The Book Club

Optimism in the Face of a “Cosmic War”


I’m glad you brought up the devastating effects that the Manichaean rhetoric pouring from the mouths of our political, military, and religious leaders have had on the execution of the so-called war on terror. (My favorite example of this is Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo’s suggestion that the United States should respond to the next terrorist attack on its soil by bombing Mecca and Medina. What a great idea!) I suppose you can’t blame our leaders for appealing to Americans’ innate sense of moral righteousness. But by equating the struggle against jihadism (by which I am referring to the anti-nationalist ideology of violent Islamic puritanism of which al-Qaida is the best, though by no means only, example) with “a crusade” against “evil-doers,” and by referring to the global fight against international terrorism as a battle between “good and evil,” we have adopted the rhetoric of jihadism and thus allowed our enemies to frame both the scope and meaning of the war against terrorism.

The jihadists are fighting a war that they know cannot be won in any real or measurable terms. That’s why they have reframed their earthly struggle for religious and political control of the Muslim world as a “cosmic war,” a term developed by my friend and mentor Mark Juergensmeyer. They want Muslims to believe that the world is locked in a heavenly contest between the forces of good (themselves) and evil (us). The enemy for them is not America; it is Satan. And the battle is a contest not between armies but between angelic and demonic forces. The advantages of a cosmic war are self-evident. It turns murderers into holy soldiers. It provides some hope of victory over one’s foes (though victory in the heavenly realm, not on earth). It turns the battle into an absolute struggle not over land or property but over identity, meaning there can be no room for compromise, settlement, or negotiation. It also assures that the hostilities will never end, at least not until “evil” is once and for all vanquished from the universe, which by my estimation will happen … never.

Of course, rather than debunk this twisted ideology and strip the war on terror of its religious connotations, we have legitimated it through our own religiously charged rhetoric (I can’t be the only person in America who is dumbfounded by how much President Bush and Osama Bin Laden sometimes sound alike). “This is indeed a cosmic war between the forces of good and evil,” we seem to be saying. “Only we’re good, and you’re evil!” That is an argument we can never hope to win, no matter how many Gen. Boykins believe it to be true. You said it best in your excellent analysis of why we are losing the war on terror, The Next Attack. American foreign policy since 9/11, and especially the war in Iraq, has unquestionably cleared the way for the next attack on the United States. But in a war of ideology like this, words can be just as important as any action. And thus far, our words have only served to strengthen our enemies by appearing to validate their vision of the world.

Which brings me back to the question of why American Muslims haven’t gotten more involved in the “war on terror” (a question I get asked two or three times a week). During the past few years, I have met with numerous Muslim organizations in the United States–from the American Society for Muslim Advancement, to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Arab American Institute, and the Muslim Public Affairs Council. I’ve also spoken to countless Muslim leaders, activists, and imams, including many of the people profiled in Barrett’s marvelous book. I can tell you with total confidence that the majority of these American Muslims are desperate for the U.S. government to reach out to them for aid. In fact, they would like nothing more than to help combat the spread of jihadism throughout the world.

Muslim Americans know that they are even more threatened by the rise of jihadism than any of their non-Muslim compatriots. Jihadism is, after all, a puritanical ideology. Its primary purpose, as you note, is to strip Islam of its perceived “innovations,” so as to return the religion to some kind of purified, unadulterated, and totally imaginary past. Let’s not forget that the jihadists consider themselves the only true Muslims; all other Muslims are apostates who must be converted to their militant brand of puritanism or killed. That’s why, despite common perception in Europe and the United States, jihadism’s primary target is not the West, or Christians, or Jews (“the far enemy,” in jihadist terminology), but rather those Muslims who do not accept its worldview (“the near enemy”) and who, by the way, make up the overwhelming majority of its victims. In this sense, you are absolutely correct to think of jihadism as a product of a “reformation” taking place within Islam—a reformation in which Bin Laden, with his radically individualistic and militantly anti-institutional faith, comes across very much like the “radical reformers” of the Christian Reformation. (I like to think of Bin Laden not so much as a Martin Luther or Savonarola figure, but rather as Islam’s Thomas Muentzer.)

What I mean to say is that for American Muslims, as with most other Americans, defeating jihadism is a matter of existential self-preservation. It’s for this reason that they are so eager to play an active role in counteracting the influence of bigotry and extremism in their faith. Yet, thus far, there has been little attempt by this administration to seriously harness the creative energies of the American Muslim community. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should say I have spoken about this issue to members of Congress, the FBI, the State Department, and Homeland Security, and they have all assured me that the government would very much like to cooperate with American Muslims but is just not sure how to go about doing so.)

The fact is that at no other time in American history has there been a more urgent need to develop a robust program of public diplomacy aimed at the Muslim world. (A poll of 18 countries released just this week by the BBC showed that the percentage of those polled who believe the United States has a positive influence in world affairs currently stands at 29 percent.) But diplomacy will never work if it is run by partisan gunslingers like Karen Hughes or by Madison Ave. executives like Charlotte Beers, not least because their primary goal seems to be making American foreign policy more palatable to the Muslim world. That’s a waste of time. We need to focus instead on communicating American values and ideals to the Arab and Muslim world. Who better to express to the world’s Muslims what it means to be American than American Muslims? After all, they are already on the front lines of the Islamic Reformation you spoke about.

After your last entry, I went back and reread Barrett’s riveting account of Sami al-Hussayen, the Idaho grad student charged with violating the Patriot Act. (I have to say, I found this to be the best of Barrett’s profiles.) There was, of course, something incredibly disheartening about the government’s zealous mishandling of the arrest, investigation, and trial of al-Hussayen. But what struck me was the way in which al-Hussayen, despite all that had been done to him, seemed never to lose confidence that the American legal system would ultimately find him innocent and set him free. (It ultimately did, though only long enough for the government to deport him back to Saudi Arabia.)

What this story demonstrates to me is that, despite the way in which America’s conduct of the so-called war on terror has poisoned its image across the globe, there is still a recognition, even by some of America’s most strident critics, that there is no country in the world more dedicated to the fundamental freedoms of faith, conscience, and the rule of law than the United States.

You asked me for some optimism. I’m afraid that’s the best I can do.