“Shariah,” for example, is currently one of the scariest items in the Western lexicon. Yet the word simply means Islamic law—Islam’s historic guarantee of justice in the face of tyranny—and need not connote women in burqas and chopped-off hands. As is also the case with words like “fatwa” and even “jihad,” we’ve let the radicals appropriate our understanding. It can’t be pointed out often enough (and it isn’t) that for the vast majority of Muslims, a “jihad” is simply a struggle, generally internal, while a “fatwa” is a legal opinion. In fact, Bin Laden and other jihadist leaders don’t have the religious authority to issue fatwas. And even the practice of takfir, so fundamental to jihadism, has no basis in the Koran and has been denounced over and over by Islam’s leading religious authorities.
Islam itself is therefore hardly a “religion of violence,” as armchair cosmic-warrior Pat Robertson calls it. Rather, the very negation of its traditional precepts animates Al Qaeda and its ilk. Yet the tragic, self-fulfilling prophecy at the core of Aslan’s book is that, in declaring the War on Terror, the United States seemed to confirm the siege mentality of the jihadists. It is primarily by repeating that Islam is under attack—in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and under the Muslim world’s own tyrannical leaders—that jihadists recruit soldiers. Grievances such as the plight of the Palestinians and the fear of American empire serve the jihadist leadership as tools for forging a collective identity and sustaining a violent movement.
“There is only one way to win a cosmic war: refuse to fight in it,” concludes Aslan. Yet this is ultimately an unsatisfying prescription. The idea is that true democratic reforms would rob jihadists of a major justification for violence—oppression—and that, should jihadist movements prove popular at the polls as Hamas did in 2006, the actual job of governance is sure to have a moderating effect over the long term. Aslan marshals historical evidence, from Turkey’s AKP to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, to support this thesis. But a crucial question, especially in light of Hamas’ victory, is whether this is a tenable policy in the short term. How should the United States promote democracy in the Arab world without giving the jihadists yet another shot in the arm? I’d like to see more of Aslan’s reasoning on the topic. Democracy promotion may, in the long term, be how to win a cosmic war—but in the short term, it also got us into two rather worldly ones.