Kasey Stewart, Reflective Essay

Defining a Terrorist

            Throughout Reza Aslan’s Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Age of Globalization he makes multiple claims essentially focused around two statements; In this new globalized world we live in, religion is becoming the new form of identity and radical jihadists are using that identity as justice to fight in “cosmic wars.” However, the larger question that seems unanswered is how seemingly peaceful religions create such evil people and how globalization triggers that. Aslan writes a strikingly beautiful argument that pulls you into his book rather quickly, but in the midst of his eloquent words he fails to defend his initial argument.

While reading the introduction, “Us Versus Them,” there are two things that draw one’s eye. First and foremost, Aslan wastes no time dismissing the rumor that Islam is an evil religion, in fact he states that “no religion is inherently violent or peaceful, people are violent or peaceful” (Aslan 10). Then, as the introduction comes to a close, he rationalizes why anyone would think religion is evil; Islamic extremists are using religion as a form of identity that separates ‘Them’ from ‘Us,’ and to eliminate differences they simply destroy ‘Us.’ In the past, ‘Us vs. Them’ was not used to separate religions, but in the age of globalization the world is becoming increasingly borderless, causing other identity forming systems such as ethnicity, culture and nationality to fade.  Finally, Aslan states his thesis for the rest of the book: If Islam is not an evil religion, what is causing the terrorists to find a common identity within the religion that justifies their use of violence, and how should ‘The West’ go about fighting them?

In the following chapters, Aslan dances around his question by introducing historical information on the rise of Jihad and the battle over Jerusalem. In Islam, Jihad means struggle and is often followed in the Qur’an by the words ‘in the way of God.’ However, “there has been much confusion over the meaning and application of the word “Jihadism,” especially because it is so often misappropriated … by careless media that often pander to the fears of an unknowledgeable public” (Aslan 28). After September 11, 2001 it became horribly obvious that multiple radical Islamic groups were justifying terrorism as a struggle in the name of God to destroy “non-believers,” and Westerners used the minority to give a bad name to the entire religion. Unfortunately, Aslan never explains how the terrorists justify their interpretation of the word Jihad, which would have offered a great opportunity to explain how they defend their use of violence even though their religion is peaceful.

In the years after the Holocaust, many countries were concerned with making things right with the Jewish world by supporting the quest for a Jewish state (Zionism). Sadly, by supporting the building of a Jewish state, everyone stepped on the toes of the Muslim world. Arthur Balfour, a British politician, is probably more famous for stepping on the Muslim world than anyone by claiming “the four great powers are committed to Zionism, and Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the … Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land” (Aslan 52).  It is easy to imagine how his statement would spark anger in the hearts of many Muslims, and unfortunately for the ‘Western world,’ radical Jihadists took that spark of anger and ran with it. As Aslan states,

There remains today no more potent symbol of injustice in the Muslim imagination than the suffering of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. Particularly in the Arab world, it is hard to find a primary or secondary school where schoolchildren do not learn about the daily misery of boy and girls their own age, (Aslan 56-57).

After that statement, Aslan turns to writing about the experiences of everyday Muslims, but never goes any further in depth than that statement to explain how the terrorists are ‘born.’

For most of the book it seems as if Aslan is repeating the same concept but finding a clever way to disguise it, until mid-way through chapter six, when he begins to give insight on how religion can be used to spark violent ideas. It is rather easy for a person with self-confidence to trick people into following them with no questions ask because they tend to offer irresistible incentives, but “when religion is involved, these incentives become easier [to offer] since people of faith are usually willing to sacrifice earthly rewards for the promise of heavenly ones” (Aslan 129). At that point it seems as if Aslan is about to drive his thesis to the end and answer his initial argument, but instead he begins to repeat the same information as previously mentioned.

With one chapter left in the book, having time to answer his thesis quickly ended, and due to his lack of prioritization, he is forced to focus on the later part of his thesis: how should the ‘West’ go about fighting these radical Islamic groups? Aslan’s reply: do not give them a reason to hold resentment against us, “engage the citizens of Muslim majority states through the language of mutual respect [because] a lack of respect is cited as the prime reason by the overwhelming majority of Muslims when asked what they see as hindering relations with Western countries” (Aslan 158).

Overall, Aslan wrote a wonderful book with great information in it, but he left the answer to his thesis rather open ended and up to the readers discretion. In some cases leaving the thesis unanswered can make a book more interesting and thought evoking. Unfortunately for Aslan, the topic he tried to tackle is one of much debate and without a clear cut question and answer; readers are left wondering what the point of his book was to begin with.


Aslan, Reza. Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Age of Globalization . New York: Random House Trade Paperback Edition , 2010.

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One Response to Kasey Stewart, Reflective Essay

  1. zaranka15 says:

    I thought you did a great job supporting your argument with quotes found throughout the book. I liked your balance of Aslan’s quotes and your own opinion on what he said. You made it very clear that although the book was packed full of good information and interpretation of a very controversial subject, you didn’t think Aslan supported his thesis. I thought your essay was very cohesive and well written.

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