Quilliam held a roundtable with Reza Aslan on 3rd June 2009, entitled ‘How to Win a Cosmic War’



Reza Aslan

“Today I am going to present a part of the book that is specifically related to the UK.

  • In the build up to the EU elections, predictions are that attitudes in Europe are going to sour towards integration and subsequently fuel the rise of ultra nationalist groups. This push to the right has less to do with the global economy than it does with the increasing deterritorialization of Europe itself. The success of the right therefore comes from a fear of globalisation. In fact, I would go so far as to say that a fear of Islam is linked to an increasing fear of globalization.
  • The far-right’s argument is that these immigrants must be forced to integrate into Europe otherwise they must go home. The problem with this argument, however, is that the Muslims in Europe are already fairly well integrated into European society: they speak the languages, take European degrees etc. So much so that scholars tend to talk of Euro-Islam that is quite different to Islam in other parts of the world, even that of the USA. 
  • Even a fundamentally anti-democratic organization like the European branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir is ironically a supremely European organization— they rely on the fundamental principles of European society to be able to preach their message. The irony is that the ‘world without borders’ that they talk about is the world they already live in—the EU is the model for the global caliphate!
  • The problem is that while many of these young people do feel supremely European, they live in a continent where Islam has become the receptacle of anti-EU sentiments; Islam has become the most convenient ‘other’ for a revived European national identity. For young people whose religious and cultural affinities have become increasingly caste as ‘other’ and who feel they cannot access a distinctly ‘civic’ identity, radical Islam has become the replacement for that national identity: a reactionary identity.
  • Jihadism thrives in these identity vacuums, creating its own collective identity by articulating a set of local and global grievances and drawing connections between the two. This creates a sense of identity and belonging—a virtual community— which allows them to transcend national identities. The weaving of a narrative between globalized and localized grievances creates a master frame of suffering and marginalization of the Muslim world at the hands of the West. 
  • How do you deal with this kind of movement? You sever the link. In the US, civic identity is so malleable that it is easy to feel as if one is part of America. This has allowed US Muslims to sever the connection between the local and the global. After all, the US is more to blame for conflicts going on at the moment than any European country, yet there is no backlash from among the 8 million Muslims in the US because there is no connection between local and global grievances there. 
  • Granted, the UK is light-years ahead of the rest of Europe in terms of integration. Whereas in many European countries ethnicity and nationality are seen as one and the same, that connection is not nearly as strong in the UK for two reasons: one, because the UK government has begun addressing the local grievances, and two, because British Muslims are working to create a distinct national identity that can be accessible to and absorbed by Muslims. This is an important dialogue and one that can become the paradigm for the rest of Europe.

We have to make sure that Islam does not become the lens through which Europe’s identity crisis is experienced. Islam is an indelible part of the EU; Europe is an essential part of the Muslim world”. 




What are your sources on Europe?

I spent about 3 years here post 7/7 off and on. I talked to Muslims across the UK. What I really wanted to do was to come back and forth as much as possible.


European and American Muslims will save Islam because they are prepared to debate the future of Islam. Is this a contradiction?

This is the natural progression of global religion. Islam is no longer centred in the Middle East, which is why I am so disappointed with Barack Obama’s decision to speak in Egypt. Islam exists on those margins—where we are sitting right now is the Muslim world and where Islam will be defined in the 21st century.


I want to question your assertion that it’s not an Islam problem but rather it’s an immigration problem.

The parallel between Islam in Europe and Islam in the US is a false parallel because it is not about the idea of Islam but about the absorption of foreign groups— whether they be first, second or third generation. I am not saying that the problem of Islam in Europe is an immigration problem, but that one should not compare Muslims in Europe and the US unless one is willing to talk about the immigrational status that has led to this parallel.


The problem still remains— is there a particular Muslim immigration problem?

No, there is not. It is just that the immigration issue here in Europe is primarily from Muslim countries. This isn’t about Muslim integration but about integration of people that happen to be primarily from Muslim countries.


But this can still be a cultural issue, and we can’t divorce Islam from a cultural framework.

You cannot divorce culture from Islam, but you can divorce Islam from culture. You’re right in that if you are Muslim you can’t deny that culture and ethnicity has a huge role to play in the way that you understand your religion, but your culture is not founded upon your religion, your religion is founded upon your culture.


You said that to deal with this we must sever links between local and global grievances— but how?

The first step is to deal with the socio-economic issues that are very much a part of this problem— Muslim communities in the UK live at far lower economic levels than average. But in a more general sense, I have to go back to the construction of a civic identity. If there is no access to this, you will always maintain an identity of ‘other’. Creating a civic identity means one doesn’t need to go beyond national and cultural affinities to associate with an imagined global community.


Could you expand on what you mean by ‘civic identity’?

I used this to avoid the phrase ‘national identity’ because, particularly when talking about Europe, it is difficult to divorce ideas of ethnic and cultural homogeneity from concepts of national identity. After all, this is where nationalism was constructed and it was done so unquestionably on homogeneity. Homogeneity is a fiction now, so I use the term civic identity meaning that there must be some kind of easily accessible conception of identity divorced from ideas of ethnicity and culture. Ethnic-German or ethnic-Italian identities, for example, are quite problematic especially when you are talking about a revived far-right.


This civic notion that we describe in America seems a bit weak outside of the US. We are different to them and need something a bit sexier than that.

There is something very sexy about a civic identity if you break it down to its basic principles: an acceptance of common political and ideological principles; an acceptance of a national narrative that is capable of evolving and absorbing the narratives of recent immigration; and a willingness to realise that there is no such thing as a monolithic British society but that Britain is willing to accept and adapt to accordingly. I think that is what is missing.


How can we expect the Muslim community in the UK to integrate when 97% of mosques have foreign imams? This is something that the Muslim community in this country must put right. You need to analyse how the Muslim community can meet us halfway, communicate with us.

I think you’ll find that the vast proportion of the Muslim community in the UK would agree with you. Part of the problem is precisely that these imams do not speak to a young generation. It is a fact that radicalism defines itself in opposition to the mosque. Jihadists are appealing because they speak English. There is a groundswell of support to force Imams to learn English in the UK, and to begin the process of creating home-grown imams, all of which are the responsibilities of the Muslim communities. It is not going to happen in Downing Street, it is going to happen within these communities and I think it is happening already— look where we are now.


Problems tend to be generalized. We have to understand the diversities of Islam in order to be able to move forward. We have to better understand the communities that we are dealing with.

A decade ago you were referred to as British Asian, and now you are referred to as British Muslim. There is a tendency to talk about ‘the Muslim problem’ as though socio-economic status, political, culture, national homeland, village, tribe, kin and clan don’t have something to do with this.


Do you believe that the traditional concept of ummah causes an obstacle to integration into the EU, and are there alternatives that are more conducive?

No, I don’t believe that it is an obstacle because I don’t believe that such a thing exists anymore and hasn’t for a long time. The geo-political fragmentation of the Arab and Muslim world in the twentieth century really put an end to such a concept. But what’s fascinating is that the ummah is being recreated online, and we can’t deny the fact that the desire for this utopian conception of ummah is very much a part of the jihadist ideology.


There has been an anti-immigration flavour in British politics for a long time e.g. with the Sikhs. If we see this merely as a backlash to the EU we risk not looking at the long history of anti-immigration sentiments. I agree with you on the notion of a national narrative/civic identity—how do we develop something out of British history? Also, have you changed your mind over the importance of the nation state?

The easiest form of collective identity is always that formed in opposition to the ‘other’. Of course this isn’t a new phenomenon, but undoubtedly it has been exacerbated by the rapid deterritorialization of this continent. I am a globalist. I look forward to a time when the rest of the planet looks like the EU. I find what’s happening here to be miraculous— the idea of coming together in these transnational alliances based on mutual concern and desires—this is the future of the planet. Nationalism is being slowly diminished and frankly the very idea that secular nationalism should be the primary marker of our collective identities is becoming a fiction. That said, as this happens you are going to have the aggressive responses of nationalism. Bin Laden is also a globalist—jihadism is the inevitable consequence of globalization.

To sever the link with the idea of a ‘global ummah’ is going to be incredibly difficult. We need a powerful counter-narrative around shared values. We still— in this country and abroad—haven’t collated a sufficient counter-narrative that takes on issues to empower our Muslim communities in order to understand the world from a theological point of view, whilst allowing them to express themselves in a democratic way—articulating a counter-narrative that addresses the grievances of Al Qaeda from both a theological and civic point of view.

I couldn’t agree more.


The problem is that identity has been hijacked by a tiny group within the Muslim community. How does your model address the fact that violence has come to overshadow everything else?

Violence is a legal issue and needs to be dealt with in a legal fashion. The issue of extremism on the other hand, which is in some ways the motivation for violence, is something that needs to be dealt with within the Muslim community itself, and is being dealt with by creating the counter narratives and civic identities that we have been talking of. I want to avoid the idea that you can create a simplified ideological explanation for acts of violence. These acts of violence have to be treated for what they are—illegal acts to be dealt with by the police— rather than representations of some kind of ‘cosmic contest’. If I replace the word ‘violence’ with ‘extremism’ then I can talk about the dialectic that needs to be involved with the Muslim communities and with the Government to try to create the necessary setting to dissuade people from acting out in these ways. Violence is just in many ways an extreme expression of a political act, and it is the extremist aspect that needs to be dealt with, not the end result of violence.


Where would you have liked to have seen Obama make his speech if not Cairo? What main points you would like him to make?

Without question Indonesia. For a whole host of reasons, not least because of the sentimental connections that Obama has there. It is a demographic fact that the future of Islam is in South Asia, South East Asia, Europe, North America, Africa—it is not in the Middle East. Indonesia needs to be rewarded for the fact that it has had a decade of an incredibly successful, vibrant, pluralistic democracy. Instead, Obama is rewarding one of the most brutal and bloody dictators in the region. This is not an address to the peoples of the Middle East, but to the Muslim world. Nor was it an address to the leaders of the Muslim world, which could have been done with a summit. If he doesn’t address the political aspirations of Muslims—according to a 2007 Gallup poll 78% of Muslims want democracy in their country—by directly criticising Mubarak, then this is a photo opportunity. Nothing important will be addressed in this speech. That said, the thing I love about Obama is that he always surprises me. Maybe he will prove me wrong.


On the global level, I was wondering about your thoughts about another fault line that crosses many different societies—one between classical interpretations of religion, and the more recent born again/fundamentalist interpretations.

I want to take that fault line one step further. What you are seeing is a division between institutionalism and individualism. Fundamentalist groups define themselves in opposition to traditional institutions. Bin Laden may argue that his version of Islam is the traditional version, but it is far from it. It is a highly innovative version of Islam that has nothing to do with fourteen centuries of clerical authority— in fact it denies the very authority on which clerics are founded. Fundamentalism cuts across geographical and socio-economic boundaries. I’ll give you a quick example: the Presbyterians in the US are breaking across fault lines over the issue of homosexuality so that you have episcopalian churches in the US which are now voluntarily coming under the leadership of bishops and archbishops in central Africa. This is an inevitable response of globalization—the fragmentation of religion in favour of a more primal form of identity. God is not dead, but he is much more personal than a few centuries ago. A ‘micro-ummah’ is being created in the Muslim world—and in all religious traditions— in opposition to traditional institutions. Institutions therefore have two options: they can adapt and become more relevant so that they speak to the individualistic needs of a new generation, or they can disintegrate. I think the latter is inevitable and not necessarily that bad. I recognise the desire for unity among religions, but that impulse is now acted out through these ‘mirco-ummahs’. Jihadism is a perfect example of this—they have created a ‘micro-ummah’ that has nothing to do with larger notions of ummah.