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April 20th, 2009
07:30 PM ET

How to win a cosmic war

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Editor's note: This is an excerpt from Reza Aslan's new book "How to Win a Cosmic War" published by Random House and in bookstores today. See Reza on AC360 at 10 pm ET tonight!

Reza Aslan

The problem with the ideological War on Terror is that “terrorist” is a wastebasket term that often conveys as much about the person using it as it does about the person being described. It can hardly be argued, anyway, that this was a war against terrorism per se. If it were, it would have included the Basque separatists in Spain, the Christian insurgency in East Timor, the Hindu/Marxist Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the Maoist rebels in eastern India, the Jewish Kach and Kahane underground in Israel, the Irish Republican Army, the Sikh separatists in the Punjab, the Marxist Mujahadin-e Khalq, the Kurdish PKK, and so on.

Rather, this was a war against a particular brand of terrorism: that employed exclusively by Islamic entities, which is why the enemy in this ideological conflict was gradually and systematically expanded to include not just the persons who attacked America on September 11, 2001, and the organizations that supported them, but also an ever-widening conspiracy of disparate groups such as Hamas in Palestine, Hizballah in Lebanon, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the clerical regime in Iran, the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, the Chenchen rebels, the Kashmiri militants, the Taliban, and any other organization that declared itself Muslim and employed terrorism as a tactic. According to the master narrative of the War on Terror, these were a monolithic enemy with a common agenda and a shared ideology. Never mind that many of these groups consider one another a graver threat than they consider America to be, that they have vastly different and sometimes irreconcilable political yearnings and religious beliefs, and that, until the War on Terror, many had never thought of the United States as an enemy in any war. Give this imaginary monolith a made-up name – say, “Islamofacism” – and an eerily recognizable enemy is created, one that exists not so much as a force to be defeated as an idea to be opposed, one whose chief attribute appears to be that they are not us.

By lumping the disparate forces, movements, armies, ideas, and grievances in the greater Muslim world into a single category (“enemy”), assigning them a single identity (war), the United States manufactured what the counterterrorism expert David Kilcullen termed “an undifferentiated enemy.” And as Sun Tzu said so long ago, if you do not know who the enemy is, you cannot win the war.


Filed under: Reza Aslan • Terrorism
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