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Delicate Middle East peace talks continue -

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Author Reza Aslan joins Lateline to discuss the delicate Middle East peace talks and whether US
envoy George Mitchell can achieve a breakthrough.

Transcript

LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: United States envoy George Mitchell returns to the Middle East this week to
broker the second round of so-called indirect peace talks.

A climate of pessimism surrounds the discussions, because the two sides aren't even sitting at the
same table. Instead it's shuttle diplomacy with George Mitchell as the middle man.

So what hope do the talks have of achieving a breakthrough?

Reza Aslan's first book No God but God has been translated into 13 languages. His new book is How
to Win a Cosmic War: Confronting Radical Religion. He's in Australia to deliver the opening address
at the Sydney Writers' Festival and he joined me earlier in our Sydney studio.

Thank you so much for coming in to talk to us.

REZA ASLAN, AUTHOR: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

LEIGH SALES: In your new book you write about what you call cosmic war. What do you mean by that?

REZA ASLAN: A cosmic war is a religious war. It's a war in which people believe that God is
directly involved on one side against another. It's different than just a holy war, which is about
two religions fighting for some land or resources.

A cosmic war is a very real battle, but it's also kind of a moral encounter. It's a war of the
imagination. It's a war between the forces of good and evil and it's one that is prevalent in
Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

LEIGH SALES: So, if you look at, say, 9/11, is that a battle in a bigger cosmic war?

REZA ASLAN: Absolutely. In fact, Al Qaeda it must be understood, is fighting a war of the
imagination. They're not fighting a real war, a war that can be won in any real or measurable
terms. They believe that they're engaged in a cosmic battle between the angels of light and the
demons of darkness, and unfortunately, the way that we have responded to Al Qaeda and their ilk is
by using the same exact religiously polarising rhetoric, the same Manichean world view and in
essence we've validated their viewpoint.

LEIGH SALES: So, to your mind what would have been a better way then for, say, the United States to
respond to the attack of 9/11?

REZA ASLAN: Well, you know, this is an argument that's being had right now in the United States
because of the new Obama administration. And basically there's a divide in America right now
between, say, president Obama on one side and former vice president Dick Cheney on the other about
how to react to terror.

Is terrorism a criminal act, or is it an act of war? And the Obama administration quite clearly
believes that it's a criminal act. This riles up the political right in the United States, because
they believe that, no, it's an act of war.

But the thing that they have to understand is that when you declare war on a terrorist, he's no
longer a terrorist; he's now a soldier. So you've legitimatised his viewpoint. You've legitimatised
his self-worth.

And if there's one thing that I can say in praising president Obama is that by stepping back from
some of this religiously polarising, us-versus-them, good-versus-evil rhetoric, he has made Al
Qaeda less relevant.

LEIGH SALES: Is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict another example of a cosmic war?

REZA ASLAN: In essence the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is ground zero in the cosmic war because
this is that one place where this conflict over land and resources and sovereignty, national
identity has become, well, ground zero and end-time events.

Muslims, Jews, Christians all have this intensely messianic cosmic concept of what's going on over
there which is precisely why 40 years of this conflict and we are further from a peace process
leading to a two-state solution than we've ever been.

LEIGH SALES: Well can it ever be solved, given the nature of the conflict?

REZA ASLAN: No. I mean, this is the thing, is that cosmic wars cannot be won and they cannot be
lost. They can't be lost because if what's at stake is your very identity, your sense of self, then
losing is inconceivable.

But they can't be won because if it's ultimately about good versus evil and the triumph of good
over evil, well that's probably something that's not gonna happen in our lifetime. Cosmic wars are
eternal wars, and unless we can figure out a way to strip the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of its
religious connotations - and by the way, this is true of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and
indeed the entire so-called war on terror.

If we cannot bring these conflicts back down to earth and deal with the very earthly grievances at
the heart of these conflicts, they'll go on forever.

LEIGH SALES: But how do you do that when people think that they have a God-given right to certain
territory or certain things?

REZA ASLAN: Well the truth is is that there are those ideas on the extremes, both amongst the
Israelis and the Palestinians, and certainly in my country in the United States we have a very
large right-wing evangelical movement that does see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in these
messianic terms, as though what's at stake is the second coming.

But to allow those people and those ideas to have an equal space in the political discussions and
the wranglings over peace is counter-productive, and unfortunately right now, not only do they have
a place, but they have the most prominent place.

The truth is that the majority of Israelis and the majority of Palestinians want two independent
safe and secure states living side by side, but those views have been hijacked by these minority
views that while they are small in number, tend to make the largest amount of noise.

LEIGH SALES: What do you think of these indirect peace talks that George Mitchell's brokering at
the moment?

REZA ASLAN: You know, I have to tell you: I just got back from Israel-Palestine and I have never
been more discouraged about the prospect for a two-state solution. If after four decades and three
wars and tens of thousands of dead civilians and dozens and dozens of peace conferences we're now
at essentially square one in direct proximity talks between the two sides, then we are further than
we've ever been when it comes to peace.

LEIGH SALES: But what would you suggest as a way forward, given, as I said before, the seeming
intractability of the issues here?

REZA ASLAN: What is required here, I think, is an outside force, a mediator who has the power to
bring both sides together and force them - and I use that term deliberately - force them to come to
an agreement.

And of course the only power that can do that is the United States. We in the United States went
through eight years of an administration, the Bush administration, that believed that this was
their problem, that it's the Israelis and the Palestinians who have to come together, that we can't
want peace more than they do. Well, that's incorrect.

We do want peace more than we do because this is a global security problem, it's an American
national security issue, it's an Australian national security issue. There are troops in the
battlefield, in Iraq and Afghanistan that are having a greater threat because of what's going on in
Israel-Palestine. So we have to come to the table, we have to bring both sides there and we have to
make sure that there are severe consequences for both of them in not living up to their
obligations.

LEIGH SALES: You've written that you think religion is a stronger force today than it has been in a
century. What makes you hold that view?

REZA ASLAN: At the dawn of the 20th Century, one half of the world's population identified itself
as either Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim. 100 years of social innovation, of
technological advancement, of secularism and that number is now two-thirds.

The truth is is that people are beginning to identify themselves in religious terms in greater
numbers than we've seen in, well, any time since maybe the 19th Century. Why that is is kinda
complicated. Part of it has to do with globalisation.

The fact that our national identities have been assaulted by globalisation and that nationalism no
longer has that primary place in our identities that it used to have has allowed for other, more
primal forms of identity like tribe, ethnicity, but especially religion to rise to the surface.

But I think part of it also has to do with the failure of secularism, as I put it. I mean, religion
gets a bad rap. It's been responsible for a lot of violence and a lot of bloodshed in the world.
But the truth is that the most bestial acts of human violence have all taken place mostly in the
last 100 years and mostly in the name of unabashedly secularist ideologies - Maoism, Nazism,
Fascism, Communism - these are secular notions that were meant to displace religion and in reality
were far more violent than religion could have ever hoped to be.

So, I think that we are problematically entering a period in which religion is going to play an
ever greater role in human conflicts, and hence the problem with cosmic wars, because if our wars,
if our conflicts take on this patina of religious violence, then it becomes that much harder to
actually solve these conflicts.

LEIGH SALES: So, is that type of violence then more difficult to solve than violence that arises
out of secularism, because from what you say, it doesn't seem that if there were no religion the
world would have less conflict?

REZA ASLAN: No, not at all. However, political violence, which can be just as violent, just as
bloody and just as intractable as religious violence can nevertheless be dealt with because the
fundamental grievances that sort of impel, or compel that kind of violence, I should say, can be
dealt with. Political issues can be solved. Territorial issues, as intractable as they may be, can
be solved. Conflicts over resources - water, land, what have you - they can be solved.

Conflicts over identity, conflicts over one's very sense of self, one's soul, one's relationship to
God - these are conflicts that cannot be solved.

LEIGH SALES: Given that context, what do you think of George W. Bush's view that genuine
democratisation is needed to counter the rise of extremist groups?

REZA ASLAN: Well, you know, this is a view that's not all that popular in the United States these
days, but I actually believe that George Bush got that one right. It is a fundamental fact that
political participation does have the power to moderate extremist tendencies.

We've seen it all over the Middle East. And the truth is is that when you talk to Muslims,
particularly Muslims in the Middle East and you ask them what is their number one aspiration, their
number one desire, the vast majority say democracy.

The vast majority say, "We want a say in our governments." And particularly in those countries that
are America's allies, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia and Jordan, these dictatorial anti-democratic
regimes that enjoy America's support and billions and billions of dollars in aid are some of the
most ruthless anti-democratic regimes in that region.

So, I think that for the West to talk about bringing democracy or bringing civilisation, if you
will, to this region, we have to understand that what that means is that these people have to have
a say in the kinds of governments that they want to have control over their lives, even if we don't
like those governments.

LEIGH SALES: Reza Aslan, it's been great having you in. I hope you enjoy your visit to Australia.

REZA ASLAN: Thanks so much. I've really enjoyed it.

LEIGH SALES: Thank you.