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.”