Floating somewhere between the optimism that Donald Trump will soon be fired by the American people and the fear that he will eke out a victory, a number of anxious questions circulate: Will he honor the results? Will he try to discredit the election? Will the task of deciding the presidency come down to the courts, for the second time in two decades? What if he refuses to go? Will the military really dispatch him with the swiftness that Joe Biden has promised? What if the transfer of power happens but is anything but peaceful—accompanied by protestors, police, vigilantes, and federal troops facing off on American streets? Pundits stress how unprecedented, and thus dangerous, it is to be even asking such questions; friends share ominous magazine articles about right-wing militias gearing up for civil war. In major cities, corporations are boarding up their storefronts in advance of Election Day.
For many scholars like myself, whose academic work chiefly concerns developments in the Global South, there is a certain familiarity to this disaster-in-the-making. The United States is facing a legitimation crisis of epic proportions, one that will not evaporate should Joe Biden oust Trump from the presidency. The specter of armed militias facing off against protestors represents only the most conspicuous face of a growing crisis whose more quotidian signs are all around: in well-executed policies of voter suppression and disenfranchisement; in our general lack of surprise at every new revelation about how money greases the wheels of the republic; in the palpable sense of futility that many express toward a political system that every week seems to grow less democratic and representative of its constituent people; in the impoverished political imagination that tells us there is no alternative to endless war and climate genocide; in the deep sighs of resignation that accompany this age of civic exhaustion.
As someone who works on governance and state fragmentation in the Middle East, particularly in relation to modern Islamic militancy, I can’t help but think about the proliferation of Islamic militant groups over the past three decades in Libya, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. These groups have contested the legitimacy of existing rulers and state institutions, and they’ve gained adherents by denouncing a status quo that is actually untenable for many if not most people living under governments widely perceived as oppressive, corrupt, and endlessly self-serving. In each setting, militancy and the legitimation crisis have marched hand in hand, leading to both civic and political fragmentation at best and outright civil war in many instances.
Is it so difficult to imagine that the current American trajectory ends up in similar territory—that the grinding reality of minority rule will spawn a civil war that is hotter in some regions, more pacified in others? Is there anything other than unjustified Western exceptionalism that undergirds our faith that it can’t happen here—“it” being not the oft-referenced turn of European states toward totalitarianism, but rather the sort of fragmented authoritarianism that we have seen in Egypt, Syria, or Libya—fragmented because the state no longer possesses the sovereign authority that is said to define it, and authoritarian because it responds to this loss of legitimacy with ever-greater repression? Is our great hope that, as occurred in Mubarak’s Egypt, the army will turn on the dictator and back the people instead?
Of course, to analogize Islamic militancy with the current American breakdown is to invite accusations of hyperbole from all sides. But is it fair to compare? Is it possible not to?
It is commonplace to narrate the history of jihad as an unbroken chain, wherein the 7th century Islamic conquests inaugurated a continuous wave of violence that led naturally to the attacks of September 11, 2001, and more recently, the rise of the Islamic State. But this narrative elides over serious ruptures. Over the course of the 20th century, jihad became unmoored from its traditional keeper, the state, in a fashion that mirrors the broader shift toward factional and private violence. From private military companies like Academi (formerly Blackwater) to “lone wolves” and militia organizations, states are increasingly not the sole wielders of political violence—a fact experienced on a global scale, albeit in different ways. It would be strange if this broader transformation of violence left jihad untouched, and indeed, we need only scratch below the surface to see that this a-historic, essentialized view of jihad is untenable. Detonating a suicide vest at a pop concert has little in common with the Ottoman Empire’s declaration of jihad during the First World War, or medieval attempts to repel Crusaders from the Levant, but such attacks do share certain features with the mass shootings that have become commonplace in the 21st century, by far most prevalently in the United States. Contrary to dominant narratives, jihad as we know it today has much more in common with the forms of violence that have emerged contemporaneously with it than it does with earlier iterations of itself.
How do we account for these shifts in the meaning and practice of jihad? As a form of warfare, the authority to declare and wage jihad traditionally rested in the hands of Muslim rulers and states. This classical accord began to break down in the late nineteenth century as an influential group of modernizing intellectuals and religious scholars—including Khayr al-Din al-Tunisi, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, and Muhammad ‘Abduh—challenged the anti-democratic basis of political life, and reached a breaking point in the mid-20th century against the backdrop of the postcolonial state. A new crop of ideologues—the most notable of which was the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb—often not the products of traditional Islamic learning, emerged to argue that the secular strongmen who tended to rule these states were apostates, and thereby disqualified from leading the faithful in battle. Jihad was refashioned as an individual religious obligation, akin to prayer or fasting, that Muslims could and should partake in outside the framework of the state, rather than (as traditionally understood) a collective duty that fell upon the community as a whole.
As this pivot suggests, far from being an eternal religious dictate that has remained substantively the same over time, contemporary jihad is a shape-shifter whose proliferation over the last several decades parallels a widespread legitimation crisis: not merely of the tyrannical rulers of many Muslim-majority states, but of the religious functionaries they employed to rationalize government policy. No longer a weapon of states, jihad has become a revolutionary force used against them, at least until the Islamic State completed the dialectical cycle by attempting to erect an alternative, and supposedly legitimate, structure of political and religious authority.
The fruits of this reorientation were already clear in the 1980s, from the assassination of Anwar Sadat in Egypt to the Islamist uprising in Syria, not to mention the “freedom fighters” staked out in the hills of Afghanistan. This oppositional stance to the political status quo undergirded al-Qaeda’s attacks on both the United States and its Arab allies, and more recently fueled insurrections in regions ranging from Nigeria to the southern Philippines in addition to figuring prominently in civil wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. The results of this discord have been all too apparent in the fracturing and fragmentation of states: cue the many maps showing which regions are occupied by the government vs. rebel forces. Of course we are not encouraged to think about jihad in such commonplace terms, but are rather supposed to regard it as a strange and exotic leftover from Olden Times. The fixation on “holy war” continues to blind Western observers to the fact that contemporary jihad exists as an oppositional political force in a material ecosystem framed by questions of authority, legitimacy, and power.
Facing our own urgent questions of authority, legitimacy, and power in the US, the analogy starts to come into some sort of focus. But to what extent, if any, does fragmentation of states “over there” have to do with life closer to home? Do conflict zones in the Global South point to a gloomy future, wherein states lose the monopoly on violence that has historically defined them, and militias, rebel groups, and private armies carve up territories in neo-feudal fashion? Is it outrageous to envision the United States divided into competing rebel blocs, fueled by the staggering number of firearms already in Americans’ possession?
That the coming domestic crisis is unlikely to play out along such lines, even in the event of another Trump victory, should not offer any sense of reassurance. In a perverse sense, the repressive strength of the American state makes it far less likely to dissolve along the lines we have seen in Syria or Iraq. It is not merely that the mechanisms of state violence are so advanced at every level, from militarized local police forces to state National Guard units and the federal law enforcement officers deployed in Portland last summer. Adding to the trouble, in the event that Donald Trump secures another term in office, our would-be anti-government rebels (save a few, like the John Brown Club) do not tend to be the ones carrying the guns.
More crucially, the distinctions often invoked when considering the breakdown of states—particularly around the idea of a division between legitimate state violence and illegitimate private, or factional violence—map poorly onto the empirical reality of the American experience, fractured and hierarchized as it may be. Indeed, the racialized structure of American society has often granted “non-state actors” the right to use violence without undermining the government’s functioning or legitimacy. While the Islamic militant groups I study have consistently arisen in opposition to the state, its ruling elites, and adjacent institutions, the history of American militancy outside of formal state channels looks quite different. From the armed settlers who were deputized to clear the land of indigenous peoples, to the Klan’s decades-long reign of terror, to Kyle Rittenhouse’s recent service as a self-appointed guardian of Kenosha, violence has often been wielded in this country by private persons in order to augment state power, rather than diminish it. When Donald Trump appealed to the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” he was speaking not to a rival but to a partner.
Placed within this longer historical frame, the idea of white supremacist militias teaming up with federal and state governments for the sake of maintaining “law and order” seems less a radical rupture than the next link in a very bloody chain. The situation, in short, is even worse than liberal anxieties about a possible civil war suggest. It turns out that a certain type of white supremacist vigilantism is wholly compatible with the continued functioning of the American state. The specter of civil war that liberals fear is none other than the same modes of violence that have long been turned against BIPOC communities in this country without at all undermining the state. It is this fact that should keep us up at night.
At a campaign stop on October 6, Joe Biden visited Gettysburg. The former vice president is no Freudian, but the speech’s associative logic was clear: channeling the spirit of his famed predecessor at the podium, he lamented the seemingly unbridgeable gap that characterizes American politics—exemplified in the tendency to “see our public life not as an arena for mediation of our differences, but rather . . . as an occasion for total, unrelenting, partisan warfare.” He promised to do better, to unite the people once more, to govern in the best interests of all, to reach across the aisle and embrace bipartisan solutions. For all the nostalgia inherent in the effort to Make American Great Again, Biden’s invocation of a golden age of cooperation is no less backward-looking. Division, within this banal framing, is not the result of particular political outcomes or the reality that frames ongoing demands for justice, but a moral failing. “It’s a decision. It’s a choice we make.”
While Biden alluded dutifully to “structural inequality” at the outset of his remarks, his comments remained lodged within neoliberalism’s moralizing frame. A worldview that positions civic fragmentation as simply the inevitable consequence of “too many Americans seek[ing] not to overcome our divisions, but to deepen them” fails to account for any material reality that might account for why that is the case. Are Americans a less morally sound people today than they were twenty or forty years ago? Of course not. Longstanding as they are, the politics of white resentment thrive on manufactured scarcity, on the message—delivered aggressively and deliberately by the right over the past four decades—that collective flourishing is impossible. Imagining that the tilt toward civic fragmentation can be restrained by a newfound commitment to civility and cooperation–by the morally correct choice to build bridges and open our arms–Joe Biden demonstrated the absurd limitations inherent in the belief that we can change people’s hearts and minds without changing anything else. For all his many faults, Lincoln at least knew he was fighting a war.
What happens in the likely, and no doubt welcome, case that Biden wins the election? Will the threatened civil war be averted and unity restored? To seriously reckon with the critiques of the American project that have emerged from activists and scholars over many years—ranging from Fredrick Douglass to bell hooks and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz—necessitates recognizing that we cannot return to a time before “we” were divided, because such a time “has never been yet,” to play on Langston Hughes’ famous turn of phrase. Divisions of race, class, gender, and combinations of all three have, since the outset of this country, deprived its people of a common civic experience; state violence and its vigilantist auxiliaries have far more often been used to uphold these fissures than to overturn them. Unity is not certainly not a state to which Americans can return, nor is it, more broadly, a moral imperative that can be achieved without any sort of material basis. It is a future, however utopian, that still needs to be built.