Reza Aslan already had a new subject in mind to follow up his critically acclaimed — and best-selling — first book, No God But God:The Origins, Evolution, And Future Of Islam (Random House, 2005), a post-9/11 exploration of what Aslan sees as a continuing reformation within Islam.
Aslan planned to write next about the rise of young Muslims and their role in reshaping the faith, a sequel “expanding on the idea of the Islamic reformation.” But as the Iranian-born Aslan spoke at bookstores, colleges and libraries about “No God But God,” he says, “the war on terror would come up and there was a lot of discussion of the role of religion and violence.”
Aslan says most people seemed to think that “these things have nothing to do with each other” and that “where they intersect is because religion has gone wrong in some way. That’s simply not the case. Violence is as integral to religious identity as anything else — prayer, or charity, or good works, which is why the history of religion has been steeped in so much violence.”
So a different book slowly emerged — How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror, due from Random House.
“I wanted to talk about why the war on terror, as it had been framed by the Bush Administration, has been failing so miserably,” Aslan says, nibbling on a fruit plate at a coffee shop a few blocks from the near-century old house he bought last Fall at the edge of Hollywood. But, Aslan says, he also sought to “challenge … the ideology behind the war on terror as a clash of civilizations, as a conflict between so-called western ideals” and those of Islam.
“That very deliberate dichotomy between good — America, Christianity — and evil — Islam, the Middle East, the Arab world — was very purposefully and deliberately laid out by Bush Administration, because that actually was how they felt,” Aslan says.
Aslan, 35, speaks in earnest but laid-back tones, a ready smile belying the intensity of his words. A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop (fiction), Aslan, who immigrated as a young child and grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, also holds advanced degrees in comparative religions from the Harvard Divinity School and the University of California at Santa Barbara.
His first love is writing fiction, and he has a historical novel tucked away waiting for enough time to polish it, “but I keep getting roped into writing more nonfiction. That is one that will probably see the light of day in the next few years.”
Meanwhile, Aslan, who also teaches creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, is editing the Words Without Borders anthology of contemporary writing from the Middle East for Norton, due out in fall of 2010. And he’s finishing up a proposal for yet another nonfiction book — a biography of Jesus Christ.
“He was a little bit more a revolutionary than we give him credit for,” Aslan says. “His story was, to put it delicately, kind of white-washed by the Gospel writers. So I’m going to write a new take on who Jesus was and what Jesus meant.”
But first comes the launch of Cosmic War, in which Aslan argues that the current tensions between Islam and the West is a function of the Bush Administration’s “us versus them” view of the world. He cites the embrace by some key Bush Administration officials of Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, which Aslan writes in Cosmic War framed the friction between Islamic militants and the West as the inevitable struggle between Western and Islamic civilizations — and a struggle between good and evil.
But a “cosmic war” is avoidable by separating the military conflicts with militant groups “from the ideological conflict — the social movement behind al Qaeda,” which Aslan believes can be bridged politically. “We do that by absorbing their grievances,” he says. The fight against al Qaeda and other groups bent on violence will have to be military. “They have to be hunted down,” Aslan says, “and they have to be killed.”
Different enemies require different strategies.
“Unfortunately, we’ve treated the conflict with al Qaeda, which is a transnational organization, as akin to the conflict with Hezbollah, which is a national organization,” Aslan says. “These two groups have nothing in common on with each other, except that both use the same tactic — terrorism. But we’ve turned them into a single element.”
Veteran journalist Scott Martelle is the author of Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West (Rutgers, 2007).