Just hours after an American Muslim gunned down four US Marines in Chattanooga, Tennessee on Thursday, Reza Aslan had harsh words for anyone describing it as a terrorist attack. 'Terrorism,' he said, is "an absolute bullshit and meaningless term."
Taking the stage before a standing room only crowd at the Indian Summer Festival in downtown Vancouver, the host of an upcoming CNN series on religion observed how rarely the term is used to extremist violence by anyone other than Muslims.
It wasn't applied to Robert Doggart, for instance, a Tennessee man who set out, in the name of Christ, to shoot up and firebomb a Muslim mosque and school in upstate New York. Doggart was charged with making an interstate threat, not terrorism.
(Notably, despite the FBI's classification of the sovereign citizen Freemen on the Land movement as a terrorist organization, no Canadian media, police or political leaders mentioned terrorism when a heavily armed white supremacist member of the group recently killed an Edmonton police officer investigating anti-Semitic threats.)
But Aslan's real purpose on Thursday was delivering a crash course on politics, religion and violence in today's world.
Religion is more about identity than beliefs
"Religion," says Aslan, "is far more a matter of identity than of beliefs and practices. Of course those are important, but your religion is linked to your politics, economic status, social views, nationality."
For Aslan, all religious belief, whether Christian, Hindu, Jewish or Muslim, is conditioned by local and personal circumstance.
"Saying you're a Hindu is an identity statement. Similarly, if you believe in Islam, you're a Muslim. If you are a radical feminist, guess what kind of religion you are going to espouse? If you are a capitalist fan, you are going to espouse a religion that is capitalist."
And there's no denying the calamitous violence that grips Islam. Aslan himself calls it a "cancer within the Islamic world." But what's missing from Western debate, he says, is any understanding of the real causes. By an overwhelming majority, the victims of Islamic extremist violence are themselves Muslim. When ISIS slaughters 100 Muslims in an Iraqi town, their target isn't the West. Something else is going on.
The secular state challenged by religious nationalism
For Aslan, what appears to Western eyes as simplistic "Islamic terrorism" is the manifestation of an intense struggle as both religious and secular nationalism are attacked by jihadism.
The 20th century saw the rise of secular nationalism, which then erupted into the most cataclysmic wars and revolutions in human history. Decades of unspeakable catastrophe were visited on humanity under Marxism, fascism, Stalinism, Hitler and other forms of secular government. According to Aslan, secular nationalism now faces declining global dominance for two reasons: it was foisted on former colonies by war victors, and globalization diminishes the significance of geography-based identities.
For Aslan, secular nationalism is now challenged around the world by the ascension of religious nationalism.
God is back. This can be seen not only in Islamic countries, but in the overtly Hindu nationalism in Narendra Modi's India and in ever-expanding settlements by Israeli extremists in Palestinian-held territories.
And in North America, evangelical Christians press hard to dominate the political arena.
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.