GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Arab Fighters and Aid Workers in the Bosnian War: Labour, Mobility, and Value
Paper Proposal Text :
Transnational Islamist charities have long been accused of supporting or harbouring “terrorists.” This paper examines these allegations and questions their presuppositions with reference to the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which drew Islamists from the Arab world and elsewhere, be it as fighters (“mujahids) or aid workers. At the individual level, some arrived as fighters and became aid workers, others the reverse, and a few played both roles concurrently (and of course, most aid workers did not participate in fighting). Both sets of actors were committed to similar Salafi notions of Islamic proselytizing (daʿwa) generally unfamiliar to Bosnian Muslims, and at times collaborated in such efforts. These included translating and distributing Islamic texts, lecturing and preaching, and engaging at times in contentious doctrinal polemics with local religious scholars. Yet they also pursued distinct agendas, answered to different authorities, and grew increasingly distant from and sceptical towards each other as the war progressed and their respective presences on the ground developed. Unsurprisingly, these ambivalent relationships between them were not too dissimilar from those between “western” aid workers and the peacekeepers upon whom they often relied.

In order to better appreciate these dynamics this paper injects the concept of labour: specifically, ethically inflected action that can be seen as driven by both material value and normative values. This allows us to sidestep stale debates over the extent to which “ideology” or “religion” are determinants of behaviour as opposed to “interests” and instead opens up several avenues of enquiry: First, regarding Arab fighters and aid workers as specific kinds of migrant workers allows us to analyse with greater subtlety their individual trajectories between armed and unarmed forms of activism without collapsing the distinctions between them. Second, because Arab travellers and immigrants in the area were often left with few options other than to become fighters or aid workers, we can understand how Bosnians began to perceive Arabs generally as a racialised category associated with “fundamentalist” Islam. Third, the question of labour points to issues of internal organisation, hierarchy, and inter-cultural encounter amongst both jihad units and aid organisations, which shared a broadly common pattern: Gulf funding and elite members, key managerial roles played by educated non-Gulf Arabs (many of whom were already living in Europe before the war), and local Bosnians in subordinate roles. This in turn provides a useful starting point for exploring how differences between Arab and Bosnian Muslims and among Arabs themselves operated against the backdrop of a putatively shared pan-Islamic project.

This paper draws from over 12 months of dissertation fieldwork conducted in Bosnia-Herzegovina since 2006, including ethnographic interviews conducted primarily in Arabic with Arab ex-fighters and aid workers, as well as their Bosnian kin, comrades, and critics. The research also relies extensively on archival research, including Bosnian army sources, Islamic texts in both Arabic and Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian, and legal documents. It is also informed by the author’s experience participating in habeas corpus litigation on behalf of detainees in the U.S. military prison in Guantánamo Bay, where the ambiguous relationship between aid work and armed activity has been a recurrent and vexing theme.