By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Reza Aslan
Narration by: Sunil Malhotra
Reza Aslan suggests there is no in-between in wars defined by religion. Aslan’s observation is that 21st century terrorism is grounded in, and defined by, religion. The consequence is a war that has spiritual but little human dimension. Aslan infers today’s war and terrorist actions are based on apocryphal religious texts. The texts are written by men who interpret the word of God; i.e. texts that speak of ephemeral mortality, and an eternal afterlife. The interpreters of God are saying–be part of this religion or be an infidel, an apostate; worth less than nothing. You are with us or against us. There is no in-between.
George Bush, after 9/11, says “You’re either with us, or against us.” and later suggests “this crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while.” Aslan notes that “crusade” resurrects religions’ motive in war. The motive is to split society in two; one side as believers and the other as infidels (non-believers). Even though Bush denies that meaning in later interviews, “crusade” suggests subliminally, if not consciously, invocation of the Christian crusades.
In the course of 200 years, an estimated two hundred million people are killed in the Christian Crusades. Osama bin Laden says “As long as I am alive, there will be no rest for the enemies of Islam. I will continue my mission against them.” One infers every person is an enemy of Islam that fails to endorse bin Laden’s unschooled interpretation of the Koran. “You’re either with us, or against us,” W’s invocation, also defines bin Laden’s bifurcation of humanity.
In “How to Win a Cosmic War”, Aslan explores terrorism in history, from its beginning in biblical texts to its practice in the 21st century. He argues that the essence of conflict is the same. It always revolves around us and them; no in-between. However, the tools of destruction (WMD) and the consequence of globalizing religious ideals suggest cosmic rather than regional consequence. Aslan infers the invocation of religion in modern war discounts the value of earthly existence. There is no room for education beyond religious teachings. There is only faith in one religious factions understanding of the word of God. Life on earth is qualified by life in the hereafter. “You’re either with us, or against us.”
An Islamist, Christian, or Jewish terrorist is buckled by religion; i.e. fastened and bent by a “them-us” dichotomy. A terrorist motivated by religion has less care about life on earth. He cares about life after death. Aslan infers, to a religious terrorist, one’s time on earth is an ephemeral struggle because their religion offers perfect and eternal life. Aslan tells the story of an Islamist vendor that appears to be offering ice cream to children in a push cart. The vendor opens the lid of the cart, flips a switch; self immolates, and murders or maims all children near the blast. Aslan paints a terrorist picture that says the message to unbelievers is the point; deaths earthly existence is irrelevant. The message is “believe and follow my religious faith” because there is no other; there is no in-between.
Aslan acknowledges terrorist history is not limited to religious fanatics. It has been used by secular leaders like Genghis Kahn who ruled the largest territory ever conquered by one leader. Unquestionably, terrorism is part of Kahn’s success but Aslan infers it is terrorism for a material rather than ethereal world.
Aslan recounts numerous Old Testament’ stories of genocidal murder of innocent men, women, and children because they were them; i.e. the “them” that did not believe in Judeo-Christian rituals that marked their religious belief. Islamist terrorism, Christian crusades, Genghis Kahn’s mogul hordes, Stalin’s Gulags, and Hitler’s murder of 6,000,000 Jews, are horrendous examples of terrorism but Aslan suggests the injection of religion creates a cosmic dimension to war. This added dimension revolves around hearts and minds, not material conquest; making the “War on Terror” more difficult to end.
Aslan ratchets up the difficulty of “Cosmic War” with 21st century globalization that crosses international borders creating terrorist cells around the world. The message medium for terrorist cells is cyberspace.
Aslan notes how terrorism can now focus on the near as well as the far. Aslan infers that military weaponry cannot win a “Cosmic War”. Automating death with drones does not kill ideas.
Aslan’s answer to how to end a cosmic war is a simplistic answer to a complex problem. Aslan suggests democracy is what will end the war on terror. The irony of this simple answer is that democracy offers a framework for abandonment of the “no in-between” myth. The goal of democracy revolves around belief in freedom; i.e. the freedom to choose representatives of different factional beliefs, and for those factions to live as they wish within a diverse polity.
Aslan’s book is published in 2009. A lot has happened since then. The raucous consequence of Arab Spring has returned Egypt to a military dictatorship. The participation of the Arab Brotherhood in Egypt has been forced underground. Syria is still controlled by a dictator. Palestine remains stateless. Israel continues to build walls and settlements in occupied territories. Iran remains an Islamic state. Iraq is under attack by nationalist factions. ISIL is trying to create a caliphate, a form of Islamic government, by replacing politically instituted Middle Eastern states into one nation.
As much as one may wish to agree with Aslan, the mixture of religion and government in the Nuclear Age seems like a formula for Armageddon. On the other hand, time settled many terrorist wars of the past. Every democracy does not mean American’ democracy, but democracy has always endorsed in-between beliefs within its polities. Aslan’s argument for “How to Win a Cosmic War” offers a little hope but with big risk.