413: “How to Win a Cosmic War” and other terrifyingly true tales of our age

TODAY, 2 OF THE 10 FOUNDING PRINCIPLES shaping ReadTheSpirit are relevant:
    “If we are people of Truth, then we have nothing to fear from creatively, vigorously searching for Truth.” And, “We must look for Truth in every stage and condition of life … because our traditions call us to overturn false assumptions about the vulnerable.”
    Think about those ideas as you consider this provocative—and, we think, very truthful—new book by Reza Aslan.
    In our week-long focus on Skepticism, Science and Spirituality (see Monday’s list of 10 Voices and come back tomorrow for our Conversation With Bart Ehrman)—TODAY we’re singling out Aslan’s book for a special recommendation. It’s an unusual book. First, it has a scary title: “HOW TO WIN A COSMIC WAR: God, Globalization and the End of the War on Terror.” The front-cover imagery is creepy, too—all those fearsome knights and Arab warriors swinging their swords.
    I don’t think this will spoil Aslan’s book by pointing out, at the top, that Aslan’s chief advice for winning such a horrific war is:
    Don’t fight one.

    Here’s why this book should be widely read and discussed: At this moment of global change, when most of the world is heavily focused on our economic crisis, Aslan is reminding us that perhaps the most crucial thing about the regime change in America is that we’ve now got leaders who see the world’s diversity of cultures not as a problem to be solved—but as a helpful key in solving our problems.

    In a sense, this book is a 200-page letter to Americans, explaining why eight years of the two-dimensional Bush Doctrine pushed America, and much of the rest of the world, toward a “Cosmic War” between ultimate ideologies. And, Aslan argues, right now we need to be alert to the fact that we’ve got the potential to wake up from this dangerous “us vs. them” attitude toward the world’s diversity.
    I have long recommended Aslan’s earlier book, “No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam.” This new book is a sign that Aslan is not merely a one-time wonder, publishing a single volume analyzing his own faith and then turning to other matters in journalism and academia. On the contrary, we’re seeing a keen mind emerge in modern Islamic letters. We’ll be reading more books by this writer in the future.

    What does the new book say?
    In seven chapters, Aslan takes us through crucial topics, including the meaning and abuse of the term “jihad,” the pressures of globalization, the complex and conflicting desires for Israel-Palestine, the nature of fundamentalist zeal, the mistakes of the Bush administration, the deep cracks between zealous factions—and the hope that a fresh engagement with global cultures may hold for all of us.
    But here’s a good feel for his argument, in Aslan’s own words from early in the book. He’s talking about the timeless American promise of: “E pluribus unum. From the many, one.”

    I came to the United States in 1979, at the age of seven, and grew up here during the Iranian hostage crisis, the Iran-Iraq War, the Iran-Contra scandal, the bombing of the American barracks in Beirut, two Palestinian intifadas, the first Persian Gulf War. Not once was I made to feel that the promise was being questioned, much less revoked. … I constructed my identity as an Iranian, as a Muslim and as an American upon it. And then, one crisp, clear September morning, 19 men who shared neither my values nor my beliefs hijacked four airplanes and flew them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
    Let me be clear: I did not feel threatened or unsafe after the attacks of 9/11. … But as the days passed, I was made to realize that lines were being drawn, sides chosen. “Are you with us or with them?” people asked. “Which is it? Time to decide. There is no middle.”
    “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” President Bush had warned. “In this conflict there is no neutral ground.”
    Thus was launched to the so-called War on Terror, a war more rhetorical than real. There is, of course, a very bloody military component to the ideological struggle with militant forces in the Muslim world … To the extent that the War on Terror has, from the start, been posited as a war of ideology—a clash of civilizations—it is a rhetorical war indeed, one fought more constructively with words and ideas than with guns and bombs.
    The problem with the ideological War on Terror is that “terrorist” is a wastebasket term that often conveys as much about the person using it as it does about the person being described. …
    According to the master narrative of the War on Terror, there was a monolithic enemy with a common agenda and a shared ideology. Never mind that many of these groups consider one another a graver threat than they consider America to be, that they have vastly different and sometimes irreconcilable political yearnings and religious beliefs, and that, until the War on Terror, many had never thought of the United States as an enemy in any war. Give this imaginary monolith a made-up name—say, “Islamofascism”—and an easily recognizable enemy is created, one that exists not so much as a force to be defeated as an idea to be opposed, one whose chief attribute appears to be that
they are not us.
    By lumping the disparate forces, movements, armies, ideas and grievances in the greater Muslim world into a single category (“enemy”), assigning them a single identity (“terrorist”), and countering them with a single strategy (war), the United States manufactured … an undifferentiated enemy.
    And as Sun Tzu said so long ago, if you do not know who the enemy is, you cannot win the war.

    This is a book that will make you think about global diversity in new ways. Aslan wants us to appreciate the remarkably hopeful moment we have reached with regime change in the United States—and think clearly about how to reengage with the world, before we stumble into old patterns of conflict, once again.
    It’s a book that’s great for general readers and surely will fuel spirited discussion in small groups.


    To learn about the spiritual seasons of this week, marked by people around the world, click here to visit Stephanie Fenton’s latest column: “What Spiritual Season Is It?”
    Example: Today is both Yom Hashoah and the start of an important Baha’i festival.


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    (Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)

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