Monday, May 24, 2010

How To Win A Cosmic War by Reza Aslan

Born in Iran, raised in Oklahoma, assistant professor of creative writing at U.C. Riverside, the author makes the point that there are no earthly winners or losers in a Cosmic War . “In all of Osama bin Laden's writings, speeches and declarations,” for example, "no attempt is ever made to to provide anything akin to a social program. There are no proposals, no policies, no plans, nothing except this hazy commitment, embedded in Al Qaida's constitution, to 'establish the truth, and get rid of evil.” Unformed and indeterminate as these objectives might be, the Jihadists know they are impossible to achieve in this life. They know that they are unable to seize control over the Arab and Muslim world , defeat the United States, erase national borders , establish a worldwide Caliphate or “wipe Israel off the map.” Their Cosmic War completely transcends this world, which is what their zealous devotion to martyrdom is all about; self-sanctification in the eyes of God. All the 'real' action takes place in heaven between the personal faith of the believer and God.

There isn't much Islam in the Global Jihad. Osama bin Laden, Ayam Zawahiri and their collaborators are very poor and ignorant scholars. At best they base their interpretation of the Qur'an on the works of the 14th century anti-Mongol legal theorist ibn Taymiyyah of the Hanbali school of Islamic Law and the practice of takfir which places all authority to distinguish between “light and darkness”, “good and evil”, in the hands of individual believers. Under this rubric they justify their hostility to all the established institutions of Islam and Schools of Jurisprudence in the world today, declaring them to be “unbelievers” . If you are not with the Global Jihadists, you are against them and deserving of death. They reject and are rejected by all the nationalist Islamist groups with specific social agendas like Hamas, Hizbollah , the Taliban and the Muslim Brotherhood. When not simply uneducated, low-class criminal gangs, as in Iraq, their minions- the perpetrators of 9/11., the 7/7 subway and the Madrid bombers- were completely alienated from the Mosques and Imams with whom they were only loosely associated in the first place; marginal groups with little backing from any intensely organized global network beyond a few proselytizing internet sites.

The power of the Global Jihadist movement is such that you have less of a chance of being injured or killed by them than being struck by lightening.

Leaving aside the author's socio-economic explanations for the rise of the Global Jihadist movement, which appear somewhat self-contradictory, his comparisons to the Zealots of Israel in the early days of the Roman Empire, or the Gush Emunim of today, his account of evangelical fundamentalism in America may help explain why many of our fellow citizens seem so eager to fight and win the Cosmic War on Terror.

Ultimately, the term “evangelical” is a self-designation, one that, according to the polls nearly half of all Americans apply to themselves. There are, however, a few common traits that unite this kaleidoscopic collection of Christians under a single collective identity. The first is an uncompromising adherence to a set of fundamental doctrines that include belief in the literalism and inerrancy of the Bible; emphasis on the unmediated relationship with Jesus Christ; a zealous devotion to the conversion of others; and a cosmic worldview in which, to quote George Marsden, “the universe is divided into two - -the moral and the immoral, the forces of light and darkness. Though such beliefs exist in one form or another in many Christian denominations, what distinguishes the evangelical movement is the conviction that these doctrines, when adopted rigidly and as a whole, result in a kind of spiritual rebirth, a salvation that belongs only to those who have been “born again.”

Beyond belief in these doctrines, however, what most distinguishes evangelicals as a single community of faith is their overwhelming sense of feeling under siege. This is a reactionary movement that has, from its inception, thrived on tension and conflict, not just in its interactions with the secular world but also, and perhaps more often, in its confrontations with other Christian sects and denominations. There exists in this movement a socially constructed atmosphere of crisis, conflict, and threat derived from the perception that, as those who have been “born again”, evangelicals have inherited God's covenant from Israel. They are the new chosen people, and like the Israelites of old, they must forever be tested by God and despised by the world.

In the United States, where there are more than one hundred million evangelicals and nearly one thousand mega-churches ( each with more than two thousand members), where in 2004 almost half of the Senate and a third of the House of Representatives were given an approval rating of 80 to 100 percent by evangelical watch groups, and where, until recently, the president and a great many members of his cabinet and staff were practicing evangelicals, a constant lament of evangelical leaders such as Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention is that the rights of evangelicals are being trampled upon because, for instance, they are not allowed to have prayers in public schools or post the Ten Commandments on government property. As the sociologist Christian Smith has noted, the evangelical movement's vibrancy, its ability to sustain a distinctive religious subculture, is owed precisely to this constructed sense of siege. Without it the movement would “lose its identity and purpose and grow languid and aimless.”

Just as vital to the vigor of the evangelical movement in America is its fervent religious nationalism- the conviction that the United States is a “Christian nation” appointed by God to establish Christian values throughout the world- the cross and the flag bleeding into a single national emblem. A few evangelical groups, such as Wallbuilders, Battle Cry, the Coalition on Revival, the Christian Coalition, Eagle Forum, and the Family Resource Council, even talk of replacing the Constitution with the bible and civil law with the law of God.

In the cosmic worldview of American evangelicalism, the United States has been elevated to sacred status. America's national success serves as confirmation of God's blessing; America's enemies are God's enemies. In the evangelical imagination, America's wars are not merely conflicts between armies and nations.; they are, rather, cosmic battles between the forces of good, represented by America, and the forces of evil, represented by America's enemies.

To demonstrate this last point the author quotes many different individuals: Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, John Hagee, George W. Bush, Gregory Boyd, Mike Evans, Charles Stanley, Lieutenant General William G. Boykin ( of Faith Force Multiplier), General Robert Caslen. He notes the mission of the Christian Embassy to convert high ranking diplomats and military officers to evangelical Christianity, especially at the Air force Academy in Colorado Springs where it is ably assisted by Ted Haggard's New Life Church, James Dobson's Focus on Family and Scott Blom's Campus Crusade for Christ. He notes the initiatives of such groups to use American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan to convert Muslims to evangelical Christianity, which violates the U.S. Military code of conduct.

Contemporary evangelicalism seems to have absorbed the idea that warfare can be a valid expression of Christian faith. According to the preeminent scholar of American evangelicalism, George Marsden, evangelicals are far more likely than other Americans to sanction and support war. This has certainly been the case when it comes to the War on Terror- an infinite (Cosmic) endeavor in which there can never be either victory or defeat, conquest or surrender, and is simply the means by which all peoples conduct war. At any rate, a survey of the twenty-four fastest growing evangelical churches in the Pacific Northwest in 2004 revealed overwhelming enthusiasm for America's campaign in Iraq: out of nearly three hundred clergy and lay leaders only fifteen failed to express unqualified support for the war. Two years later, when approval of the war was at an all-time low in almost every other sector in American society, another survey concluded that 60 percent of evangelicals in the U.S. continued to support the war in Iraq.

The United State's conduct in both Iraq and Afghanistan – the evangelizing soldiers, the humiliation of Muslim prisoners forced to eat pork and curse Muhammad, the Crusader rhetoric of the military officers and political leaders – has not only validated the Jihadist arguments that these wars are “a new Crusader campaign for the Islamic world” conducted by “the Devil's army”, it has provided Jihadists with the opportunity to successfully present themselves as the last line of defense against the forces that seek to “annihilate Islam”.

The author's formulation of this last point, however, is somewhat contradictory. The Global Jihadists actually don't gain much from their presentation of themselves as 'the last line of defense'. Strength goes to national resistance movements: the Sunni's in Iraq, the Revolutionary Guards in Iran, the Taliban in Afghanistan and their brothers in Pakistan, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Hizbollah which today celebrates the tenth anniversary of the withdrawal of the IDF from their home in Lebanon.

In his epilogue the author allows that, as a consequences of his speeches alone, President Obama's may have placed himself between the two imaginary worlds of the Muslim and Christian Jihadists and be a “bridge linking Islam and the West together as one civilization.” My personal feeling is that action speaks louder than words.

“How To Win a Cosmic War; God, Globalization and the End of The War on Terror” by Reza Aslan; Random House, N.Y., 2009.


  1. " I have seen the enemy and he is us"- Pogo

  2. I am reading this book now and I find it very interesting.