supposedly delivered to its prophet—a phenomenon that only began at the end of the Cold War with the controversy over Salman Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses.
Osama bin Laden sought to give voice to this non-existent Muslim community by unleashing violence to make the alleged victimisation visible. And yet such militant practices had no ability to shape, let alone control, the global arena they wanted to address, thus devolving into “ethical” gestures defined by sacrifice. The link between these gestures and those of environmentalism was very clear to Osama, who spoke about climate change repeatedly, as another instance of humanity being put at risk by the same assortment of states and corporations that he blamed for the oppression of Muslims worldwide.
If not Taliban, the other two movements are driven by the idea of a Caliphate. How do you perceive this fascination for a unitary Islamic state headed by an elected Caliph?
Although it has become commonplace to treat Islamic militancy as a single phenomenon, it is, of course, made up of very different movements. The Taliban, for instance, is an old-fashioned national movement, largely uninterested in global forms of jihad. And indeed Afghanistan is very low in the list of countries that send fighters to al Qaeda or ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).