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In Print: Alumni Books
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The cosmic reset button
How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror. (Random House, 2009) Reza Aslan ’95
In 1993, Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington published a now legendary article in Foreign Affairs entitled “The Clash of Civilizations” in which he described seven distinct “civilizations” drawn largely along religious lines. He argued that we are facing an epic turning point in world history, and he predicted that the West and Islam will be facing off in wars over global hegemony.
His thesis was well received after the 9/11 attacks, especially by the White House and some foreign policy circles. It gained further ascendancy with the emergence of a global Jihadist movement that led to calls for a “War on Terror.” But Huntington’s thesis was also sharply criticized for presenting a reductionist understanding of the notion of civilization—as well as of the West and Islam, and of what was actually happening at the turn of the 21st century with the emergence of a politically radicalized politics under the guise of Islam. It was also criticized for deploying an outdated notion of war—one that did not really apply to Jihadism.
Resetting the terms of the discussion is How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror, a very readable new book by Reza Aslan ’95, assistant professor of creative writing at U.C. Riverside. What is at stake in those forms of terrorism that fall under the banner of jihad represent neither a civilization nor a unified ideology or theology, Aslan points out. Osama bin Laden and his ilk want one thing only: to unite the Muslim world against the "Crusader" West. But theirs is not a clash of civilizations in which a political or even religious ideology would eventually triumph; they are engaged in another kind of battle, a “cosmic war” intended only to demonstrate that they are a superior, indeed invincible power over an evil other. While generally not poor or disenfranchised themselves, the Jihadists tap into the grievances of a nonreligious nature (e.g., impoverishment stemming from centuries of colonialism, Western support for authoritarian regimes), the disaffection of large sectors of youth, and the transformation of religion into an identity that has little, if anything, to do with authentic Islamic theology or practice, except as doctrines may be used in the service of this worldview. Political participation is itself “an act of apostasy.” The basic formula is a dualistic or “Manichaean” view of the world, a clearcut, black and white partitioning of reality. Those who do not see the light are in darkness and they must be destroyed.
This book, the author’s second, takes the reader with ease from Masada to contemporary Palestinian camps, from the Mongol destruction of Baghdad to the origins of al-Qaida. The section on the establishment of the state of Israel is particularly well done and remarkably balanced—a feat not easily accomplished. The book leads the uninitiated reader through the finer points of Islamic thought that have been used (or misued) by Jihadists. For example, the deployment of takfir, the declaration of a Muslim as an apostate, is used as a rationale for killing innocent Muslims in suicide bombings. Aslan leads us into his worldview through personal stories. As an Iranian-American and a Muslim, he brings perspective to the topic that proves invaluable. The thesis comes to life as he sits in a café in Cairo, or passes through customs at Heathrow or Tel Aviv, where his dual identity confounds some but grants him entrée into conversations, particularly among young Muslim men, that is not easily gained by others.
How to win a cosmic war? The answer is not to fight it, at least not to fight Jihadism as if it were a party to war. It is not. The most effective offense is prevention of the conditions that feed it, by working “to create an open religious and political environment in the Muslim world that will blunt the appeal of Jihadist ideologies.” The worlds of Islam are very young, and it is by reaching the young population that minds and hearts might eventually be turned, both in Islamic societies and in our own. Aslan points to the example of the United Kingdom, which has a very different immigration pattern than that found in the United States and which has been the feeding ground of home-grown Jihadists. There, gains have been made by paying attention to socio-economic obstacles that the young are facing, along with ingrained patterns of discrimination. In the end, the United States, with its long history of assimilation of peoples from all parts of the globe, holds out the greatest promise for a future when the mentality of inevitable cosmic conflict can be diminished. And, says Aslan, the rise of a new American president with Islamic heritage offers new hope.Paul Crowley, S.J.
» Read a profile of Reza Aslan from the SCM archives
When Alice Dixon wed archaeologist Augustus Le Plongeon in the late 19th century, it meant leaving behind the refinements of her London home for a life of exploration: In the Yucatán, the couple was the first to excavate the Mayan sites of Chichén Itzá and Uxmal. Dixon’s story is told in Yucatán Through Her Eyes (University of New Mexico Press, 2009), by noted Mesoamerican scholar Lawrence Gustave Desmond ’57, a research fellow at Harvard University and the California Academy of Sciences. In this biography, Desmond weaves historical narrative with Dixon’s photography, handwritten diaries, and notes, uncovering new insight into the life of one of the founders of Mesoamerican archaeology.
Katie Powers '09
Phil Ryan ’61 entwines a murder trial with the immigrant history of San Francisco in his first novel, All Sins Remembered (City Press, 2008). The slaying of a young socialite unearths the city’s sometimes sordid and tragic past, including the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906. There’s ample Hitchcockian suspense, and veteran mystery writer Max Byrd dubs Ryan’s novel a “terrific debut.” While Ryan may be new to novel writing, he has almost four decades of experience as a high-profile trial lawyer under his belt.
Molly Gore '10
Max Oliva, S.J. ’61 has written Beatitudes for the Workplace (Novalis, 2009), which outlines how to create a more meaningful workplace environment based on the eight Beatitudes. Oliva, who specializes in spirituality in the workplace, has done research for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and is now an affiliate faculty member at Regis University. André L. Delbecq, McCarthy University Professor at SCU’s Leavey School of Business, lauds Oliva for nudging business leaders “toward a spiritual depth that increases their capacity to transform one of society’s most important institutions.”
Katie Powers '09
Scott T. Pollard ’81 and co-editor Kara Keeling lead a delicious scholarly foray in Critical Approaches to Food in Children’s Literature (Routledge, 2008), the first volume to study the role food plays in children’s literature. The collection of essays brings to bear a variety of critical approaches on an international buffet of genres, providing interpretive resources for teachers. On the menu: identity formation in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and the etiquette of empire, currant buns in Peter Rabbit, the feast in Madame Bovary, and food, language, and power in Captain Underpants.
Molly Gore '10
Ebrahim Rashidpour M.S. ’83 has published a handbook in Farsi for counseling in the Persian-American community: Reconcile with Life (Metro Digital, 2008), which collects 82 of his short papers about psychotherapy.
Steven Boyd Saum