Jihad and Other Universalisms: Arab-Bosnian Encounters in the U.S. World Order

Thesis Type:

PhD dissertation


This dissertation uses the experiences of Arab Islamist fighters in the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) to rethink prevailing notions of world order. These actors are frequently glossed as “foreign fighters”: rootless, unaccountable extremists attempting to impose rigid forms of Islam on local “moderate” Muslim populations, be it in BiH, Afghanistan, Chechnya, or other sites of conflict with non-Muslim powers. By illuminating some of the many diasporic and imperial circuits linking BiH with other parts of the world, this dissertation provides a richer historical and sociological context in which transnational activist movements no longer seem so aberrational. This study argues that the mobilization to join the “jihad” alongside Bosnian Muslims can be usefully understood as a universalist project: an attempt to incarnate a worldwide Muslim community (umma) theoretically open to all of humanity, in which activists struggle through the experience of racial, cultural, and doctrinal difference vis-à-vis Bosnian and other Muslims. This approach opens up two broad avenues of inquiry. First, it allows an analysis of how Muslims of different backgrounds interacted in contexts of fighting, intermarriage, and doctrinal disputation. Second, it helps analytically situate the jihad in relation to other forms of armed intervention also acting in the name of humanity, most importantly UN peacekeeping and the U.S.-led “Global War on Terror.” This study is based on approximately 12 months of fieldwork in BiH between 2006 and 2012, mostly in Sarajevo, Zenica, Tuzla, and Bugojno. Open-ended life-history interviews were conducted in Arabic and English with Arab residents of BiH and their Bosnian comrades, kin, and critics. Additional interviews took place in Yemen, France, and Egypt. The study also draws extensively on archival materials culled from various sources, including Bosnian army and intelligence documents gathered by the UN war crimes tribunal, U.S. State Department cables disclosed by Wikileaks, and extensive printed and online materials by participants in and supporters of the jihad written in Arabic, the language formerly known as Serbo-Croatian, and Urdu.

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