How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror

By Reza Aslan | Random House | 256 pages, $26

How to Win a Cosmic War is a work whose apocalyptic title belies its sensitivity and seriousness. In his second book, Iranian-American scholar Reza Aslan draws on history, scripture, and sociological literature to explore the roots of religious militancy—Islamic, Jewish, and Christian. It is very much to the author’s credit that he covers such vast and varied territory in a quick 256 pages without ever seeming perfunctory.

In his earlier book, the bestselling No God but God (2005), Aslan dealt with the history of fissures within Islam itself. He argued that the Islamic world’s primary struggle was not a “clash of civilizations” with the West, but an internal battle for its own soul. Moreover, this crucial battle has not been fought along sectarian lines between the Sunni and Shia, but between “traditionalists” (often but not always militant) and “rationalists” (often but not always democratic), with the latter group composing the vast majority of the world’s Muslims. The Judeo-Christian West was merely a hapless meddler in the conflict.

Now Aslan broadens his scope, analyzing the Christian Crusades, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the terrorism campaigns of Al Qaeda and similar groups as examples of “cosmic wars.” He defines the term, first coined by sociologist Mark Juergensmeyer, as “a conflict in which God is believed to be directly engaged on one side over the other.” Aslan insists that this kind of war is “both a real, physical struggle in this world and an imagined, moral encounter in the world beyond. The conflict may be real and the carnage material, but the war itself is being waged on a spiritual plane.” Hence tactics, casualties, even earthly victory or defeat, are largely irrelevant to the combatants.

In the author’s view, Christians, Jews, and Muslims have all fought cosmic wars of comparable viciousness throughout history and up to the present. “Lord, give us patience, make us stand firm… God [will be] victorious”—the words are Osama bin Laden’s, but they could have been uttered by almost any wartime American president. And when George W. Bush initiated what came to be known here as the War on Terror, and what came to be known elsewhere as the War on Islam, he announced that America would “rid the world of evil.” Nor did the theological rhetoric end there. In a flourish both apocalyptic and childish, Bush refused to mention Osama bin Laden by name for months after the September 11 attacks, referring to him only as “the Evil One.” All of which is to say that both sides in this “cosmic war” believed themselves to be reporting to God as Commander in Chief.

So if that’s the nature of the war, how did we come to be in it? Aslan ably traces the evolving schools of Islamic thought, from Salafism, a progressive, socially activist strain that emerged in colonial Egypt and India, to Wahhabism, its puritan Saudi descendent. In the 1960s, Egyptian thinker Sayyid Qutb popularized the concept of takfir, a practice that allowed one Muslim to unilaterally excommunicate another and punish this apostasy with death. In effect, this takfiri ideology sanctioned the murder of anybody with a differing interpretation of religious texts—Qutb had Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, and other insufficiently pious Arab leaders, in mind. Aslan argues that Salafi social activism, Wahhabi puritanism, and takfiri bloodlust (aimed at repressive Arab regimes) fused to form the violent movement known as jihadism. Its adherents initially focused on overthrowing regimes in their home countries. But Aslan identifies the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, when jihadists from all over the Muslim world flocked to the battlefield to repel the invaders, as the point when the movement went global.

Crucially, the religious nationalist ideology known as Islamism branches off before this point. Aslan argues that Islamism is not the West’s enemy. Religious nationalism, he says, “at least in a democracy, may be unavoidable and… given space and time, may evolve into mature and responsible governance, as has been the case with Turkey’s AKP or, for that matter, many of Europe’s Christian Nationalist parties.” Yet Western thinking and Western coverage tend to aggregate political Islam with militant Islam.

“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.

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Kathy Gilsinan is the associate editor at World Politics Review