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How Obama Should Address Islamists and Jihadists

How Obama Should Address Islamists and Jihadists

Bestselling author, columnist, and UC Riverside faculty member Reza Aslan has advice for the Obama administration on defeating transnational Muslim utopian radicals, or jihadists. Start, he says, by getting used to the idea of Islamists in politics.

By Margaretta Soehendro
Staff Writer

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Duration: 58:02

Islamism, whether we like it or not, can be the antidote to jihadism.

To respond adequately to the challenge posed by Al Qaeda and jihadist groups, the Obama administration must address grievances that the jihadists use in their transnational recruiting efforts and also follow through on Bush administration rhetoric about promoting democracy in the Muslim world, said Reza Aslan, an author and public intellectual who is currently on the creative writing faculty at UC Riverside. The Daily Beast columnist and author of New York Times bestseller No god but God gave a lecture at the invitation of the UCLA Burkle Center on May 26, 2009, summarizing the argument of his latest book, How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror.

Aslan said the administration needs to distinguish clearly between Islamist organizations that have roles to play in electoral politics in their countries and anti-national, utopian jihadists who don't respond even to the most constructive diplomacy.

"Islamism, whether we like it or not, can be the antidote to jihadism. We don't need to necessarily fear Islamic religious nationalism," he said, referring to parties such as Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. He added that Islamist groups are "by far the most dynamic political movements in their countries."

While the concrete political aims of Islamists create a space for negotiation, jihadists look at their struggle as a cosmic contest between good and evil, Aslan said. While Islamists draw people who want socio-economic change, jihadists recruit followers seeking "idea change." A "cosmic war" fought on the terms of the jihadists cannot be won, Aslan said, speaking against the use of the rhetoric of good versus evil by the United States.

Aslan said that, in spite of criticism from the American political right, Obama has been right both in dropping the phrase "War on Terror," which for many Muslims has meant "War on Islam," and in regarding diplomacy as a lever of influence rather than as a reward for the good behavior of other nations.

"This is not high school. This is not a prom. You can't ignore people you don't like, and I'm glad we have an administration that recognizes this," Aslan said.

As an example of how Obama's openness to dialogue is already making a difference, Aslan cited the reelection campaign of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is now presenting himself as the only candidate capable of reaching out to Obama. To drive home to the point, Ahmadinejad is using the campaign slogan "Ma Mitavanim," which Aslan translated for the audience as "Yes we can."

It will be far more difficult for the United States to address the grievances cited by Al Qaeda in its recruiting, most notably the suffering of Palestinians in the occupied territories. Of course, removing the roots of such grievances won't pacify jihadists. But Aslan said that it would deprive them of symbols that they need in order to lure recruits in Europe and elsewhere.

"What we need to fear is religious transnationalism because that can't be controlled, can't be contained," Aslan said.

Burkle Center for International Relations