If you want to know where the United States went wrong in its approach to the War on Terror, look no further than the day George W. Bush told the world there was going to be a war on terror. You can forget our pre-emptive war against Iraq or our blasé bungling among the caves at Tora Bora or even the Abu Ghraib fiasco; our fate was sealed on Sept. 16, 2001, five days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, when the president announced, “This crusade, this war on terror is gonna take a while.”
Like a contestant on the old Groucho Marx game show “You Bet Your Life,” Bush had spoken the secret word—”crusade”—confirming the darkest suspicions of already-skeptical Muslims and couching all of the country’s future responses to 9/11 in the language of what author Reza Aslan calls “cosmic war.” Suddenly we weren’t just victims of an act of brutality committed by religious zealots from a far-off land. We were defiant actors in what Aslan describes as a “ritual drama in which participants act out on earth a battle they believe is actually taking place in the heavens.” Here we were partitioning the world “into black and white, good and evil, us and them,” just like the terrorists were. Suddenly we were zealots, too.
He may not have known it at the time, but Bush was condemning the U.S. and the world to a clash of civilizations; raising the stakes to heights of Manichaean, even biblical, significance; offending an enormous portion of the world’s population whose hearts and minds would be the spoils of battle; and giving Osama bin Laden and his loose-knit army of global jihadists exactly what they were hoping for.
In his excellent and fascinating new book, How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, & the End of the War On Terror, Aslan—an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of California-Riverside and research associate at the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy in Santa Monica—explains just how consequential Bush’s word choice was. For those of us in the Judeo-Christian West, the Crusades are like some misbegotten quirk of history, an isolated series of moments from a darker time and place when human beings were willing to engage in all kinds of bloody nonsense in the name of religion and territory. For all their relevance to our daily lives, the Crusades might as well be the Battle of Agincourt or the Punic Wars.
But in the Arab world, Aslan writes, “the image of cross-marked knights riding out to cleanse the Holy Land of heathen Muslim hordes became the most potent symbol of the imperialist aspirations of the West: a kind of shorthand for Christian aggression against Islam.” The Western colonialism that had served throughout the 19th and 20th centuries to partition the territories of the Middle East, crush and dismantle its traditions, and profit off its natural riches is an integral part of the Middle Eastern imagination. Many in the region view Europe and the United States to this day as imperialist thieves and conquerors, intent not just on profiting from their land but on destroying their religion. So calling up that word was like sounding an alarm. “For Jihadists,” Aslan writes, “the Crusades are not so much a historical event as they are an ideological construct—an enduring narrative whose final chapter is only now being written in the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Drawing such a straight line from the Crusades to the construction of the Suez Canal to the first Palestinian Intifada to the current war in Iraq may seem like a gross oversimplification, but as Aslan points out, it’s just these sorts of oversimplified “cosmic dualisms” that speak most clearly to aggrieved souls willing to strap bombs to their bodies and blow up buses. Not to mention those souls going out to fight such jihadists in the name of Christian Zionism and a hoped-for American theocracy. In fact, if there’s one thing that How to Win a Cosmic War shows, it’s that the language and imagery of religious zealotry is essentially the same across regional and theological lines. Cosmic dualism—we’re right; they’re wrong; God is with us; they’re with Satan—is the preferred philosophy of Islamic extremists, ultra-religious Israeli settlers, and the Christian soldiers of the American fundamentalist movement in equal measure.
When a member of Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group said of global jihad, “There is no neutrality in the war we are waging. With the exception of those who are with us, all others are apostates and deserve to die,” he could have been speaking for mega-church pastor John Hagee, former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, or George (“You’re either with us or with the terrorists”) Bush.
How can we win this cosmic war? In Aslan’s view, grievance is the key, both to understanding the mindset of jihadists and to finding ways to end our fight with them. As an Iranian-American born in Tehran, Aslan understands and empathizes with both sides of an intractable and destructive argument. He recognizes both the religious and secular motivations behind all the East-West anger. And by dissecting the language of cosmic warfare that has defined this issue for eight years, he is able to shed light on the actual social and political roots of the conflict, bringing some much-needed sanity to a discussion that for years has been bogged down in madness.
Shaking free from deluded and stereotypical Western beliefs that Islamic jihadism is born out of willful ignorance in the madrassas of theocratic Middle Eastern nations, he takes us instead to Western Europe, where recruiters for Islamic jihad prey on the fears, anger and sense of displacement of a generation of young first- and second-generation Muslims to populate their army of martyrs. Far from being an offspring of the Dark Ages, as we would like to believe, these Europeans Muslims are children of modernism, multiculturalism, capitalism and globalization, much more like their Christian, Jewish and nonreligious neighbors than the tribal fundamentalists in their ancestral homelands.
Recruiters take the personal grievances of these young men—the anger resulting from their experience with racism, poverty, religious intolerance, identity confusion or simple adolescent rage—and weave them into a tapestry of global and historical victimhood until their students begin to view their own stories as part of a larger narrative of East against West, of good versus evil. In Al Qaeda recruitment propaganda, there’s a direct connection between economic and social isolation in the suburbs of Paris and oppression in Palestine, the killing of children in Afghanistan, the torture of prisoners in Guantánamo, and the theft of oil by American corporations in Iraq. Grievance is the fuel that powers religious extremism.
When accumulated grievances and theological extremism replace humanism and a belief in the value of democracy and religious tolerance you get a world of “negative poles” where brutality against one group leads to brutality against another group by the group once brutalized, where willful misunderstanding and violent disdain become lingua franca and the tragic play of human aggression plays out unceasingly into the future—where groups rationalize their cruelty and the cruelty visited upon them through the lens of cosmic contention, sanctioned by and agreeable to God. To demonstrate his point, Aslan takes us through the whole sordid, irony-soaked history of Christian/Islamic/Jewish relations, from the Crusades to the Christian oppression of Jews in nation-state Europe to Zionist oppression of Palestinians in the Holy Land, from the rise of global jihad during the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan to the attacks of 9/11, from the streets of Cairo and Tehran to the cells of Abu Ghraib.
Grievance piled upon grievance. Negative poles creating new negative poles. An endless cycle of good vs. evil. Sanctified by religion and enacted in the name of God. Cosmic dualisms wreaking nothing but havoc.
To Aslan, the worst thing we could have done after the events of 9/11 is the exact thing we did: responding to a call for cosmic war by declaring a cosmic war of our own. Like marks falling for an elaborate con, we were goaded into a war we never should have been fighting. But off we went to fight anyway, with flags waving, country songs in our ears, and hatred for “the other” in our hearts, just like Al Qaeda hoped we would.
Aslan’s achievement in How to Win a Cosmic War is working his way through all that white noise—through the apocalyptic religious rhetoric, through the patriotic cant and clichés, through the racism both implied and explicit, through the self-serving theological justifications of the imams, pastors, nationalists and politicians—to get at the underlying economic, social, and political roots of our never-ending war. An academic with the voice of a novelist, he’s able to bring unprejudiced clarity to a seemingly impassable quandary and a sense of optimism to the bleakest of realities. In our cynical age, his educated faith in the possibilities of progress, humanism and democracy is nothing short of miraculous.
Josh Rosenblatt is a freelance arts writer and critic living in Austin.