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Book Review: 'How to Win a Cosmic War' by Reza Aslan

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By Tobias Grey
Sunday, June 28, 2009

HOW TO WIN A COSMIC WAR

God, Globalization And the End of The War on Terror

This Story

By Reza Aslan

Random House. 228 pp. $26

Raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, but born in Tehran, Reza Aslan, the Muslim author of this book, grew accustomed to feeling like the odd man out, especially after the events of Sept. 11, 2001. "Are you with us or with them?" people asked. "Which is it? Time to decide. There is no middle."

But for Aslan, whose coolly detached writing style suits his subject well, there clearly was a middle way, one that did not involve him picking sides in a war that could never be won in the first place. In his view, the jihadists who attacked the United States were fighting "a cosmic war," one that provided "an invitation that a great many Americans were more than willing to accept."

Aslan argues that a cosmic war is distinct from a holy war, which pits rival religious groups against each other in an earthly battle: "A cosmic war is like a ritual drama in which participants act out on earth a battle they believe is actually taking place in the heavens." For Aslan, the moment President George W. Bush went on television and either intentionally or through clumsiness framed "the war on terrorism" in terms of "this crusade," he fell into a well-laid trap. "He responded with precisely the cosmic dualism that those who carried out the attacks had intended to provoke," Aslan writes, before reminding us that the idea of the United States as a cosmic force dates back to the Founding Fathers, who "drew up a seal that depicted Moses on the shores of the Sea of Reeds, his staff raised, the waters surging over Pharaoh's army."

But Aslan's new book -- his second, after the bestselling "No God but God," about the origins and evolution of Islam -- provides more than just historical precedent; it also offers a very persuasive argument for the best way to counter jihadism and its many splinter groups, such as al-Qaeda. "Islamism," Aslan says, "can act as a foil to Jihadism. Unlike Jihadists, whose aims and aspirations rest on a cosmic plane, Islamists have material goals and legitimate ambitions that can be addressed by the state." He defines Islamism as a "nationalist ideology" based on religion, distinct from jihadism, which wants to "erase all borders" and aspires to "an idealized past of religious communalism."

He cites Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, where democratic elections between hard-core parties and the moderate Awami National Party resulted in a rout by the ANP and adds that "throughout the Middle East, whenever moderate Islamist parties have been allowed to participate in the political process, popular support for more extremist groups has diminished." This was certainly true in Iran earlier this month, when the independent presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi won a substantial number of votes by stressing his reformist credentials, not his Shi'ite beliefs.

Aslan credits Bush for promising to promote democratic elections in the Middle East, then lambastes him for not following through on that promise: "By refusing to engage the democratically elected leaders in Lebanon and Palestine, and by looking the other way as its allies in Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and Saudi Arabia reverted to their despotic behavior, the United States was telling the world that the promise of peaceful political reform through democratic participation was a lie."

Aslan's regret is all the more profound because he believes that his adoptive country's domestic commitment "to the freedom of religion and religious expression" is second to none and has enabled it to resist the pull of jihadism on its citizens far better than its European counterparts. "I have watched Muslims chant 'Death to America!' on the streets of Tehran, then privately beg me to help them get a visa to the United States." Indeed, Aslan is no armchair philosopher, and the abiding pleasure of this book is how he deftly describes his peregrinations. From the chaotic splendor of Jerusalem to the downright penury of Gaza, to the mean streets of Beeston in northwest England, where the so-called 7/7 London bombers grew up, to the crowded cafes of Cairo, he appears equally at home.

This he proudly acknowledges: "My citizenship is American, my nationality, Iranian; my ethnicity, Persian; my culture, Middle Eastern; my religion, Muslim." And after eight years of "us versus them," President Barack Obama's victory speech provided Aslan with a perfect epilogue: " 'If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.' "

Tobias Grey is a freelance journalist and literary critic living in Paris.


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