Reza Aslan’s insightful new book, How to Win a Cosmic War, tracks the history of antiestablishment thinking in the Islamic world, and explains that al Qaeda is really a social movement for Muslim middle-class youth. But has the election of Barack Obama transformed our thinking about the war on terror?
With Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent declaration that the phrase “war on terrorism” is no longer operative, there is trouble ahead for those in the Islamic terrorism studies industry. Early obsolescence is too pessimistic, but at best the forecast is for a marked slowdown in the industry’s rate of growth. Same goes for the Bush-bashing business. With President Obama and his new team announcing changes in the Bush administration’s national-security policies almost as fast as they as they can roll them out, the sun is surely setting on those who made a career out of dissecting the ideological, intellectual, and management disasters that constituted American foreign policy in the new century.
This is the context for Reza Aslan’s insightful new book, How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror. As an historical analysis of the rise of al Qaeda, the ideological underpinnings of jihadism, the importance of integrating Muslims into Europe, and the fatal flaws in the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policy, Aslan’s work is well-argued. Aslan explains that al Qaeda should be thought of above all as a social movement for Muslim middle-class youth. He tracks the history of antiestablishment thinking in the Islamic world, the statistics confirming that most jihadists are educated and relatively well off, and tops it off by quoting Osama bin Laden’s recruiting strategy: “We find that the only age group capable of giving and waging jihad is the 15 to 25 age bracket.”
Globalization and especially the power of the Internet, Aslan explains, have enabled alienated Muslim youth in the Middle East and Europe to find a collective identity through religious symbols. Rather than go through the years of study necessary to join established religious institutions, jihadism is a kind of short cut. But having joined this movement, what makes some decide to join the ranks of mass murderers while others just cheer from the sidelines? Aslan doesn’t offer a convincing answer.
Aslan points out the absurdity of focusing on the supposed goal of all this mass murder, namely the return of the Islamic Caliphate lost with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Despite the endless descriptions of martyrdom, critiques of the Egypt and Saudi government, attacks on the Zionists and Israel, tirades against American and European foreign policy that fill the jihadist Web sites, Aslan asks a crucial question: Where are the explanations of how the Islamic Caliphate is going to be re-established, which countries it will encompass, or any other details in the millions of words written by the ideologists and propagandists of jihad?
This significant omission from the jihadist literature is one good reason, he thinks, that the war on terrorism is unwinnable. It is a “cosmic” war, because the jihadist commanders and the soldiers don’t expect to win here on earth. If they did, they would give some more thought to what victory might look like. Instead, it is a war waged on earth by bin Laden and the West, and in the heavens, by God and Satan. It is never-ending. Here on earth, the battle itself is all that matters.
Aslan raises some parallels from the history of Jewish and Christian extremists, including the Jewish Zealots during the Roman empire and the Crusades fought by Christians against Muslims in which the pope was actually present on the battlefield. But it is to modern-day Christian fundamentalists that he mostly directs his penetrating pen. First, there was President George W. Bush calling America’s response to the 9/11 attacks a “crusade,” which Aslan seems to doubt was an accident, despite the former president’s penchant for slips of the tongue and syntax. There is also Bush calling bin Laden “the evil one.” Most ominously, there was Lieutenant General Boykin, the official charged with finding and killing bin Laden, saying that Satan was the power behind bin Laden and that God placed George Bush in the Oval Office to lead the United States in war. Last but not least is the ever-quotable Pat Robertson declaring that “God favors the United States,” in the war on terrorism.
All of this is a buildup to a comparison of President Bush’s doctrine that “you are either with us or against us” to the jihadist’s justification for mass murder, “al-wala’ wal-bara.’” That difficult-to-translate religious doctrine, according to Aslan, suggests a “cosmic duality in which the whole of creation is partitioned into ‘believers’ and ‘unbelievers.’” The ideology allows the jihadists themselves to declare not only infidels (non-Muslims) as unbelievers but also Muslim collaborators. Although this doctrine has a complicated history going back to the 13th century, it seems to boil down to idea that the jihadists can kill anyone they want.
Obama is a “president who finally understands that the only way to win a cosmic war is to refuse to fight in one.”
The flexibility of some of these religious thinkers when it comes time for the revolution is often laughable. In examining other religions, Aslan finds a priest who defends liberation theology’s war against the ruling classes in Latin America by saying “Jesus Christ forbade the sword but not the machine gun.”
But as Aslan himself seems to admit, the election of Barack Obama has transformed almost everything. President Obama has talked in a new way to the world about American policy, about his life in a Muslim land, the Muslim members of his extended family, and on his recent trip to Turkey even used his middle name. President Bush’s division of the world into “us” and “them” is now long gone. And Obama is, as Aslan writes, a “president who finally understands that the only way to win a cosmic war is to refuse to fight in one.”
So, what is left to be done? Aslan agrees that al Qaeda cells should continue to be attacked. But when it comes to the larger question of the social movement among Europe’s Muslim communities and in the Middle East, Aslan’s book offers precious few new ideas. He has some modest but useful suggestions about helping to promote the integration of European Muslims so that they don’t fall prey to this killing cult.
There are also some interesting observations about the importance of not abandoning President Bush’s promotion of democracy in the Middle East despite its difficulties. On that, surely he is right. We all should remember that just because George Bush was for it doesn’t mean we have to now be against it. The hard question is how to promote democracy in the Middle East without empowering extremists like Hamas and Hezbollah. Aslan’s answer is to give Hamas a chance, that the risks of not letting democracy develop in the Middle East are greater than the risks from Hamas and Hezbollah participating. Somehow I think the new administration will require a stronger argument than the one contained in this book to justify such a dramatic reversal of American foreign policy.
James P. Rubin is an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International Affairs. He was assistant secretary of State under President Clinton.
Reza Aslan will be appearing at the New York Public Library on Friday, April 24, with Ari Folman, the director of Waltz with Bashir.