Al Qaeda Fostering a Cosmic War
New America Media, Interview, Sandip Roy Posted: May 24, 2009
Editor's Note: Terms like "war on terror" and "axis of evil" have become part of our daily vocabulary. But best-selling author Reza Aslan says such language buys into the ideology that lies at the heart of groups like al Qaeda, which want nothing more than to foment a religious war or, as Aslan calls it, a “cosmic war.” His new book is called "How to Win a Cosmic War – God, Globalization and the End of the War on Terror." He spoke to NAM editor Sandip Roy on NAM’s radio show New America Now.
How do you define the terms Islamism and jihadism, which, you say, were once cousins and are now rivals?
Islamism is a political philosophy. It’s a form of religious nationalism, the same kind of religious nationalism we sometimes see in groups in the United States like the Dominionists or Christianists; or, in Israel, among groups we refer to as Messianic Zionists. These are Jews whose obligation is not to the secular state of Israel but to the biblical state. It’s the same kind of religious nationalism that we see in India with the rise of the BJP. Islamism is merely the Muslim version. So when we refer to a group like Hamas or Hezbollah we are talking about Islamist groups. Their goals, their ideologies stop at the borders of what they consider to be their geographic locations. They want to create a state.
Jihadism is almost the exact opposite. Jihadism is a transnational movement. They want to get rid of all states, all nationalities. They want to erase every border and to reconstitute the world as a single global order. So they are utopian in that regard. They are anti-nationalist. So Islamo-fascism is meaningless. Fascism is a theory of ultra nationalism. It is, to put it bluntly, the worship of the state. Jihaidsm is anti-nationalist. They think the very concept of state is anathema to Islam.
There was a time not too long ago when jihadists and Islamists were kind of cousins. Jihadism arose out of Islamism, out of various frustrations of national ambitions. When your local concerns become suppressed, usually violently, you begin to think globally. That’s how jihadism arose, I would say, about two decades ago.
Could one transform into the other? For example could the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan be allying with al Qaeda as the NATO and Pakistani forces step up attacks?
Indeed. When it comes to the Taliban we do know that, according to David Kilcullen, who is the main adviser to Gen. Petraeus, that about 99 percent of Taliban are still nationalistically oriented. But about 1 percent has married itself to al Qaeda. It has made the evolution from nationalist concerns to globalist concerns. We are seeing this in the subcontinent as well. The terrorist attacks in Mumbai had been done by an organization that had for decades been a deeply nationalist movement, that had maintained nationalist ambitions within Kashmir. But over the years as that ambition has become less and less of a possibility, it has become globalized.
Here is the fear: If you are a nationalist group, you want something concrete. Even if what you want is unacceptable – we are not about to allow the Taliban to have Pakistan - you can still be talked to, there is room for negotiation. A globalist organization like al Qaeda doesn’t want anything real or measurable. They cannot be negotiated with. Unfortunately, under the previous administration, these Islamists and jihadists were lumped into a single category as if they required a single reaction.
Is the real failure a failure of secularism? It seems to have lost its appeal in many parts of the world.
Not just secularism but secular nationalism. In the 20th Century, we were told repeatedly that the nation-state should be the primary marker of our identity. That has started to break down. It broke down first and foremost in that part of the world where the nation-state arose very late and often through the will of outsiders. So in these places, where nationality was not that strong to begin with, people are beginning to revert back to more primal forms of identity among which, of course, is religion.
But part of it has to do with the failure of secularism to live up to the promise of peace and prosperity that it was supposed to give us in the 20th Century. Religion certainly was responsible for heinous acts of barbarism throughout history. But it is also true the last century has seen by far the most atrocious bestial acts in the name of unabashedly secular nationalism – Nazism, fascism, socialism, communism, Maoism, Stalinism, even Darwinism. These are the "isms" that were supposed to replace religion but have brought about far greater violence.
What is the appeal of a jihadist group like al Qaeda?
It’s like any other social movement, whether we are talking about the anti-globalist movement or the radical environmentalist movement or even the civil rights movement. The people who are interested in social transformation tend to be fairly well educated, fairly well informed, politically active, social-conscious young people. Jihadism is a youth movement. Bin Laden himself has said he is only interested in the 15 to 25 age group. It’s not unusual that those who take part in jihadist activities tend to be doctors, lawyers, engineers.
When a member of Hamas puts on a bomb and attacks an Israeli settlement he is doing it out of a sense of deprivation and hopelessness. When a jihadist puts on a bomb he is thinking about global utopian transformation. A guy living in a garbage heap in Gaza that used to be his house has no concern with global issues. He wants food. He wants housing. We have to stop thinking about all kinds of terrorism as coming from the same impulse.
But the grievances are the same – Palestine, Iraq, American troops in Holy Lands. These grievances for jihadists are nothing but abstract symbols to rally around. There are no jihadi fighters in Palestine because they are fighting a completely different war.
When you are faced with a movement you have two options. You could suppress the movement, which could radicalize it. Or you could make the movement irrelevant. You take away its rallying points by addressing the grievances. If there is peace in Palestine tomorrow, bin Laden wouldn’t go home. He is not interested in the idea of a Palestinian state. He is against all states. But addressing these grievances takes away the fuel for the movement.
Take the anti-globalization movement. In the '90s it was quite violent. Kids would throw Molotov cocktails at WTO meetings. Now it has become co-opted into mainstream society. Kids across America study about the evils of globalization. There are still protests but they don’t have as much draw. The average person can order fair trade coffee in Starbucks now. So we have de-radicalized the movement.
What would be the fair trade coffee equivalent for jihadism?
Obviously we have to deal with the most intractable, most virulent suffering, which is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is the sole source of pan-Islamism left in the world. But there are others. We treat the Middle East like a giant gas station, which explains why most of our allies are dictators as it’s very easy to control a single person. Despite how far our star has fallen, we are still the most powerful, the most wealthy nation in the world. We are still in a position to effect positive change should we choose to do so.
Are we? The Obama Administration is moving away from the war-on-terror rhetoric. But it is also ramping up forces and attacks in Afghanistan.
It has started out on the right rhetoric by finally realizing that the phrase war on terror has become synonymous with the war on Islam. They have also done a good job in disassembling the undifferentiated enemy, recognizing that these aren’t all the same. Some can be talked to and some can’t.
But you are right as far as addressing these fundamental differences that give fuel and sustenance to the global jihadist movement. They haven’t done much yet. We have to cut them a little slack. It’s only been four months, but it’s a very small window of opportunity. The Muslim world has enormous goodwill towards Obama right now. He seems to say the right things, but it's time for his actions to catch up with his words. As a professor, I put it this way: I like Obama’s thesis statement; I am going to wait for the paper.
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