Reza Aslan Book Review

Beyond Fundamentalism,

Confronting Religious Extremism in the Age of Globalization

(Random House 2010, originally published as

How to Win a Cosmic War).

NOTE: Several years ago I reviewed three books on Islam and the West, and parked that review under the moniker "Islam and the West" in the page on Thematic Reviews.

This additional book on this topic will be linked to to both the 'Thematic Reviews' and 'Books Reviewed' pages. 

I 'mostly' liked this book.  

OK, so what did I not like about it?

Only one thing: the way, on page 154, Aslan dismissed Ayaan Hirshi Ali, and two others I have not read, as persons ďwho make a living fanning the flames of racism and Islamophobia.Ē

In my reading of Ali I did get the impression there was no hope, and in the review I link to under her name I am very critical of her too, but not as dismissive as this single sentence.

I believe Aliís experience was location- and even family- specific.  Most Muslim women are not treated badly and threatened with bodily harm and loss of life as she has been. Reading Aslan reinforced that impression: the Islamic world is quite diverse, with pockets of religiously extreme fundamentalism.   Not unlike Christianity?

But that is about all I did not like. Everything else I did like. Why? Because it told me the truth? Am I capable of dividing truth from fiction in this religio-political realm? Not really.

Or did I like it because it fed my prejudices, or my hopes? The latter I think. I found Aslan as hopeful as I found Ali depressing.

One of the ideas I got into my head in my previous readings is that there is a majority Islamic society out there with persons who live normal lives and worry about food and bills and enjoy their family and community relationships, which are as healthy as anyone elseís anywhere else. If that is so, and I believe it is, then the darkly violent world Ali was introducing me to was an aberration in that larger tapestry. Aslan reinforces that impression, which gives me hope.

Aslan knows Islam, he is a Muslim. He is very well versed in recent history, has observed and lived through much of that history in recent years as a journalist, and points his finger at US misdeeds and misspeaks with unerring clarity and with sound support from facts on the air and on the ground. At the same time he makes no excuses for the dictators in Islamic countries who unleash reprehensible violence on their own people just to remain in power, often with US support.

He sees Obama as a great improvement over Bush where reaching out to the Islamic world is concerned. Who could possibly disagree with that?

But where I heard myself say ďaha!Ē was the times he made clear that the religious extremists we are confronting in an unwinnable cosmic war are not at all part of mainstream Islamic society. They want nothing to do with mosques and Imams and the other institutions of the religious structure that is Islam to most believers. They declare the theologians and leaders of their faith as being in league with the evil Western world. Heretics all! Hence it is OK to kill them, and their dupes whether they be adults or children, male or female. Now that is extremism gone extreme!

So why does this give me hope? Because it means there is a possibility of reaching out to that larger, peace-loving Islamic community, to help them isolate the extremists and reduce their power to organize and thrive. Extremists will always be with us, but they can be contained just as organized crime, a fitting parallel, can never be totally eradicated but can be contained and controlled. It goes from war to police action, in other words.

I was pleased that Aslan reminded his Christian readers of their own extremist and violent history, and of their own brand of extremism being active, growing, and potentially dangerous. This Cosmic War idea lives below the surface of all three major religions pledging allegiance to parts of the Bible, since violent ethnic cleansing, as a God-commanded, holy, operation, is strongly woven into that book.

And for the two religions also pledging allegiance to the New Testament, taking their cue from the Book of Revelations, it is no difficult stretch to move from its violent vision of the end times to feeling a personal calling to bring about those times by going forth to wipe out Godís enemies, which would be anyone not believing as you do.

Aslan corrected several of my misconceptions. I thought that is economically the Islamic world could progress, lifting its people out of poverty, the extremist impulse would die down. Aslan says that this is simply nonsense, the leaders of the extremist movements have generally been well off and educated.

But their dupes, the ones who get all starry eyed as they prepare to blow themselves up to please God, may be recruited from among those not fitting into their societies, especially those feeling they are not being given any respect, or any chance to succeed in their host societies, if they live in the West.

And this is where the end-times motivated dark speech from the Christian religious extremists gets dangerous. Just like their Muslim counterparts they live in fear, they are motivated to help start the conflagration that will draw God down from heaven to aid and save them. his true believers. And to show God that they are on Godís side (their God, of course), they are already fighting the forces of Satan with words, and encouraging their government to wage the end-times war between good and evil. Their motivations are a mirror image of the Islamic extremistsí motivations. Their violence saturated rhetoric ought to be declared unacceptable by the mainstream Christian institutions. But they are not, because the danger is that more and more people will move from the mainstream into the fringe that declares itself more genuinely Christian and closer to scripture and thus to God. Islam seems to have the same problem.

Does Aslan say all these things? In so many words, yes. But what follows is my own set of conjectures.

Would the world be better off without religion? What we are seeing is the aberrant fringe of human nature at work, and if the vehicle for internalizing self-righteous anger in such persons isnít religion, it will be something else.

Most of us feel smugly superior to the Nazi crowd that hated and killed and tortured as a matter of government policy. That was not a religiously motivated extremism, for most, although there were some, Hitler included, who thought they were finally going to do what everyone else throughout history had tried to do, and that was to kill off the tribe that killed Christ.

These people seem to buy the New Testamentís propaganda. The Jews were not in charge, the Romans were, and Romans crucified many claimants to unauthorized authority. That the Jewish hierarchy, appointed and tolerated by Rome, was also happy to have this troublemaker gone is almost beside the point. It is puzzling to me that the tribes that descended from the bloody Romans that killed Jesus joined Hitlerís Axis, and were welcomed as brothers in arms in bringing about ďThe Final Solution.Ē

How does one explain Americans ready to torture and mistreat prisoners, except in the same way? Persons were dehumanized in the rhetoric and hence the minds of the perpetrators, latent sadism was unfettered and even encouraged by superiors, and it was all done in the furtherance of justice and truth. Justice and truth is anything that helps those on the righteous side of this cosmic conflict. Of course.

I am very glad I do not live in a Christian nation. I am very glad to be part of a secular state. I am terrified of a Christian fundamentalist being elected President. We might end up in a thinly disguised cosmic war, sacrificing untold numbers of brave, existing humans to gain some cosmic points while expending much political effort righteously protecting unborn frozen embryos from use in laboratories, or forcing poor women to come full term, because virtual and real embryos have rights as potential human beings. As soon as they are young adults, sacrificing them for a higher cause in a cosmic battle, killing many Ďotherí humans in the process, including embryos in wombs of those on the wrong side of this conflict, is noble. Go figure.

I am terrified of repeating the past, because next time it will undoubtedly be worse with extremists on both sides of this religious divide having done much to seek to set the stages of hate and disrespect in order to precipitate the final cosmic conflict. Their God will then see their sacrifices, and honor them by coming back to the Earth to cleanse it of all unbelievers.


More likely, the few left alive at the end will be surprised to see the Hopi goddess Spider Woman, moving to and fro under the benevolent gaze of Tawa the Sun God, planting corn in the desert that war has created everywhere, to assure that human life on Earth will be able to continue.

I have strayed a long way from Aslanís book.


Read it.

Aslan gives a path to hope. I donít see one, not at present.

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