Tuesday, March 5, 2013

How to Win a Cosmic War: Confronting Radical Religion by Reza Aslan

In February we took a trip to the neighboring city of Ajmer, less than two hours by car from Jaipur. We went there to see the tomb (shrine) of Moinuddin Chishtī, the medieval Sufi saint.

We entered Ajmer, and it didn't look much different than any of the other cities and towns in Rajasthan. We pulled into a parking lot and called our contact, who was to guide us the site. In about ten minutes a man dressed in white with a white cap appeared. He bid us to follow him and we did. After walking about a block, cars were barred and even the ubiquitous motorcycles thinned. The street narrowed and become busy, almost crowded, and marked by men in white with caps, like our guide. I had not encountered such a concentration of Muslims since coming to India (although I had visited C's madrasa teacher training program in Delhi). Walking the narrow street crowded with Muslims, young and old, I felt as if I was in a movie, Bourne movie or Syriana. Not that I felt threatened (I didn't), but it reminded me of the significance of the Muslim presence in India and the world, a very considerable presence.  

As we approached the gates, our guide verred right, and we headed up a narrower lane, entering into a labyrinth of by-ways. We reached a small storefront where we left our shoes and cameras (with not small ttrepidation). We entered into the enclosure of the tomb area following our guide and eventually we came into the room of the tomb. Strewn with flowers and crowded with supplicants, our guide held a cloth over us and offered a blessing. We emerged and then we were shown the great pots where feasts were prepared for the needy. 

After leaving the shrine and the hospitality of our guide, who became our host by inviting us to his home and sharing tea and fried chicken with us, we went on a Pushkar and its Hindu temples (a story for another time). 

We in the U.S. know of religion, but we rarely see it displayed and practiced in the manner that one sees it in India. In India, Moslems are a minority, but a very large minority, and one that, at least within the country,  remains relatively peaceful. But then, that's true of Muslims everywhere. And Christians and Jews. Almost all are peaceful, but a few, a frightening few, become caught up on what Reza Aslan calls a "cosmic war". 

I read Aslan's book How to Win a Cosmic War: Confronting Radical Religion (2009, 176p.) as a follow-up to Atran's book that I reviewed in my previous post. If you were to read them both yourself, I would recommend reversing the order. Aslan's book--as one would expect from a veteran of the Iowa Writer's Workshop--reads easily and gives a quicker, more succinct overview of what has been happening in the current Muslim world, and well as in the world of the Old Testament and Bush's America. Aslan details a fact of life that we can too easily ignore: some people are drawn to cosmic wars, battles of good versus evil, us versus them. The early Jewish scriptures display a wrathful warrior God. Christians of a fundementalist persuasion, ignoring great themes of the New Testament, take up these ancient cries of righteouness and blood lust to make contemporary appeals to vanquish the heathens. Contemporary Judaism, especially within Israel and the West Bank, contains some of the same types of holy warriors. In all, these small but incredibly vocal band of holy warriors in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam make a scary lot. Only a few, of course, opt for terrorism as a means of realizing their holy orders, but even without such overt acts, they create a climate where tolerance and alternative faiths find it hard to get a footing. Alsan points, however, that out that many of the Muslim groups that we hear about, Hamas, Hezbollah, and others, have very limited, particular concerns (like the rights of Palestinians), and we Americans lump them all together at our peril.Not all are cosmic warriors.

One can't help leaving a book such as Aslan's without some sense of fear and despair, but we know that these are a minority of a minority who threaten violence. Most of us are more humble about divine intentions through either reasoned caution or courtesy of the demands of daily life. In any event, writers like Aslan help us to understand this wider world, and we should thank him for it. 

N.B. Besides his Iowa City/UI connection and his notoriety as a guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Aslan was a speaker at JLF, and I thought one of the pithier commentators on American politics. I hope that he keeps writing, as his voice adds a great deal to our understanding and the conversation that we must have.   


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