By Natalie Crnosija
The Pakistani army attacked Taliban forces after their April 26 movement into the Buner region forced the displacement of thousands of Pakistani citizens 60 miles from the nation’s capital Islamabad. This military action followed Pakistan’s February 2009 cession of the Swat Valley to the Taliban, following the Taliban’s fighting in the region. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari’s government permitted the Taliban’s establishment of Islamic law in the region as part of the truce. Pakistan’s inaction drew international criticism of Zardari’s government and military, which are charged with the protection of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
If media coverage of Zardari’s perceived ineptitude prompted imaginings of nuclear missiles standing solitary in a field with Osama bin Laden cackling maniacally on the periphery, that is a false interpretation, said Professor Reza Aslan, a religious scholar and CBS News analyst.
“There is no chance of that happening,” Aslan said. “The fundamental truth is that there is no person in charge of Pakistan, the military is in charge of Pakistan. It is the unifying principle, the one element that holds that country together.”
Aslan, whose family immigrated to the United States during his childhood to escape the Iranian Revolution, holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School and a Masters of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa. He currently teaches creative writing at the University of California, Riverside.
Appearances on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” “Real Time with Bill Maher” and “Anderson Cooper 360” have established Aslan as a news analyst and, unexpectedly, as a representative of Islam in western media. Due to his unique position on the media landscape, Aslan said he has found himself in the position of answering for other Muslims of disparate political and religious affiliations.
“On the one hand, obviously there is something very satisfying about it…to try to be a public intellectual and shape the way that issues, whether of politics or religion, are being discussed, particularly in the media,” Aslan said. “It is a responsibility that I do take seriously and I am enormously grateful for the opportunity too, for the chance to actually inject a sense of objectivity and rationalism in discussions about Islam and the Muslim world because these discussions are so often had almost exclusively on the margins of the debate.”
Though some Muslims might not agree with his interpretation of Islam in the modern context, Aslan said that he has received a lot of support for his efforts to facilitate dialogue, even if it exists largely on the periphery of global consciousness.
Aslan’s new book, “How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization and the End of the War on Terror” was inspired by the interactions and questions he fielded regarding the radicalization of Islam shortly after he published his first book, “No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam.”
“This is the book I needed to write,” Aslan said. “A book that explained the idea of religious violence and also helped people to understand or, at least helped create a new framework for understanding this conflict with radical forces in the Muslim world and why the War on Terror has been such an absolute failure in actually confronting these forces. I think that everyone had understood, in an intuitive way, that the war on terror had failed but, people really couldn’t put their finger on why that was the case.”
“How to Win A Cosmic War: God, Globalization and the End of the War on Terror” focuses on the unwinnable aspect of the War on Terror, which Aslan cites as being the radicalization and religious interpretation of the conflict by self-declared jihadists, or holy warriors, like Osama bin Laden and members of al-Qaeda.
The jihadists’ reformatory use of the Koran gives their struggle against religious authorities, the United States and other countries a cosmic importance, making their fight a cosmic war, Aslan said. Aslan examines this cosmic mindset, where the war on terror becomes an intangible, non-geographical, ideological war without the possibility of victory.
Americans too view themselves cosmically, Aslan explained, and naturally have become the jihadists’ counterparts on the cosmic battlefield. From the United States’ inception, the founders and American people have viewed America as the new Israel with Americans being the new chosen people. This national consciousness of divine singularity has self-defined America as a force for good in a cosmic sense.
“We have always seen ourselves as engaged in a cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil,” Aslan said. “Now, fighting this enemy that also believes that it has been divinely elected and that also believes that it is engaged in war between good and evil. We’ve essentially entered a period now in which we are feeding off of each other, in which our rhetoric is validating their rhetoric, and that their mindset is legitimizing our mindset.”
This matching of mindsets is fueled by rhetoric before firepower and gives leaders and their word choice tremendous power within this battleground without borders. “In many ways, Bush and bin Laden were the same person,” Aslan said. “The way that they spoke, the way that they thought, the way they that they categorized the universe into these very clear cut, black and white dichotomies.”
Former President Bush’s initial and continuing description of the War on Terror in religious terminology, not only intensified this cosmic war against the jihadists, but also lumped the entire Islamic world in with their more extreme counterparts.
“Thus far, we have chosen to describe the War on Terror in exclusively religious terms, in exclusively cosmic terms,” Aslan said. “That, I think, has not only validated the viewpoint of the jihadists but, more importantly, it has served to convince the majority of the Muslim world that War on Terror is in fact a war against Islam because that is how it has been framed, that is how it has been communicated.” Aslan assumed his analytical role shortly after his 2006 publication of “No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam,” which examined the history of Islam in the modern context.
Islam is undergoing a period of reformation akin to the Protestant Reformation during the 16th century, Aslan said. Like the Christian Reformation, conflicts within Islamic sects regarding the interpretation of text and interaction with the religious authorities have prompted outbursts of violence, like the September 11 attacks. This reformation has been facilitated by globalization and the Internet’s enabling of information exchange, Aslan said. This trend leads to the individualization of religion and religious authority. The rise of jihadism in the Muslim world and abroad is a product of this movement away from the prevailing Ulema–Islamic religious authorities–power structure over religious life, creating individualized authority.
“[Global communication] has allowed for surges in education and in literacy and this mass migration of peoples which has also had an enormous effect in creating different perspectives and different centers in the Islamic world,” Aslan said. “That passing of authority from institutions to individuals which is at the heart of what the reformation phenomenon represents. As I talk about in that previous book, we have to recognize that the surge of violence and jihadism that we see is in of itself a sign of the reformation.”
Reformation, as a word, is largely used within a Christian context and most specifically with regards to the sixteenth century attempted reform and modernization of the Catholic Church.
Aslan used this word to create an analogy but William Chittick, a professor of Islam in the Stony Brook University Religious Studies department, slightly disagreed with the designation but believed Islam is capable of modernization.
“Reformation has a strong Protestant connotation,” Chittick said. “But do I see that Islam as able to adjust as a religion, adjust with how it deals with things? Yes.”
Conversely, Omar Shareef, a Stony Brook University student and president of the Muslim Student Association, said that he saw a shift back to Islamic revivalism in the Long Island Muslim community in response to the radical jihadist stance.
“Muslims are actually shifting toward getting back to the Koran,” Shareef said. “The way to combat extremist views is to revisit the Koran and its teachings. People should not give up on that.”
Shareef said he did see very gradual changes within Islam, especially with regard to the treatment of women. During the end of the ’08-’09 academic year, the SBU Muslim Students Association elected their first female chaplain, or president, of their organization.
“The extremists marginalize women,” Shareef said. “Our religion, in the truest sense, does not limit anyone. American stereotypes of Islam, by their nature, believe that Islam restricts women. This is not true at all. We have proven that. We want to embolden women.”
Similarly, Aslan believes that women are a rising power within Islam. Women are, in fact, at the forefront of Islamic Reformation, Aslan said. This rise has been prompted by globalization and technology, resulting in a transfer of authority from institutions to individuals. This gives women, for the first time in fourteen centuries of Islamic practice, true access to the Koran to interpret it for themselves.
The 2007 publication of “The Sublime Quran” by Islamic scholar Laleh Baktiar, who is the first female to translate the Koran into English, illustrates this progressivism and moves away from Islamic institutions which are exclusively male. Baktiar’s translation brings a new perspective to Koranic interpretation, Aslan said.
“In that translation you saw the enormous amount of textual exegesis that is taking place in Koranic studies for the first time, and no question that women are at the head the head of that movement,” Aslan said. In spite of these more progressive developments in Islam, the other side of that reformatory coin is the cosmic war as jihadists continue to pursue their ultra-radical practice of Islam. This brand of Islam, which removes the Ulema from religious power, enables any individual to declare a fatwa, a religious decree, or a jihad, a fight against injustice—privileges which were given solely to the Ulema as per Islamic law. This individualization of religious authority was spearheaded by non-Ulema Osama bin Laden with his issuance of fatwas. According to Aslan, bin Laden is poster child of the Islamic reformation.
“Jihadism is a product of the Islamic reformation,” Aslan said. “Were there no reformation, there would be no jihadism.”
In this globalized religious war without a physical battlefield, Israel is the epicenter of the cosmic war, both as a focal point for Islam, Judaism and Christianity and as the understood setting for the end time war, Aslan said. With this apocalyptic understanding of Israel firmly set in the minds of followers of these religions, the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians is elevated to the cosmic level.
“The conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, which is a conflict over land and resources, has become a conflict over religious identity,” Aslan said. “The most destructive element in this conflict is not necessarily the Muslim and Jewish cosmic warrior but the evangelical Christian warriors who from their comfortable perches in suburban America have essentially endowed this political, territorial conflict with this enormous messianic significance and who are doing probably more damage than any other party to this conflict to keeping this war going.”
In this contest for the favor of God, Israel must remain under Jewish political control, Aslan said. The United States has a covenantal relationship with Israel, which dictates that Americans must support Israel, financially and politically.
SBU Professor Stephen Spector, chair of the English department and specialist in Evangelical Christianity and Israel, acknowledged the force of the American dispensationalist Evangelicals in the conflict in Israel, but said their numbers are not overwhelming. Dispensationalism, or the belief in the Biblical apocalypse, gives Israel monumental significance for Evangelical Christians, Spector said. This belief strongly colors the Evangelical Christians’ view of Islam, which is perceived as a threat to Israel and its cosmic role.
“Evangelicals go beyond criticizing the radicals,” Spector said. “They indict Islam itself.”
The popular support of Israel in the United States during the Gaza War, which lasted from late December 2008 until mid-January 2009, shifted slightly due to the overwhelming force Israel used against Hamas, the Palestinian resistance group, Aslan said. The conflict, which began with Hamas’ firing rockets at Israel, ended with Israel’s military moving into Gaza, leaving thousands of Palestinian citizens dead.
“There was something about that conflict in Gaza that, regardless of how you saw it, or who you thought was responsible for it, that was so one way,” Aslan said. “Coming on heels two years earlier of the war between Israel and Hezbollah, where the American media very easily fell into its usual pro-Israel stance, I was surprised to see newspapers, and columnist and media personalities, whether it was Jon Stewart or The New York Times, come out and openly criticize Israel.”
This criticism of Israel’s conduct during the Gaza War drew opposition from members of SBU Hillel Foundation for Jewish Life, including board member Sarah Marshall.
“If it were any country but Israel, would the streets of every major city in the world be filled with protesters?” Marshall asked. “Somehow I don’t think so.”
Similarly, Hillel President Geordan Kushner said that Israel had a right to defend itself and did not warrant the protest it received.
“America definitely has a position and that is to support Israel, “Kushner said. “Israel is a democratic state and America has an interest in protecting it to help spread democracy throughout the Middle East.”
Both Kushner and Marshall believe the war to be essentially political and a conflict over land ownership.
Whatever the perception of war, secular or religious, the ultimate effect is the same—ritualization, Aslan said.
“War is ritualized, whether it is considered a cosmic war or a secular war,” Aslan said. “There is a very distinct ritualization and sacrilization of war that becomes very important in giving it meaning. And that’s what religion does, it gives violence a sense of significance.”
Apart from religion’s ability to justify violence, it also exists as a story, which gives world events a greater context, Aslan said. As both a religious scholar and creative writer, Aslan said he uses his storytelling skills to more effectively communicate the messages of these cosmic narratives as they influence modern life.
“Religion is a story, it has to be treated as a story,” Aslan said. “When you talk about Jesus or Mohammed or Moses or the Buddha, you are engaging in sacred history. I use a lot of my storytelling skills to bring religion alive and to bring these issues which might seem dry or boring or something that a lot of people wouldn’t be normally interested in, to give them a sense of the story behind the current events of the day.”