How to win a cosmic war: A special book review
The history of religion is a history of schisms. You can make a case that every great religion is a heresy of some previous one: exactly as Christianity is a heresy of Judaism, which itself is a reworking of Ancient Babylonian myths. In the sibling rivalry that exists between Jews, Christians and Muslims, we are all descendants of Abraham one way or another, like three children competing for a father’s attention. What we need to learn is how to get on with each other without resorting to violence – a massively tall order, as these books reveal.
Faith is a dangerous thing. “God, grant me unbelief,” may be the reaction of some readers to Reza Aslan’s clear-headed overview of the “cosmic war” in which we have been engaged since September 11 2001. “This crusade,” pause, “this war on terror,” pause, “is going to take a while.” With those words, George W Bush set the tone for the first global conflict of our century. Aslan, an Iranian scholar who arrived in the United States in 1979, returns us to the dictionary. “Crusade (noun): One of the medieval wars of religion waged by Christians against Muslims.”
Bush’s war was waged on a particular brand of terrorism, exclusively Islamic, and deployed the same rhetoric as his enemy. When Bush said: “Either you are with us or with the terrorists,” Osama bin Laden exclaimed: “I say either you are with the crusade, or you are with Islam.” Both invoked the same God to Satanise the other.
What is refreshing about Aslan’s analysis is its breadth and impartiality. He reminds us that jihadism is rooted in modernity, not tradition. After the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood became the only truly transnational Islamic movement. In 1981, disaffected members of the Brotherhood invoked “a more or less forgotten” schismatic theologian (Ibn Taymiyyah), dead for 600 years, to kill President Sadat and begin a revolution across the Arab world.
Meanwhile, the founder of modern political Zionism, the Austrian journalist Theodor Herzl, had earmarked a site for the Jewish state. In June 1895, he wrote in his diary: “We must expropriate gently the private property” and “spirit the penniless population across the border”. Aslan corrects a carefully constructed Zionist narrative that maintained that the Arab population in Palestine were not Palestinians but “part of the global ‘Arab nation’ and thus held no claim to the land on which they lived”. He shows how similar they all are – the Zealots of ancient Palestine, the radical religious Zionists of modern Israel, the cross-marked knights of the Christian crusades, the military missionaries of today’s US armed forces: “They cannot be negotiated with because they want nothing – at least nothing that this world can offer them.”
Bin Laden performed the clever trick of convincing young Muslims to stop obeying traditional religious leaders while assuming their authority for himself. His Jihadism – exclusive to Muslim’s Sunni sect – is a war that transcends not merely borders but the bounds of history, of which he has, like of Islamic law, the haziest notion. It also throws up some idiosyncratic models among his followers. “Remember Jack the Ripper,” urges Mohammed Hamid, a British Muslim who ran terrorist training camps in Wales. “Remember this people that never get caught, right.”
Hamid is one of 54 “British born or raised Muslims” analysed in Martyrdom, who were convicted of terrorism or died in pursuit of it. In sifting a “dataset” compiled from publicly available information, Jon and Benjamin Cole attempt to answer this question: why did these individuals raised in Britain seek to kill their fellow countrymen? In what is essentially an inconclusive cuttings job, the Coles make a collage of a typical member of this group: a disaffected and rootless 25-year-old working-class British Muslim male, of rural Pakistani descent, living in and around London. The decision to engage in violence is taken, apparently, “very quickly”.
Mohammed Siddique Khan, one of the suicide bombers on July 7 2005, was a second-generation Pakistani-Briton from West Yorkshire who, on a visit to the Wailing Wall, witnessed an old Palestinian man being manhandled by a nervous Israeli soldier. In that fateful moment, Khan felt neither British nor Pakistani. He was, to quote Aslan, “simply a Muslim: a member of a fractured, imaginary nation locked in an eternal cosmic war with a Jewish ‘nation’ just as imaginary and just as fractured”. For Khan as for Hamid, the version of Islamism peddled by bin Laden was, according to the authors of Martyrdom, “a natural way of transcending this cultural dislocation because it offered a new social identity that transcended both nationality and ethnicity”. Central to this global jihadism was a) the internet and b) martyrdom – a package that includes, supposedly: immediate admission to Heaven, marriage to 72 heavenly maidens and permission to bring along to Paradise 70 family members. One can’t help being reminded of Graham Greene’s idea of Hell, likened by George Orwell to a high-class nightclub, entry to which was reserved for Catholics only.
An illuminating first-hand account of someone who has, so to speak, got inside their moccasins and walked as they talked is Confessions of a Mullah Warrior, by a Harvard-educated Afghan who took part in the resistance against the Soviet occupation of his country. That invasion gave a perfect pretext for jihad to those like bin Laden. Masood Farivar reveals how deeply his fellow mujahideen despised these foreign “war tourists” seeking martyrdom. Others were there for the thrill of it, like the charismatic warrior and quondam heroin addict who recruited Farivar to Harvard: an Old Etonian Greek-Mexican, ex-boyfriend of Annabel Heseltine and former Wall Street bond trader, known as Karimullah.
The first British suicide bomber died in 2000 in Kashmir, the site of Jesus’s tomb according to the Islamic sect, the Ahmadi. Their belief that Jesus did not perish on the cross but lived to 120, in Srinigar, has made Ahmadis a persecuted group within mainstream Islam. Dr Simon Ross Valentine, a Methodist preacher and schoolteacher, spent 18 months living among the Ahmadi in Bradford. His charming, riveting, sympathetic and scholarly account serves to emphasise that Muslims are not homogenous, but, like Christians, composed of multiple ethnicities, cultures and factions.
For those attracted to the idea of jihad/crusade, the dehumanisation of non-Muslims is an integral part of indoctrination. As Valentine demonstrates in his appraisal of a peace-loving minority sect, one possible answer lies in rehumanisation: to believe a little less stridently in an unprovable God, a little more in an improvable humankind.