Reza Aslan on Islamic nationalism and the challenge of jihad

In Vancouver on Thursday, Reza Aslan addressed Islamic violent extremism, saying "there is a cancer in the Islamic world." Acknowledging the necessity of military confrontation, Aslan explains the true nature of the extremist threat.

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In 2008, notes Aslan, Republican presidential candidate and Reverend Mike Huckabee proposed a constitutional amendment to align the US constitution with “God’s values.” [A recent poll showed that 57% of Republicans favour establishing Christianity as the US national religion.]

In this context, says Aslan, what we call Islamism is not unique, but part of a larger global trend toward religious-based government. 

Islamism, or Muslim-based state government, finds common expression in countries like Turkey, Pakistan, Iran and Malaysia, and its primary concern is enforcing national government. Aslan points to Hamas, for example, as focused exclusively on Palestine.

Jihadism absolutely opposes Islamic government

For Aslan, the crucial distinction is that jihadism absolutely opposes Islamism as a form of state government. Jihadism opposes the existence of any state at all.

Jihadism, not Islam, is the primary source of the murderous extremism shattering the Muslim world and the globe. It constitutes a direct, existential threat to Islamic state government, and to all government. For Aslan, jihadism seeks to eliminate all states, Islamic or otherwise. 

"Jihadist groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda do not have a geographically specific goal,” he says. “On the contrary, their war is a cosmic war… (A) jihadist is a trans-nationalist. The concept of nationalism is anathema to a jihadist. The very goal of a jihadist is to reconstitute the world as a single Caliphate space under one religious order.” 

More dangerously, the lethal conflict between Islamism and jihadism is one most media talking heads and politicians ignore, if they’re aware of it at all. “You can see it with the Harper government and the Bush government. And for Benjamin Netanyahu, it’s like a verbal tic when he says that Hamas is the same as Al-Qaeda.”

Despite his entrenched impatience with right-wing (and a lot of quasi-liberal) analysis, Aslan agrees that the world has no option but to confront jihadism militarily. Yet it's vital to understand the target. It isn't Islam itself that poses a threat, but the venomous poison of jihadism, which attacks its own host most of all.

Given the gravity of the subject matter, Aslan's now-famous quarrels with New Atheists and the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Bill Maher come into sharper relief as high-profile means to contribute to informed debate on issues surrounding faith and extremist threats. His upcoming series on CNN, Believer, offers an intriguing platform to widen that conversation.

Perhaps most striking take-away of the evening was Aslan’s casting of violent Muslim jihadism in the same mold as what the West now experiences as libertarian militia and sovereign citizen movements, commonly associated with anti-government white supremacist ideology. 

These are the kind of folks, like Timothy McVeigh, whom American law enforcement officials quietly deem the most serious threat to public safety. 

A common theme in the public discourse has framed the plague of extremist Muslim violence as a throw-back to similar religious conflicts in an earlier, more “barbaric” Europe (although one doesn't really need to travel all that far back in time). Progress in the West permanently consigned events like these to the past--or so we like to imagine.

But the gathering winds of radical libertarianism in the west make one wonder if today’s jihadi headlines also foreshadow a much more chaotic and violent future. Everywhere.


The Vancouver Observer was proud to be media sponsor for Reza Aslan's appearance at the Indian Summer Festival.

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