Let’s Fight Wars on Earth, Not in Heaven

How to define, and avoid, a cosmic war.

As devastating as they were, the 20th century’s two world wars were only global. What if the next war we fight—indeed what if the war we are currently fighting—is cosmic? “A cosmic war,” Reza Aslan writes, “is like a ritual drama in which participants act out on Earth a battle they believe is actually taking place in the heavens.” Earthly wars are fought with weapons. Cosmic wars are won or lost with jihads, occupations, and forcible conversions. “There can be no compromise in a cosmic war. There can be no negotiation, no settlement, no surrender.” Aslan, the author of No God but God, devotes his new book, How To Win a Cosmic War, to explaining how some people in the world come to view their struggles in cosmic terms. Despite his title, he then goes on to propose ways not to win such a war but to make it more manageable.

Writing with a critical sense of urgency, Aslan wants us to bring struggles between religious outlooks down from the skies. Global jihad is one thing: It is ugly, violent, and impervious to reason. But religious nationalism—the effort to create states based on principles derived from faith—is something else. To reduce the lure of the apocalyptic, we must distinguish between the two. As much as we must oppose those who kill in the name of God, we need to understand the desperation of those who seek the strong sense of identity derived from linking the quest for God with the desire for nationhood.

No one faith monopolizes cosmic war, Aslan argues. Islam, to be sure, has its share of angry soldiers bent on wreaking havoc on innocent civilians for the cause of their faith’s purity. But if the jihadis are zealots, we have to remember that the original Zealots were a Jewish sect and that their descendants, hard-right Israeli settlers determined to protect the Holy Land for the Jews, are just as much engaged in a cosmic war as militants struggling on behalf of displaced Palestinians. To complete the trilogy, Aslan outlines the Christian versions of holy war that feature Jesus delivering a final judgment on who will be admitted to the kingdom of heaven, even if he does not give us a sense of where such a war is raging. Yet despite covering all these bases, Aslan’s book focuses on radical Islam; of all the cosmic wars, this one is the most global and the most in need of new approaches.

Why is cosmic war so central to the thinking of so many? In search of answers, Aslan starts from the ground up. He spends time in Beeston, the English city that was home to the July 7 bombers who attacked the London Underground in 2005. He visits Jerusalem, where, because he is Iranian-born and therefore neither Jewish nor Arab, he captures both the curiosity and attention of his interlocutors. When it comes to Christian fundamentalism, he does not need to travel far; the Christian right’s influence within the Republican Party is there for all to see, and so are its apocalyptic spokesmen, such as the Rev. Pat Robertson or Gen. William Boykin.

Aslan comes not to justify but to explain. He wants to know why so many people, especially among the young, are alienated enough to be attracted to both religious and nationalistic extremism. Aslan’s travels illuminate the attractions of the apocalyptic. For one thing, religion rather than secularism, he insists, is on the rise. We also must take account of the fact that globalization, by moving people and products all over the world, leads to the craving for identity that religion can provide. And we have to understand that in today’s world, religious longing and political grievances can be seamlessly blended by leaders skilled in mixing them together. Only by grasping this larger context can we head off cosmic war by reaching out to the disaffected. For those living in lands that are not their own, we can try to make them feel more welcome. With those struggling for national identity in their own countries, we ought to take more seriously the political issues that motivate them.

Although anything but a cosmic warrior himself, Aslan has chosen a topic that lends itself to exaggeration—and he all too often succumbs. Explaining why European Muslims are alienated, he points to a bill introduced into the Dutch parliament to outlaw the Quran; he does not mention that it, and its proponent Geert Wilders, were laughed out of existence. He talks about how the racist British Nationalist Party has become a “legitimate force in British politics” but fails to note that it holds no seats in the House of Commons. There has been significant hostility toward Muslims in Europe, but the big story is how it has softened in recent years, in part because immigration has been reduced and in part because most non-Muslim Europeans recognize that xenophobia gets them nowhere. Under the leadership of its mayor, Job Cohen, for example, Amsterdam has created youth centers within mosques that recruit young Muslims to help in the delivery of social service programs, while German Christian Democratic Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has been holding an annual German Islamic Conference promoting mutual understanding between German Muslims and their non-Muslim neighbors; Schäuble has also taken the lead in requiring the study of Islam in German schools.

Aslan’s tendency to emphasize the worst carries over into the way he understands the interaction between religion and politics. It is true that religion brings to politics a language and activism that make compromise more difficult and violence more likely. But it is just as true that political involvement brings to religion a sense of responsibility and a trend toward moderation. (The best example comes from Turkey, where the governing AKP, once a radical Islamic movement, has become a cautious governing party.) So while Aslan is quite right to suggest that “the boundaries between religion and politics are, in all parts of the world, becoming increasingly blurred,” the fact that they are mitigates as well as promotes global cosmic war.

The same, by the way, is true of globalization. On the one hand, the global spread of technology and the breakdown of national borders intensify religious and political conflict; just think of right-wing Jews from Brooklyn, N.Y., living on land once occupied by Palestinians or jihadists spreading their messages of hate through the Internet. Yet globalization also increases wealth around the world, thereby undermining religious fervor. China, the fastest-growing country in the world, is not engaged in a cosmic war with anyone; it is seeking, quite successfully, to use its wealth for global advantage. Similarly, while India experienced a recent terror attack, the increasing wealth of the country has been accompanied by a decline in the fortunes of that country’s Hindu nationalist party, the BJP. The truth is that peace will come between India and its neighbor Pakistan when both become too globalized to allow their religious differences to disrupt manufacturing and trade.

Even a little bit of cosmic war, however, is still too much, and Aslan’s suggestions for cooling down the temperature, if not especially original, point in the right direction. I agree with him that the most important step the Obama administration could take to reduce global religious fervor is to help negotiate a two-state solution for the Israel-Palestine problem (although any such step would no doubt increase the cosmic war being fought by ultra-Orthodox Jews). The efforts already taking place in Europe to build bridges between Muslims and non-Muslims, much as he suggests, could be expanded.

Aslan’s most passionately argued suggestion is more controversial. After a scathing denunciation of the Bush administration’s hypocrisy in urging the spread of democracy while cooperating with authoritarian regimes, he nonetheless concludes that “President Bush was right: Only through genuine democratic reform can the appeal of extremist groups be undermined and the tide of Muslim militancy stemmed.” Alas the evidence so far suggests that in the short-term, as we saw with Hamas’ electoral victory in Gaza, democracy and extremism can go together. It may prove to be the case that democracy, because it brings radical groups from the fringes into positions of power, will prove successful in toning down cosmic rhetoric in the long run. But this requires patience as steps backward occur before steps forward can be taken.

Religion, nationalism, politics—any one of these forces alone is capable of producing more than its share of death and destruction. Combine them, and the possibility of events spiraling out of control increases that much more. No wonder, then, that our instinct is to separate them from one another as much as possible, whether it is by drawing sharp lines between church and state or by creating states, like the former Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union, that contain many nations. But it may not be possible to engage in such separation anywhere and everywhere: Multiethnic states collapsed in Eastern Europe, and the American model of church-state separation is not applicable to all. We need an alternative, then, some way that these powerful forces can be combined that stops short of cosmic war. I am not completely persuaded by Aslan that religious nationalism is the best alternative to religious war; after all, even Aslan himself recognizes just how extreme religious nationalism has become in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Still, finding some ways in which we can accept the power of religious identity while stopping short of cosmic war is Aslan’s ultimate objective, and his book asks all the important questions. We cannot prevent wars. But he is right that we should realize that they are best fought on earth rather than in heaven.