How to win a cosmic war

Reza Aslan ’95 says the battlefield for jihadists isn’t Baghdad. It’s not even in this world. But if you fight the enemy on their terms, they win.

There is a reformation taking place in Islam, says Reza Aslan ’95. But the battlefield for jihadists isn’t Baghdad. It’s not even in this world. The problem is, if you fight this enemy on their terms, they win.

Aslan Composed
Aslan speaks at SCU

One Wednesday in January, as I was enjoying a pleasant lunch with Reza Aslan in the Adobe Lodge, the conversation turned to world war. Not in the historic sense, but rather future tense. And not in some abstract realm, but in terms of cause and effect: from the disintegration of the security situation in Iraq, which would draw in bordering nations and, in turn, a few superpowers with a vested interest in the region. That’s the first scenario.

It’s not that Aslan is a doomsayer by nature. (He dismisses Iran’s claim, made in September, to have 3,000 centrifuges running to enrich uranium, as a gross exaggeration at best.) Nor does he subscribe to the notion of a clash of civilizations. But his first book, No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam has led some to compare his work to that of Thomas Friedman, Bernard Lewis, and Samuel P. “Clash of Civilizations” Huntington. When Religious Studies chair Paul Crowley, S.J., mentioned the comparison in introducing Aslan for the launch of the President’s Speaker Series earlier this year, Aslan had to confess he wasn’t sure what to make of it. “I do know, though, that I could take all three in a fight,” Aslan said. “Probably at the same time.”

That sharp sense of humor—along with swiftly moving hands and an urgency in the voice—are often on display. When he speaks, it’s as if his fingers are literally trying to grasp skewed assumptions and set them right. To those who look at the turmoil in the Muslim world today and assign blame to the imams, the mosques, and the madrassas, Aslan says, “That’s a complete reversal of what is actually taking place.” As for the notion of Islam vs. the West: “This isn’t so much a war between us and them,” he says, “as it is a war between them and them.” Albeit one that the West has been dragged into with little hope of a clean exodus.

Reza Aslan was born in Tehran in 1972. His family fled the country in 1979, after the revolution. Raised in San Jose, he came to Santa Clara in 1991 and earned a degree in religious studies; he thanks one of his teachers, SCU Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies Catherine Bell, in the acknowledgments for No god but God. To his arsenal of degrees he’s added a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard and an M.F.A. from the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa; he is currently completing his Ph.D. in the sociology of religions at UC Santa Barbara, is a senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s Center for Public Diplomacy and an assistant professor at UC Riverside.

With a head of wavy black hair and just a touch gray at the temples, he also cuts a hipper and more youthful figure than most plying the trade of Middle East analyst. He’s gathered a coterie of self-described “intellectual groupies” that congregate on his MySpace page. (And yes, given that Friedman is in his 50s, Huntington in his 80s, and Lewis the far side of 90, Aslan just might be able to take on all three at once in a fight.) These days you’ll find him in high demand as a commentator and speaker, both in the U.S. and internationally—an interest, it’s safe to say, fueled as much by his articulate, startling assessments of current events as by the widespread desire to understand the religious, cultural, and political conflicts of the Middle East and Islam. Because across the political spectrum, most would agree that ignorance is no longer an option.

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The Thirty Years’ War with nukes

There is a reformation taking place in Islam, says Aslan. He uses the term reformation to evoke not just Christian Europe’s theological quarrels but also the terrifying, bloody wars that accompanied them in the 17th century. Only, in the 21st century, the weaponry available goes far beyond the muzzle-loading rifle. We know there may be atomic weapons in the picture. But, I asked Aslan in September, if we’re talking theology, just what is it that is being fought over?

Reformation has to do with individualization, “the notion that individuals rather than institutions should be charged with interpreting their faith,” Aslan says. In Islam, it’s a change that’s been taking place for a century or so, and now we’re seeing the results. What would those be? “A grand debate between these various highly individualized, innovative interpretations of Islam: some promoting peace and tolerance and democracy and reconciliation with Western values, some promoting intolerance and bigotry and war and terror. And because in Islam there is no centralized authority that gets to say who is right and who is wrong, what is proper Islamic theology and what isn’t—in other words, there’s no Muslim pope—then what you’re left with is a shouting match.”

But it’s an asymmetric matchup. “The clerical institutions in the Muslim world have yet to come to the realization of their growing irrelevance,” Aslan says. “They’re still busy debating how many angels sit on the head of a pin, while the rest of the Muslim world is embroiled in an existential conflict over the future of the faith itself.”

The conflict may be fundamentally about Islam. But for those of us in the West, one of the lessons of September 11 is that, as Aslan acknowledges, “In a period of intense globalization, conflicts that may be local or regional aren’t going to stay that way. And in that regard, it’s not so much that the West is a bystander; the West is very complicit in the socio-political and economic factors that have led to these conflicts in the first place.”

In what at first sounds like the beginning of an argument for keeping a large American footprint in Iraq, Aslan assesses, “The West cannot extricate itself from this.…Nor should we try.” Instead, he says, “We have to do a better job of being the promoter of moderate ideas. Right now, we’re, I would say, the exact opposite. We are, in our actions, in our rhetoric— and certainly in the war in Iraq and the larger war on terror—the greatest recruiting tool for extremism. By the end of 2001, most scholars of the region were talking about jihadism as a dying movement on its last legs. Our actions and our rhetoric have transformed it into a movement that is, according to our own National Security Estimate, stronger than ever.”

In other words, while there are no good choices for the U.S. in Iraq, Aslan argues that withdrawal is a prerequisite. “The best case scenario in Iraq,” Aslan says, “is a gradual withdrawal that leaves as few Iraqis dead as possible. And that in itself is impossible without the robust participation of not just the international community but, more importantly, the help of Iraq’s neighbors.”

Marking the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, 9/11 Commission leaders Lee Hamilton and Thomas Kean published an op-ed citing polls that show support for democratic values all throughout the Muslim world—while, at the same time, anti-Americanism has never been higher. “These principles that we are supposedly fighting for are principles that the region already accepts,” Aslan concurs. At the same time, democracy and America have become synonymous—but not in a positive way. “Democracy is seen very much as a hypocritical element whose purpose is to promote American interests in the region,” Aslan says. “Any objective observer could understand why that is. We pushed for free elections in Lebanon, we pushed for free elections in Palestine, we pushed for free elections in Egypt. In all three of those cases the elections don’t turn out exactly how we want, so we shut down the process.”

Something wholly new

Over the past 14 centuries, Islam has developed a complex panoply of theology, philosophy, and law. But in the 1980s, Islamic scholar and mujahideen star recruiter Abdullah Azzam instructed his acolytes in a version of Islam that had been burned down to one concept alone: jihad and only jihad. It was a useful premise when the goal was fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, and Azzam visited dozens of cities in the U.S. and Europe soliciting support for the freedom fighters battling the Red Army.

One of Azzam’s pupils was Osama bin Laden. So it’s no surprise that from bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, al-Qaida’s second-in-command, “you hear the same kinds of things,” Aslan says, “that jihad is the beginning and the end of our theology. It’s a form of worship, they say.” Wrapped in references to the ancient Muslim caliphate, jihadism aspires to a kind of mythical ancient ideal. In fact, Aslan insists, it’s something wholly new.

“We talk about jihadists as traditionalists or anti-modernists in some way,” he says. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Jihadism is about as modernist as a Muslim movement gets. It’s just that what they’re desperately trying to do is divorce the idea of modernism from the idea of Westernism. We, in the West, have a tendency to think, ‘Well, if you reject westernization, then you reject modernization,’ because we think of them as the same. No, that’s not it at all. Even bin Laden, who lives in a cave, would think of himself as quintessentially modernist.”

By modernist, Aslan means grounded in events of the past 50 years or so. The end of colonialism and the rise of Arab nationalism led to the so-called Sawa in the 1970s—a religious and political awakening in the Arab and Muslim world that gave birth to a number of now-familiar militant movements: the revolution in Iran in 1979; and in the 1980s, the war in Afghanistan against the Soviets and the rise of the Taliban and al-Qaida; Hezbollah; and Hamas.

What does jihadism want?

It’s a litany which may have changed over time, but the goals of jihadists seem to include the annihilation of the U.S. military—or at least driving it out of all Muslim countries; the destruction of Israel; and the establishment of a Muslim caliphate. Regarding item No. 3 on the agenda, Aslan says, “I’ve read almost everything that both bin Laden and Zawahiri have written,” Aslan says, “and rarely do they actually bring this up. In fact, I would say that the President of the United States talks more about the caliphate than bin Laden ever does.” The reality is that there is no actionable policy that could yield the desired results. “It’s more like an aspiration of jihadism. But it’s not a possibility.”

Which leads back to the question: So what do the jihadists want? “The answer,” Aslan says, “which I think would come as a shock to a lot of Americans, is: nothing.” Nothing? “Their raison d’être is a clash of civilizations, cosmic war mentality that divides the universe between the forces of good—themselves and their followers—and the forces of evil…. They’re fighting a war in the heavenly plane. So for them, what happens here on this world is totally irrelevant.”

The problem is, Aslan says, “We’ve fallen into the same trap. We’ve essentially adopted their terminology, their cosmology of what’s going on, and we’re now fighting the same war that they’re fighting: a cosmic war, not a real war.”

The title of Aslan’s next book, due out next autumn, is How to Win a Cosmic War. The subtitle: Why We’re Losing the War on Terror.

Jihadism is an ideology that can be defeated, Aslan contends—but not with guns. At least, not ones fired by Americans. In September, during General David Petraeus’s testimony before Congress, one of the success stories shared from the U.S. military’s surge was the fact that, in Anbar province, Iraqis were going after the insurgents. “There is a reason why the Sunni tribesmen in Anbar are killing al-Qaida in Iraq,” Aslan says. “Not because they want to be on our side; they couldn’t care less about us. But because what al-Qaida represents, what the jihadists represent, goes against everything which almost every sector of society in almost every country in the Middle East stands for.”

As for the argument that the departure of U.S. troops from Iraq would allow the jihadists to take over, “That is the most absurd and most insidious kind of joke,” Aslan says. “Even our political leaders know that that’s impossible.” To the extent that al-Qaida in Iraq is tolerated by Iraqis, Aslan says it is that they serve one purpose: “They kill Americans.” So if U.S. troops leave? “Yes, the consequences could be disastrous for a whole host of reasons. But the first thing that would happen is that the Iraqis themselves would wipe al-Qaida in Iraq out of existence.”

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Rethinking us and them: As part of the President's Speaker Series, Aslan fields questions moderated by Paul Crowley, chair of religious studies. Photo: Charles Barry

Slow it down

Aslan hopes that the presidential primary season will close the window of possibility for the U.S. to bomb Iran. Which, to return to the topic of our lunchtime conversation back in January, could well escalate into a wider conflict.

What about Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon? On a hopeful note, Aslan cites the fact that International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed ElBaradei has assessed that Iran is deliberately slowing its uranium enrichment process. In other words, it’s taking its foot off the accelerator propelling the country toward a showdown with the United States. Yet at the same time, Aslan cautions, “Iran is amassing its troops. It is conducting war exercises. It is buying up as much military hardware as possible. It’s rearranging its military hierarchy and even rearranging the hierarchy of the revolutionary guards. And it is preparing for what it sees as the inevitable war with America.”

Early this fall, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was elected head of Iran’s powerful Assembly of Experts. Mahmoud Ahmadinejead defeated Rafsanjani in the presidential election in 2005. But Rafsanjani’s new post could mean that the pendulum is swinging toward pragmatic reform in Iranian politics.

It would be nice to think so, Aslan agrees. And while Iran may be stronger militarily than it’s been since the Shah was toppled, “As far as the internal dynamics go, Iran is also the most fractured it’s ever been.” Iranians are grappling with big questions about the future of their country. The problem is, Aslan says, “when you’re in a state of national security, which Iran is—and, as we Americans can attest—ideas of like political development or dealing with dissent and opposition get thrown out the window.”

In the case of Iran, recent history serves as a vivid reminder. “The Islamic Republic of Iran was not born in 1979,” Aslan says. “The Islamic Republic was born in 1980…as a result of the invasion of Iran by Iraq.” Which completely halted the political development that was beginning to take place. And with the country on a war footing once again, he says, “The hard-line, revolutionary, ultra-nationalistic elements of Iran are going to take over—as those elements always take over in any country during wartime.”

Does that make the elevation of Rafsanjani to the Assembly of Experts inconsequential? Perhaps. But Rafsanjani isn’t gearing up for another run at Iran’s presidency. “Rafsanjani is preparing himself for the goal that he’s been pursuing for the last decade,” Aslan says, “to become the next supreme leader of Iran. Now, one can’t really run for that office…. But it’s very clear that Rafsanjani is positioning himself for that.

“If that happens, that would be good for both Iran and America. That would make a huge difference to the evolution of Iran. But that would not happen in a million years if there’s a war going on.”

What kind of war?

Some argue that a proxy war with Iran is already underway in Iraq. Though Aslan contends the conflict is nothing like the hell that Iran could unleash if it so chose. As for how that would involve U.S. forces, “We’re not really talking about war in Iran,” Aslan says. “That’s not possible for us…. Certainly, we would engage in aerial bombardment of select targets. But the war with Iran will be fought inside of Iraq, and that is where the real potential is for the possibility of not just a wider regional war but a war that would bring in the major superpowers.”

Aslan cites the enormous trade relations Iran maintains with Russia and China. With these at stake, and with concerns that if the U.S. isn’t stopped now, it will only be more difficult to push back later, then for China and Russia this might be seen as the right moment to clip America’s wings.

What about within the Muslim world? The sectarian violence in Iraq—Sunni vs. Shia—shows just how vicious that religious divide can be. Given that, I ask him, aren’t there Muslims who would just as soon see Iran attacked?

Aslan doesn’t quite accept the premise of the question. Because of Iraq, he says, we in the West have a distorted perspective of the Shia-Sunni divide, which he says tends to deepen and lessen over time. Even so, he says, “Al-Qaida and the Wahhabists, particularly in Saudi Arabia, will clap their hands and cheer as soon as Iran is bombed.” Why? “They’re worse than non-Muslims, they’re heretics. But that group makes up a very small percentage. The rest of the Sunni world—for the people on the street in Egypt and Jordan and Morocco—they are going to see this as just yet another bombing of another Muslim country, forget about Shia or Sunni.” For proof, one need look no further than Hezbollah, which, despite its Shia identity, became the standard bearer for the Muslim world by fighting Israel in Lebanon.

The only weapon we have

On a crisp January night, after speaking to a standing-room only crowd at the Louis B. Mayer Theatre, at the end of an audience Q&A, Reza Aslan was posed one final question. The card read: “I am a young Lebanese-American Muslim woman. How can I make a difference and send a message of peace to my peers in high school?”

Aslan has said that promoting peace and tolerance are the only real ways to defeat jihadism. That night he used the opportunity to upend the perception of Americans as ignorant and isolated from events abroad. “I’ve been through large parts of the world,” he said. “There is not another country on this planet that has the diversity, the pluralism, the religious freedoms, including freedoms given to Muslims, to practice their religion, their beliefs, in any way they see fit—certainly no Muslim country allows that kind of freedom for Muslims.”

So what comes with those unparalleled possibilities? “In this case,” he told the anonymous young woman in the crowd, “the responsibility that you have is to make sure that there isn’t this massive divide between us and them—that the other is not this faceless demonic enemy that we have turned it into but is very much a part of us, part of how we understand the world.”

When we find ourselves enjoined in a clash of monotheisms, Aslan said, “stuck in this ideological battle that we are fighting for the very future of civilization, as the president has said, the only weapon that we have at our disposal is knowledge.”

Saum Authorphoto

Steven Boyd Saum is managing editor for Santa Clara Magazine.

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