How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror
Reza Aslan - 2009
During the beginning of uprising in Iran, a number of political blogs and TV programs mentioned or interviewed
Reza Aslan, author of How to Win a Cosmic War, due to his remarkable insight on the topic of the War on
Terror and relations between the so-called “West” and the so-called “Muslim World.” As an American citizen
born in Iran, Aslan has a unique vantage point from which to view this conflict, as in one sense he possesses both
identities, and in another sense he has neither. Muslims view him as an American, and Americans view him as
Muslim—he is an outsider in either case. Those without a strong sense of belonging to a particular cultural identity
tend to adopt a broader sense of self, and are therefore often better able to see the big picture far more clearly
and objectively than those who find themselves on one particular side of the dividing line.
Clarity is the word that best describes the portrait Aslan paints of global politics in the last decade, a decade
dominated by George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror™ and a perceived “clash of civilizations” between the
West and the Middle East. Aslan traces the conflict back to its roots, when Britain and later the United States
exploited the region for their own purposes (oil acquisition) and imposed more-or-less arbitrary national
boundaries throughout a region where nationalism had no meaning, and people identified themselves as members
of their local community rather than as citizens of a particular nation-state. In this deeply religious territory,
Europe’s secular nationalism would not take hold, and what arose instead was a religious nationalism, an attempt
to establish a state built on an Islamic moral framework. The problem with religious nationalism is that religion
cannot be contained within national boundaries, and so there will be an inevitable rise in religious transnational
movements such as Global Jihadism, which seeks to impose its Islamic moral framework not just within a
particular nation but across the entire world.
Aslan traces Jihadism itself back to its roots, explaining that within traditional Islamic doctrine it actually refers
merely to a struggle with one’s own self, against internal threats such as temptation and doubt. Later on, a few
radical thinkers outside the mainstream of Islamic thought usurped the concept and it became a struggle against
external threats—against oppression, civil strife, and the enemies of Islam both internal and external. Global
Jihadism took on a life of its own as these thinkers, completely going against the traditional interpretations of Islam,
elevated Jihadism to the highest and most important element of life as a Muslim. To be Muslim, according to
them, is to practice jihad, to struggle against Islam’s enemies.
These enemies were of two kinds: the “Near Enemy” such as secularists and moderates within Middle Eastern
society, and the “Far Enemy”, which consisted of Israel and its supporters, particularly the United States. During
the rise of Jihadism, most of the movement was focused on the Near Enemy and transforming Islamic society from
within. But when the movement failed to bring about the promised revolutions, its leaders such as Ayman
Zawahiri began to gradually shift their focus from the Near Enemy to the Far Enemy. The Soviet invasion of
Afghanistan further radicalized the movement and gave it a sense of Global Purpose, which is the state it was in
when Osama bin Laden joined it. And it was this sense of religious duty—an obligation to strike a symbolic blow
to the heart of the Far Enemy—that was the motivation behind the attacks of September 11, 2001.
The hijackers who carried out that attack were fighting was Aslan calls a “Cosmic War” which he defines as a
struggle that transcends nations and armies, in which God is believed to be directly engaged in the battle on behalf
of one side against the other. In the mind of a cosmic warrior, the earth is merely a battleground upon which God
does battle with the forces of Evil.
A cosmic war partitions the world into black and white, good and evil, us and them. In such a war, This way of thinking will be familiar to Americans, not because they’ve heard it expressed by jihadists but because
there is no middle ground; everyone must choose a side. Soldier and civilian, combatant and non-
combatant, aggressor and bystander—all the traditional divisions that serve as markers in a real war
break down in cosmic wars. It is a simple equation: if you are not us, you must be them. If you are
them, you are the enemy and must be destroyed. (5)
it is the exact way of thinking expressed by the president himself, George W. Bush, when he said that “You are
either with us, or with the terrorists.” Bush was just as much a cosmic warrior as the 9/11 hijackers—he saw
himself as an agent of God, placed in his position of power to carry out God’s will to protect America against the
“evil-doers”. Throughout his administration, he used the rhetoric of cosmic war, describing the global political
situation as a “clash of civilizations” and even referring to the war in Iraq as a “crusade”—the most loaded word
he could have possibly used.
Naturally, this kind of rhetoric was like gasoline poured over an already raging fire, and it played directly into the
hands of Muslim extremists who saw themselves as cosmic warriors engaged in an epic struggle between agents
of the True Faith and the Infidels. Even more moderate Muslims had to wonder whether the U.S. President really
was waging a war on behalf of Christianity against Islam. It didn’t help at all that many of the soldiers themselves
believed they were fighting a Holy War, as they attempted to convert the citizens of Iraq or Afghanistan to
Christianity throughout the occupation. To many of the soldiers, the Muslims were Pure Evil, which is why they
were so willing to abuse and torture those they detained—these are not people but souls already damned by God,
and therefore deserving of no respect or even basic human consideration. Upon the revelation of this kind of
treatment, it became even easier for mainstream Muslims to believe that America was in fact pure Evil, and that
this war really was a Holy one. Cosmic Warriors on both sides continued fanning the flames, escalating and
perpetuating this religiously-fueled, largely imaginary conflict.
All of the above points, while tremendously important and excellently laid-out by the author, are somewhat self-
evident. While Aslan’s formulation of these concepts is by far the best I’ve ever come across, they are concepts I
am already quite familiar with. The part of the book that really made me think comes later on, in a chapter entitled
“Generation E”. Given the appalling rhetorical nightmare that was the Bush Administration’s approach to the
Muslim World, it’s a wonder that there haven’t been thousands of other terrorist attacks over the last few years.
This is either because the Administration’s anti-terror policies were brilliant and highly effective (which is quite
unlikely), or that the vast majority (between 99.9 and 100%) of Muslims simply won’t cross that line between
anger at the West and the willingness to blow themselves up for the sake of ideology.
The few attacks that have occurred, such as the 7/7/05 bombings in London, were carried out not by Muslims
from the Middle East, but by European Muslims, young kids who had been living in these societies their entire
lives, yet never accepted as a part of them. As odd as it may sound given our stereotypes and the open hostility
of the American right-wing towards all things Muslim, it is actually easier for an American Muslim to consider him
or herself American than it is for a European Muslim to consider him or herself European. As the United States is
one of the least homogenous countries on earth, and as each new generation of immigrants alters the cultural
landscape, the “us and them” mentality is far less prevalent than in the extremely homogenized and nationalistic
European nations. This is of course less true in rural America (what some politicians would call the “real”
America) but for the most part there is no mutual exclusivity between seeing oneself as American and seeing
oneself as Muslim.
On the other hand, European countries have shaped their national identities by defining themselves in opposition to
the “other”, which meant the Jews in the former half of the 20th century, and which now means Muslims. I can tell
you from personal experience that Germany is full of Turkish immigrants, none of whom can consider themselves
German because no Germans would consider them so. Even Turks born in Germany who speak perfect German,
attend German schools, eat the German diet, and enjoy the same pop-culture as the rest of the Germans are
forever considered outsiders. You are either German or you’re not, and Muslims are not German.
The natural result of this is a kind of identity crisis. They are not true Muslims because they have been fully
enculturated into European society, but they are not Europeans either because they practice the Muslim religion
and their ancestry is Turkish, Arabic, Persian, or whatever it may be. This in itself does not lead to violent
behavior, as plenty of minority groups have throughout human history existed quite peacefully as minorities within a
given society. The irony is that in European society, with European ideals left over from the revolutions—of
liberty, equality, and fraternity—the impulse to rise up and fight against perceived injustice is far more prevalent
than in other parts of the world. The impulse to take part in a student demonstration (of which there are dozens in
Europe every single day) is the same impulse that leads to Global Jihadism.
Kids like Hassib Hussain, the English Muslim behind the 7/7 bombings, had no identity to cling to but the idea of a
transnationalist Muslim identity. In English society, as well as French or German society, Muslims are under great
pressure to shed their old cultural habits and fully integrate, but at the same time no matter how hard they try, they
never will be fully accepted. They can’t be Muslim because English society won’t allow it, but they can’t be
English either because however enculturated they may be, their ethnicity will always be different. As I wrote at the
start, those without a strong sense of belonging to a particular cultural group tend to develop a broader sense of
self, and these young men adopt an identity of “victimized Muslim” and begin to perceive any affront to Muslims
anywhere in the world (such as the invasion of a Muslim nation by Western forces) as an affront to themselves—
to this group they imagine themselves belonging to.
It is within such “identity vacuums” that Global Jihadism thrives. For kids like Hasib Hussain, whose
religious and cultural affinities have been cast by their societies as other, Jihadism is more than an
alternative form of identity—it is a reactionary identity, a means of social rebellion. It is an identity
formed through the deliberate linking of local and global grievances—both real and perceived—to
create a single, shared narrative of suffering and injustice. And only by severing that link, and
disrupting the narrative, can Global Jihadism be defeated. (153).
This points the way for how we should now be approaching this problem. We have already done more than we
realize to disrupt this narrative of injustice by electing a black man with a Muslim background and the middle name
“Hussein” as President of the United States. Obama himself has completely done away with Bush’s “crusader”
rhetoric, and opened up a new dialog with the Muslim world whereby we are not enemies locked in a war waged
between Good and Evil, but as partners in an interconnected world who must work through our historical tensions
to bring about peace. Americans need to support the president’s approach in this regard. The Europeans need
to stop clinging to ethnic identities built on the exclusion of an “other”, and instead make it possible for a French or
German Muslim to feel French or German, rather than just Muslim. In short, we all need to broaden our sense of
self so that we are not just Americans or Germans or English, so that we are not just Christians or Muslims or
Jews, but instead Human Beings all, who just happen to also be some of those other things.
What we absolutely cannot do is let the self-destructive mindset that is Cosmic War continue. We must argue
against the worldview that history is a black-and-white battle of Good against Evil whenever we encounter it, and
convince those who see war as the answer to the problem that war is the problem. They fight us because we
fight them. They hate us because they believe we hate them. We continue to fight and to hate because we divide
ourselves into “us and them” in the first place, when in reality it’s just “us” and we have no real reason to hate.
Aslan writes: “In the end, there is only one way to win a cosmic war: refuse to fight in it.”