How to Win a Cosmic War
God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror
Random House: 232 pp., $26
In the essay "Movements and Campaigns," a tribute to the literary critic Irving Howe, the late philosopher Richard Rorty wrote that Howe's take on literary and artistic modernism was true of any political movement: "namely, that it 'must always struggle but never quite triumph, and then, after a time, must struggle in order not to triumph.' If the passion of the infinite were to triumph," Rorty explains, "it would betray itself by revealing itself to have been merely a passion for something finite." A "campaign," in contrast to a movement, makes explicit its limited aspirations. It is "something finite, something that can be recognized to have succeeded or to have, so far, failed."
Reza Aslan's "How to Win a Cosmic War" recognizes the struggle between Global Jihadism and the war on terror as an insolubly infinite one. He proposes, instead, that we'd be better off if we replaced the rhetoric of the absolute obligation, which characterizes movements, with the campaign's rhetoric of the finite aim.
"It is time," Aslan writes in his introduction, "to strip this ideological conflict of its religious connotations, to reject the religiously polarizing rhetoric of our leaders and theirs, to focus on the material matters at stake, and to address the earthly issues that always lie behind the cosmic impulse."
Aslan goes on to devote much of his book to distinguishing the earthly grievances of Islamists from the cosmic grievances of Global Jihadists, and to detailing how the former are pressed into service of the latter. Islamists, like Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, are "religious nationalists"; they seek specific domestic redress, through Islamic political parties, of political and economic deprivation. Global Jihadists, like Al Qaeda, are "religious trans-nationalists." They plait together stories of specific injustice -- Israeli oppression of the Palestinians, the corruption of decades of secular Egyptian and Saudi leaders, the dispossession of Muslim minorities in Europe -- into a "master narrative" of universal Muslim humiliation. They are purists; they prefer the unspecific glory of the struggle to the disheveling imperatives of regency. For nationalists who despise some foreign patriotism, war is the health of the state. For religious trans-nationalists who despise all infidels, jihad is the bloom of the believers.
Aslan is not only a perspicuous, thoughtful interpreter of the Muslim world but also a subtle psychologist of the call to jihad. This book's achievement is less its big point (rather obvious and repetitively made) about the impossible nature of "cosmic war" than its smaller understanding of how, for example, a well-assimilated second-generation European Muslim might blow himself up on a bus; its finest chapter describes the sort of conversion process that allows a Leeds youth like Hasib Hussain to become one of England's 7/7 bombers. Aslan makes a convincing case for jihadism as a quasi-religious variant of militant romanticism: a young man like Hussain comes to look like a disenfranchised Werther with a rudimentary global consciousness. As Aslan writes:
"He was not coerced into committing his awful crime; he was not brainwashed. He was a zealot, acting alone and without guidance from anyone save God; he was a knight, called by God to renew his faith by shedding the blood of unbelievers; he was a martyr, sacrificing his own life for the lives of 'his people.' It may have been anger and humiliation and a deep-seated feeling of inequity that led Hussain to Global Jihadism. But it was love that made him a suicide bomber -- imprudent, misguided, confused, and misplaced love. Love fueled by a romantic notion of jihad as a cosmic war fought on God's behalf, by a juvenile belief that the world can be remade with just a few pounds of explosives."
The book is otherwise uneven, though Aslan's prose is consistently fine. Its insights about the role of cosmic war in American evangelical thought cover well-trodden ground; its sociology of nationalism in a global era seems reductive; and its laborious cataloging of every Old Testament chapter of divinely ordained bloodletting has no clear connection to contemporary cosmic wars, though he attempts to propose -- in a move inconsistent with his own, more plausible romantic psychology -- that it contains their historical germ.
When Aslan gets around to actual policy suggestions, they amount to precisely the sort of responsible, pragmatic, campaign- rather than movement-based ideas we'd expect from such a reasonable thinker. They are also, unfortunately for this book, now belated. Over the last two months, the Obama administration has, as Aslan here urges, publicly dropped the phrase "war on terror," reached out with messages of good faith to the government of Turkey and the people of Iran, and begun addressing the actual political needs of countries such as Syria to separate the real, finite grievances of the Arab world from the cosmic ones. Though Aslan is presumably pleased with these developments, one can tell he was afraid of them for his book, which betrays moments of hasty completion. The residents of the area around Berlin's Kottbusser Tor (I am among them), for instance, would be surprised to discover that their streets are "garbage-choked" and their kebab shacks "nondescript."
But this is probably less Aslan's fault than it is that of a publishing industry too keen on churning out ephemeral pop-policy about all the things the Bush administration did wrong. This book might be slight, but its virtues are clear enough to identify Aslan as a relevant and useful writer, now lucky to have been drawn off the margins.
Lewis-Kraus is a writer and critic living in Berlin.