Summary and Keywords
A “cosmic war” is an imagined battle between metaphysical forces—good and evil, right and wrong, order and chaos—that lies behind many cases of religion-related violence in the contemporary world. These transcendent spiritual images have been implanted onto the social and political scene, magnifying ordinary worldly conflict into sacred encounter. There is nothing specific to Christianity, Islam, or any other religion about this idea of cosmic war. Every religious tradition contains images of grand battles that have a divine valence to them. Hence every religion has some kind of mythic or legendary scenario of warfare that can be transported into contemporary conflict and elevate a social or political confrontation into cosmic war.
One of the striking features in the rash of religion-related violence at the end of the 20th century and the first decades of the 21st is the centrality of the theme of war. “The battle is not yet over,” Osama bin Laden proclaimed in a fatwa issued several years before the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001.1 This idea of grand and enduring warfare has been a common refrain echoed not only by other militant Muslims but also by radical Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh activists around the world.
Their war, however, is an odd one. In many cases the goals of battle were not clear. Al-Qaeda had no specific territory in mind, no government structure, and no clear political agenda. It was not always certain who the enemies were—the “near enemies” of Middle East dictators or the “far enemy” of the United States and European powers that supported them. Other movements, such as Hamas, Hizbollah, and ISIS have been more specific about their territorial claims. Yet even in these instances the enemies also are broad and varied, from local Shi’a politicians and unsympathetic Sunni neighbors to global leaders and international powers. Anyone imagined to be engaged with the shadowy forces of evil are potential foes. There is no gray area between opposing camps, but the determination of who is on whose side often seems arbitrary. What the supporters of these movements are clear about, however, is the idea that they are at war.
Interviews with many of these activists indicate that the war they have in mind is something grander than military encounters meant to achieve a specific strategic target.2 In many cases, it is war for the sake of war, the notion of a great transcendent struggle between good and evil, right and wrong, order and disorder that is at the existential reaches of human reality. As one of the leaders of the Palestinian Hamas movement, Abdul Aziz Rantisi, put it, “Our struggle is greater than a fight over territory.”3 In his mind the war in which Hamas was engaged was part of a divine plan for the redemption of the Palestinian people.
I call such notions “cosmic war” because their grand transcendent images of conflict are larger than life. They evoke images of great battles of the legendary past, and they relate to metaphysical conflicts between good and evil. Notions of cosmic war are intimately personal but also can be translated to the social plane. Ultimately, though, they transcend human experience. What makes religious violence particularly savage and relentless is that its perpetrators have placed such religious images of divine struggle—cosmic war—in the service of worldly political battles. For this reason, acts of religious terror serve not only as tactics in a political strategy but also as evocations of a much larger spiritual confrontation. In this article I explore related ways of thinking about warfare—among them Chaoskampf, holy war, just war, limited war, and absolute war—and explain how cosmic war is both similar and different and then describe its characteristics and relevance to contemporary instances of religious-related violence.
Grand Warfare in the Ancient World, Biblical Israel, and Early Christianity
In some of the world’s most ancient texts there is a notion of great warfare that occasioned the very creation of the world. In the ancient Babylonian myth of Enuma Elish, for example, the god Marduk engages in battle with Tiamat, who is a kind of sea dragon identified with chaos; in killing her and splitting her in two, the heavens and the earth are created. Scholars have called such battles Chaoskampf, a German word that means “the battle against chaos,” implying that chaos must be conquered in order for worldly order to be established. The ancient concept of chaos in this context, however, is not confusion but rather formlessness and disorder.
The Hebrew Bible picks up this idea in the story of creation in the first chapter of the book of Genesis, which was likely influenced by the Babylonian myth. As in the Babylonian Enuma Elish account, the Bible also says that before the time of creation “the earth was without form, and void.”4 Then, as in the Babylonian story about slaying the Tiamat dragon, the void was parted into two to create the heavens and the earth. There is no account of battle in the biblical version, though the conquest of chaos is clearly implied, and later passages of the Hebrew Bible evoke images of the destruction of the chaos dragon, as in the reference in Psalms to God’s act in crushing the heads of sea monsters.5 In the Christian tradition, images of Saint Michael the archangel slaying the dragon also echo the violent battle of the Babylonian creation myth and are likely influenced by persistent images in Indo-European culture that date back to early central European and Mesopotamian civilizations.
Though there are no battles portrayed at the time of creation in Genesis 1, later in that book and other parts of the Hebrew Bible warfare abounds. These are often savage, destructive encounters that leave no prisoners behind. “God is a warrior,” proclaims the book of Exodus in a stirring song of Moses and Miriam that extols divine acts of warfare.6 The God of these early books in the Hebrew Bible is indeed a god of war who actively engages in human battles. In freeing the Israelites from captivity, God is reported to have smashed the Pharaoh’s chariots and drowned the Egyptian leader’s commanders in the depths of the Red Sea. With his “right hand,” the book of Exodus exults, God “shatters the enemy.”7
In these passages from Exodus, God literally enters the fray as an avenging warrior. In the account described in Deuteronomy, God is also portrayed as being directly involved in the affairs of battle, identifying enemies and leading the Israelite forces into combat. The passages from Deuteronomy also allow for armed attacks against those who attempt to lure someone into worship of other gods, even if the tempter is one’s own brother, wife, or son.8 As with enemies of state, no mercy is allowed: they are utterly destroyed. In Deuteronomy, enemies in distant lands who surrender are allowed to live, though as forced laborers. But in the cities that the Israelites believe to be theirs by divine grant, which God “gives you for an inheritance,” the inhabitants are doomed.9 “Save alive nothing that breathes,” God is said to have advised the conquering Israelites when dealing with tribal groups that have no possibility of redemption, including the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Per’izzites, Hivites, and the Jeb’usites, “as the Lord your God has commanded.”10 Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible we find passages that portray God as a terrorist, as in this verse from Exodus: “I will send my terror before you, and will throw into confusion all the people against whom you shall come.”11
Behind this arresting image are several interesting ideas—one is the notion of a war so absolute that no negotiation or truce is conceivable. It is this idea that we consider later in this article as a part of the idea of “cosmic war.” What is perhaps even more startling in the Deuteronomy passages is the notion that God himself is involved in the slaughter. In these discussions of battle in the early books of the Hebrew Bible (but notably not in later books), the concept of God is actively involved in human affairs and clearly takes sides. As Reza Aslan has pointed out, the Hebrew Bible’s accounts in Exodus and Deuteronomy and other early books portray God as actively participating in the drama of human warfare; he is “a warrior.”12 In the Qur’an, which also contains passages referring to warfare and how it should be conducted, God, or Allah, is not portrayed in such an active form. For one thing the Islamic idea of an abstract god and the Islamic prohibition against anthropomorphic images of the divine would not allow such images. It is also a matter of a shift of scriptural focus away from the activity of the sacred. The spotlight in the Qur’an is on the obligations of humans as they attempt to carry out the will of God and conduct warfare in the name of God and in defense of the community.
Though warfare is not a dominant theme in the Qur’an—less than 2 percent of the six thousand verses of the scriptures relate to fighting—when it does appear, the battles can be almost as vicious as the images in the chapters we have cited from the Hebrew Bible. In the second chapter of the Qur’an, Surah 2 (the “Surah of the Cow”), for instance, God is reported to tell his followers that “if they fight you, slay them.”13 Yet at the same time the battles are not without limitations. Fighting is always presented as a defensive posture, to fight only when your community is attacked by a group from outside. It also is to be conducted with discretion; unarmed civilians are to be protected, for instance. “Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you,” the Qur’an advises, “but do not transgress limits; for Allah loveth not transgressors.”14
Distinction between Holy War and Divine War
These scriptural views of warfare are sometimes called “holy war.” One of the most influential Old Testament scholars, Gerhard von Rad, in his book Holy War in Ancient Israel, characterizes this kind of divine involvement in warfare as one in which “unshakeable certainty of victory” is “the characteristic defining all holy war.”15 But biblical scholars have disagreed over whether holy war is the right term, since it is not just divinely inspired war, or war conducted for religious reasons—the most common definitions of holy war—but specifically a war conducted by God. For that reason, other terms, such as Yahweh war (or “God war”) and divine war have been suggested as more accurate terms for warfare conducted directly by God and not just on behalf of god.16 Divine war would then be the appropriate term for the warfare in Deuteronomy; “holy war” is more characteristic of war in the Qur’an and in religious history where battles are thought to be conducted by humans with God’s blessing and in the name of God though not actually conducted by divine agency.
The term holy war comes into use in Christian history in a very specific moment at the outset of the Crusades in 1095, when, at the Council of Clermont, Pope Urban II proclaimed that these battles were more than the defensive military actions permitted under the concept of “just war,” which has been the main theoretical structure permitting limited warfare in Christian tradition. The concept of “just war” goes back to ancient Greek thought, explicated by Cicero and then later developed by two of the most influential thinkers in Christian history, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. In general the idea of just war provides the moral basis for warfare—including a just cause and the rule of proportionality (permitting acts of violence only if they reduce the overall violence of the encounter). In the Council of Clermont, however, Pope Urban II raised the bar by proclaiming that support for the Greeks in defending the eastern flank of the Roman Empire against Muslim armies and liberating the Holy Land was more than the defensive battles allowed in bellum jus, “just war,” but was instead bellum sacrum, “holy war.” He concluded his comments with the rousing call to arms, Deus vult (“God wills it”). The implication is that holy war is not subject to the limitations of just war; it is still warfare conducted by humans on behalf of God’s will, though not, as in Exodus and Deutronomy, by the divine force itself.
Even if the holy wars of the Crusades were not limited by the rules of just war, they were shaped by the worldly considerations of politics. The Crusades, like other worldly battles blessed by religion, were political events, in that they defended and extended spheres of power. As the author Karen Armstrong has pointed out, there are virtually no instances of “religious violence” in the histories of any religious tradition, if one interprets that term to be warfare conducted solely for reasons of imposing particular religious beliefs on other people.17 Even though religion may be one element in a strategy for conquest that is conducted for political purposes, war is always about political power. Yet there is an abundance of examples where those who conduct warfare promote their cause by proclaiming that God is on their side and that the conduct of certain wars would be a response to “God’s will,” as Pope Urban II put it.
It is this kind of holy war that characterizes the role of the sacred in the bloody Wars of Religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, ending with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. It also is the kind of warfare associated with the expansion of Islamic empires from the Umayyad Caliphate (seventh and eighth centuries) to the Ottoman Empire (thirteenth to the early twentieth centuries). History is fully of holy wars, in the sense of warfare that is conducted with a sense of moral authority and divine support.
Religious War in Islam, Protestant, and Indic Traditions
The idea of warfare has become internalized and domesticated in most religious traditions. In Islam, for instance, the idea of jihad, a term that means “struggle,” is for most Muslims not a call to battle against heretics but rather something that is conducted within one’s own soul. It is the struggle within the self as one fights against the forces of sin and apostasy in everyday life. In a similar way, most Christians and Jews see the warfare of the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) as a metaphor for the struggles against the injustices and perversity of society. Nonetheless, the images persist. In the words of Protestant hymns, for instance, martial images abound. The faithful are urged to fight onward as “Christian soldiers marching as to war.” Other hymns challenge Christians to “stand up for Jesus” as if they were “soldiers of the cross,” to fight “the good fight,” and to struggle “manfully onward” to subdue the enemy, identified in this case as “dark passions.”18 One scholar of popular Protestantism, Harriet Crabtree, surveyed the images that are prominent in what she called the “popular theologies” projected in the hymns, tracts, and sermons of modern Protestant Christianity and found the “model of warfare” to be one of the most enduring.19 The Protestant writer Arthur Wallis, in his book Into Battle, claimed that “Christian living is war.” Wallis explained that warfare is not “a metaphor or a figure of speech” but a “literal fact”; the character of the war, however—“the sphere, the weapons, and the foe”—is spiritual rather than material.20 Crabtree asserted that the image of warfare is attractive because it “situates the listener or reader in the religious cosmos.”21
We have focused on the view of war in the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but in the Indic traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism there is a similar progression from early images of battle that are vividly portrayed in scripture and legend to a more nuanced metaphorical interpretation of these images among most contemporary members of the community. The battles of the Theravada Buddhist text the Mahavamsa chronicles great battles between Sinhalese Buddhist and Tamil kings, and the art of Sikh culture vividly portrays the bloody encounters with Moghul warriors, including the martyrdom of two of the founding gurus in the Sikh lineage, Guru Arjan and Guru Tegh Bahadur. In the great Hindu epic the Mahabharata war was waged between sets of cousins, and chaos is embodied by the battle itself. It is the wickedness of warfare that the battle depicts, which leads the mythic figure of Arjuna to despair about being forced into battle. His chariot driver, who just happens to be Lord Krishna, explains that all life is battle in some sense, and there is no avoiding it. To fight in such a circumstance is to acknowledge the disorder of this world, although the contestants knew that in a grander sense this disorder is corrected by a cosmic order that is beyond killing and being killed. Such was the message of Lord Krishna in his address to Arjuna, which constitutes the section of the Mahabharata known as the Bhagavad Gita (the “song of the auspicious one,” the “auspicious one” being Lord Krishna) and which may well be the best-known text in the Hindu tradition.
Clausewitz and “Absolute War”
In the secular literature on warfare there are also distinctions between ordinary warfare and conceptions of martial conflict that are extensive in scope, both in degree and in kind. The memoir of a general in the German army in World War I, Erich Ludendorff, was titled “Total War” (Der totale Krieg), implying that the First World War was different from most wars since it involved military operations on a large scale and was an all-or-nothing combat that targeted civilian populations as well as military units. Thereafter, Ludendorff’s notion of “total war” became the label for the kind of war that is fought not only against an enemy’s combatants—soldiers in battle—but against the enemy’s population as well. In the Civil War between the North and South in the United States, civilians were also targeted, though in this case the Union General William Tecumseh Sherman described it as “hard war.” Sherman regarded as enemies not only the soldiers in combat on the battlefield but also civilians involved in providing food and military supplies.
The 19th-century theorist of war Carl von Clausewitz is also sometimes characterized as making a similar distinction between ordinary war and total war. The term that Clausewitz uses for extraordinary war, however, is not der totale Krieg but der absoluter Krieg—“absolute war”—and Clausewitz means by that something much more than just the targeting of civilians in an all-out combat. For Clausewitz, “absolute war” is the most extreme form of war, one that aims solely at the destruction of the other side, the absolute defeat of the enemy by whatever means.
Clausewitz, who served in various positions with the Prussian and Russian armies in the early 19th century, is arguably the world’s best theorist of warfare. Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz was born in 1780 in Magdeburg, now in Germany, about eighty miles west of Berlin. At that time it was part of Prussia, and Clausewitz’ father had been in the Prussian army (though his grandfather was a Lutheran theologian), so Clausewitz also joined the Prussian military, at the young age of twelve. He advanced through the ranks to the rank of major-general, but his scholarly nature was deemed unsuitable for most command positions. For this reason, he was usually assigned to administrative posts, though he often served as an adviser on strategy to his military superiors. His best-known work, On War, published posthumously, is a bulky manuscript of over 400 pages that was revised and never quite completed during Clausewitz’s lifetime. Much of it is about strategy and how to conduct military operations, but the opening chapters are about theory, about what war essentially is.22
This is where the notion of “absolute war” is central to Clausewitz’s thinking. As he edited the manuscript, however, he increasingly preferred instead the term ideal war, a notion much like Max Weber’s idea of an ideal type, because for Clausewitz all war has at its core a common theme, the application of violence to force one’s will. At its essence this is a winner-take-all combat pitting one brute strength against another. Clausewitz calls this core element of absolute or ideal war Zweikrieg, “two-sided war,” a term that is also translated into English as a “duel” because it implies that there is no compromise and that only one side will emerge victorious. Other translations use the imagery of a wrestling match, because Zweikrieg also evokes the image of sumo wrestlers grunting at each other and attempting to shove the other out of the ring.
It is this kind of “absolute” or “ideal” war that Clausewitz locates “at the foremost place” in understanding the nature of war.23 Yet at the same time Clausewitz admits that this pure form of war virtually never occurs in real life (though he did accuse Napoleon Bonaparte of coming close to committing it). There are limitations placed on war for all sorts of reasons—moral and social but most of all political. The conqueror may have to rebuild the area that was conquered, for example, and so resists decimation for that reason; alternatively, the triumphal side may, like the United States in the First Gulf War, end the fighting even when it is ahead because the limited objectives of the military engagement have been reached. Then, again, one may want to obey rules of warfare, such as respect for prisoners, in order to encourage the other side to respect one’s own soldiers if they are imprisoned. Clausewitz recognizes that war, even this pure form of “absolute” or “ideal” war, never exists in a political or historical vacuum. It is always shaped by other considerations.
It is for this reason that Clausewitz can say with confidence that “war is politics by other means.”24 This is probably the most famous quote from Clausewitz, but it is a mistake to think that this is his only way of thinking about war. Quite the opposite. For Clausewitz the most pure form of war is Zweikrieg, the all-or-nothing aspect of “absolute war,” though at the same time, because war is almost always in a situation where it is shaped by the historical context in which it appears, it is also “politics by other means.” These two ways of thinking about war are at two extremes of a spectrum, and most warfare falls somewhere between. This means that real war in Clausewitz’s description of it, is almost always limited war. Much of the rest of his book is about the limitations posed on the strategy, tactics, and goals of war, but the book begins by stating that the theoretical foundation on which war is based is Zweikrieg, absolute war.
The idea of “cosmic war” has much in common with Clausewitz’s notion of ideal or “absolute war.” It is an imagined image of grand encounter between two sides gripped in an all-or-nothing struggle, a confrontation so grand and complete that it almost always is confined to the imagination or to representations in myth and legend—and found in popular culture in films and computer games. What makes the idea of cosmic war different from absolute war, however, is the nature of the struggle. Here is where elements from cultural traditions enhance the notion by providing aspects of the ideas of Chaoskampf and divine war. Cosmic war is not an all-or-nothing struggle just between two earthly combatants but between essential forces of reality. It has a moral valence to it and is a fight between good and evil, right and wrong, and order versus chaos. Holy war is not quite cosmic war, because it is somewhat limited by moral and social constraints, in the way that Clausewitz speaks of the political and social limitations placed on absolute war in a historical context; “just war” is even more explicitly limited by the moral rules that it places on military engagement. Cosmic war, however, has no such limitations. It is absolute war on an existential level.
The Appeal of Cosmic War
The attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, have brought the world into a jarring awareness of how images of cosmic war can sometimes become dramatically implanted on real events. The rise of an angry new form of conservative religious politics in the contemporary world has been the occasion for acts of violence—including vicious incidents of terrorism—that often reflect the imagined encounter between forces of good and evil, right and wrong, order and chaos—in other words, images of cosmic war that descend from the cultural imagination and are located in real-world conflict.
Interviews with activists involved in these cases of religious violence around the world, including my own interviews, point to the images of grand warfare that inform them.25 Activists regard themselves not as terrorists, but as soldiers in a transcendent encounter between existential forces played out on an epic scale. Real-world social and political confrontations are swept up into this grand scenario. Conflicts over territory and political control are lifted onto the high proscenium of sacred drama. Such extraordinary images of cosmic war are meta-justifications for religious violence, because they not only explain why religious violence happens—why religious persons feel victimized by violence and why they need to take revenge for this violence—but also provide a large worldview, a template of meaning in which religious violence makes sense. In the context of cosmic war, righteous people are impressed into service as soldiers, and great confrontations occur in which noncombatants are considered part of the enemy to be destroyed.
Why would such a stark vision of all-or-nothing existential encounter be appealing? The interviews with activists who embrace extreme images of imagined warfare see it as providing a number of salient advantages, especially in times of social upheaval and assaults on traditional notions of social reality. Among these features are the following:
Provides a Coherent Worldview
Perhaps the most important aspect of cosmic war is that it provides an all-encompassing worldview for those who accept it. It identifies the sources of good and evil in the world, explains why things occur, provides moral justification for those who lead the battle against evil, and gives a promise of victory in the future. It offers a view of ultimate order and a template of social reality that embraces most aspects of life. For this reason, some of the people interviewed who have adopted a cosmic war perspective describe their acceptance of it in words that sound much like religious conversion. “That was the most marvellous experience of my life,” explained Richard Butler, describing his first reaction to the Christian Identity theory of cosmic war. “The lights started turning on, bang-bang-bang,” Butler, the dean of the Identity movement, told a reporter for the Los Angeles Times in 1999.26 Butler went on to say that the knowledge that “war had been going on for over six thousand years between the sons of Cain and the sons of God” was a cathartic experience for him, “opening up who we were, where we came from, and why we were there.”27 He added that this epiphany was “the greatest thrill” he ever had, and from this moment on he knew “what my mission was.”28
Explains Why Bad Things Happen
Another Christian militant also described his acceptance of the Christian Identity’s worldview of cosmic war as a conversion experience, explaining that it helped him understand the sources of evil in the world. “Wow, this is it,” Denver Parmenter exclaimed, saying that the movement’s ideas about ancient and continuing warfare led to a sudden stroke of awareness that provided him “the reason things are going wrong.”29 In his case it confirmed his conviction that the source of evil in the world is the deception created by Jews, members of racial minorities, and the politicians that profit from their support, who are trying to manipulate the public into acceptance of a secular, multicultural society. The notion that this was an attack that he and other righteous white Christians could defend themselves against gave him clarity about what was going on in the world around him and hope that what he regarded as the normal social reality of white Christian supremacy would be restored. Hence this grand scenario gave him a view of the world that he could participate in, helping him not only to understand his destiny but also to control it.
The cosmic war worldview not only identifies who the good guys and the bad guys are, it also exposes the bad guys for who they are: agents of evil. They are more than foes with whom one disagrees. In the scenario of cosmic war, enemies are in league with the forces of darkness, ultimate evil, and absolute chaos. For this reason everything that they do is regarded as deceitful, and one need not waste time in considering their points of view or trying to negotiate with them. It simplifies one’s view of the world. When Indira Gandhi, prime minister of India, attempted to ameliorate the demands of Sikh separatists during the uprising in the Punjab in the 1980s, her efforts were brushed off as devious tokenism by those who saw the conflict in the stark black-and-white terms of cosmic war. For this reason she could be targeted for assassination without remorse. After all, demons are not really human; they deserve no mercy. When Dr. Baruch Goldstein, a right-wing Jewish settler in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron attacked Muslims who were worshipping in the Cave of the Tomb of the Patriarchs—a location sacred to the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—his followers cheered when they saw pictures of the maimed Palestinian Muslims who had been killed. The head wounds of the Muslims were a source of humor for the young Jewish admirers of Goldstein, the attacker. Similarly, in the Catholic-Protestant conflict in Northern Ireland, victims on both sides were savagely tortured and their bodies mutilated as they were dying. From the point of view of those torturing them, the victims were not just foes to be conquered but demonic enemies to be destroyed. In cosmic conflict, the lives on the other side have no worth.
Cosmic war justifies acts of violence. Though this is true about every war, ordinarily one thinks of violence as a result of warfare. That is, first one faces an enemy that will destroy you if you do not attack it first, and violence may sometimes ensue. In the famous Chinese manual of warfare by Sun Tzu, The Art of War, the most adept forms of warfare are those in which clever responses to an enemy make actual violence unnecessary. Still, violence is acceptable once war has been proclaimed. In the imagined conflicts of cosmic war, however, the situation may be reversed. The image of warfare may be created because people want to be violent and need a conceptual structure to justify their acts. If enemies do not exist as real threats in life, they have to be invented. One would then imagine that these enemies—people of a different ethnicity, for instance, or distant political powers—are more threatening than they actually are. Wielding the instruments of violence is by itself empowering, and leaders or groups that want their roles as arbiters of violence to be justified may well want an excuse to wield such violent threats. Images of cosmic war stand ready to provide these excuses, and for many they are easily at hand as part of the repository of cultural symbols of their religious communities.
The worldview of cosmic war is empowering for those who accept it in several ways. As we have just seen, it gives participants the license to kill, and the role of the perpetrator of violence is an empowering position, even if it is only a matter of threatening to conduct acts of violence. In addition, scenarios of cosmic war give those who believe in them a sense of confidence about life. It gives them the feeling that they understand what is “really” going on in the world, a hidden knowledge that other people do not have. Mahmud Abouhalima, who was a central figure in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, told me that he had “real knowledge” about the hidden forces in the world around us; it was, he confided to me in an intimate voice, a war between good and evil, and he added that the American government was the enemy.30 Abouhalima said this with the confident satisfaction that he knew something that most people do not, and it gave him a commanding sense of understanding about the world. In the same way, the nineteen hijackers of the airplanes who eventually brought down the World Trade Center on 9/11 most likely had an exhilarating sense of secret knowledge and a confidence that their act would change the direction of history. In an interesting way, the U.S. response to the 9/11 attack provided a similar template of cosmic war, the “war on terror” that was portrayed by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush as a fight for freedom. Like the jihadi ideology of the perpetrators of the attack, Bush’s cosmic image of a “war on terror” also had the effect of clarifying what had happened. It put the cognitive anomaly of an attack on the tallest buildings in New York City into social context, a scenario of warfare that provided the public with confidence in a leadership that could identify the enemy and engage in a battle for righteousness that would ultimately succeed. Like all images of cosmic war, it was an imagined battle, linked in this case to real acts of military might, including the invasion and occupation of two Muslim countries. But the cosmic elements of the military incursions were vital, for they gave the grand justification for the militant acts and provided images of power and control to a public that felt confused and weakened in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Provides Militant Roles
The image of cosmic war need not be a passive experience. One can actually join the struggle by becoming a soldier in the imagined war. This is exactly how many of the activists involved in acts of terrorism have described themselves, not as terrorists but as warriors. Mahmud Abouhalima bristled when I suggested to him in an interview that he was viewed as a terrorist. “I am simply defending Islam,” he told me.31 A similar comment was made by Ashin Wirathu, the Buddhist monk in Mynamar who was pictured on the cover of Time magazine beneath the caption “the Buddhist face of terror.”32 When I interviewed Wirathu in 2015, shortly after the issue of the magazine with his picture on the cover was published, the first thing he said to me was “Do I look like a terrorist?” He grinned cheerfully, expecting a negative response. I avoided answering his question, because most of the people that I have interviewed who have engaged in militant acts that others regard as terrorist acts see themselves as morally pure; they regard themselves as soldiers in a great defensive war against a demonic enemy. Wirathu confirmed this understanding of how he viewed his own role when later in the conversation he talked about how Burmese Buddhism is under a life-and-death challenge by the forces of global Islam. For this reason his followers were justified in defending themselves, by violence if necessary, against what he regarded as an insidious threat.
Gives Transcendent Time Lines
Seeing a conflict in cosmic terms also expands the horizons of the confrontation. It expands them spatially, in that cosmic war is thought to be larger than one region or location on the earth but rather a manifestation of a global tension between forces of good and forces of evil. It is also expansive in a temporal sense, for cosmic war can endure beyond one’s lifetime and still ultimately reign victorious. When I challenged Dr. Abdul Aziz Rantisi, political head of Hamas, regarding the efficacy of Hamas’ military methods—especially suicide attacks—against the powerful Israeli army, he initially acknowledged that it would be difficult for Hamas to win in his own lifetime or even in his children’s lifetime.33 But in his children’s children’s lifetime, Rantisi said, brightening, “we may succeed,” adding that they could not possibly lose because this was not their own battle, but “God’s war.” In a cosmic war, defeat in a skirmish or the deaths of warriors are temporary setbacks in a struggle that could persist for decades, even eons, because it is on God’s time. But because it is “God’s war,” as Dr. Rantisi put it, the ultimate outcome has been preordained, and the virtuous side will triumph.
Promises Personal Redemption and Heavenly Rewards
The notion of cosmic war is a social construct that is usually shared by a group of people who collectively are defensive or disturbed about their situations and see the idea of cosmic war as a way of giving clarity to their confusion and a direction to their anger. It is also intensely personal. It challenges individuals to accept the worldview as a conversion experience and provides personal rewards—primarily the hope of personal transformation and spiritual redemption. According to the “Last Instructions” to the 9/11 hijackers, found in the parked car of one of those who died in that mission, the hijackers were expected to perform rites of purification before they undertook the final act, indicating that participation in the suicide act of martyrdom would redeem them in the afterlife. Much is made of the promise stated in the Qur’an that all pious Muslim men will receive sensual rewards in heaven, consorting with virgins. Some of the stories about the Prophet (hadith) written after the revelations of the Qur’an specify that the number of virgins will be seventy-two and that they would have almond-shaped eyes and large breasts. The videotaped last testament of the young Palestinian men who have volunteered to ignite explosive belts in acts of suicide terrorism do not dwell on this aspect of heavenly rewards, but they do make much of how they will be remembered in the community’s history and how they expect that this act will make something positive out of their lives. They also expect to be exalted in heaven as part of their spiritual rewards.
Is Personally Exciting
The possibility of facing death in the service of a cosmic war can be one of its more enticing characteristics, especially for young men who are often drawn to any kind of dangerous activity. ISIS, the Islamic movement that rules through a reign of terror in eastern Syria and western Iraq, promotes an enticing image of romantic warfare for potential recruits from around the world. A sophisticated media campaign on the Internet portrays a cosmic war in which they can participate to defend Islamic civilization and defeat imagined enemies of Islam. It is like an enormous computer game that young men (and a few women) can actually join in real life. The recruitment videos and websites give the impression that joining ISIS will be a great adventure and challenge the young recruits to live up to the fullest of their capacities. Alas, however, most of them are used virtually as cannon fodder by ISIS commanders eager to have cadres of young foreigners whom they can control and who are willing to waste their lives conducting suicide attacks on military targets.
When Does Ordinary Confrontation Become Cosmic War?
Though the idea of cosmic war can be appealing for the reasons that have just been suggested, it appears as an option for real military engagement only at certain occasions in the social life of a group. As noted earlier in this article, religious traditions are full of images of cosmic warfare, existential encounters between good and evil that are usually interpreted in a symbolic or metaphorical way. These images are implanted on worldly situations of social conflict only under certain conditions. The likelihood that a conflict will be conceived as a part of cosmic war is greater in the following situations.
When the struggle is perceived as a defense of basic identity and dignity
If the struggle is thought to be of personal importance and ultimate significance—a defense not only of lives but of entire cultures, such as Sikhism or Islam—the possibility is greater that it will be seen as a cultural war with spiritual implications. The Irish confrontation, for instance, became spiritualized when the Rev. Ian Paisley interpreted it as an attack on the culture of Protestantism and the identity of Protestant people. The Palestinian-Israeli struggle also took on a religious aura after a significant number of sheiks and mullahs interpreted it as a defense of Islam and rabbis and other Jewish activists saw it as a defense of the concept of biblical Israel. In other cases, the very nature of the issues—such as abortion or the sanctity of life—can attract religious activists, such as the followers of Christian Identity and Christian Reconstruction, whose involvement has spiritualized the antiabortion struggle. A sense of personal humiliation, such as Dr. Goldstein’s belief that Jews were being humiliated by the Israeli government’s protection of Arab Muslims, can lead to desperate attempts to recover both personal dignity and cultural pride.
When losing the struggle would be unthinkable
If a negative outcome to the struggle is perceived as beyond human conception, the struggle may be viewed as taking place on a transhistorical plane. Members of some extremist Christian groups in the United States, for instance, cannot conceive of a society in which white male heterosexual Christians do not dominate and, for that reason, readily adopt a Christian view of cosmic war in which a great race war will emulate the last days described in the biblical Revelation; subdue the influence of gays, strong women, and ethnic groups described in some of the Christian Identity literature as “mud people”; and usher in a new kingdom dominated by white Christian males. In the Middle East, some Palestinian Muslims have refused to even consider the idea of a Jewish state in what they consider to be Arab territory. Similarly, some radical Jews have regarded the Israeli government’s return of biblical lands to Arabs as unthinkable. The more that goals are reified and made inflexible, the greater the possibility that they also will be deified and seen as the fulfillment of holy writ.
When the struggle is blocked and cannot be won in real time or in real terms
Perhaps most important, if the struggle is seen as hopeless in human terms, it is likely that it may be reconceived on a sacred plane, where the possibilities of victory are in God’s hands. When Shoko Asahara felt trapped by the Japanese police, he created an act—the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in Japan—that he thought would elevate the struggle to the level of cosmic war, just as the Rev. Jim Jones had in Guyana when he chose a collective suicidal act of violence to be carried out by his entire religious community in order to escape what he feared would be capture and humiliation at the hands of government authorities. According to the anthropologist Weston LaBarre, these moments of desperation precipitate religion. He described a poignant historical moment in 1870 when a group of Plains Indians from the Paiute tribe were trapped by the U.S. Cavalry and responded by spontaneously creating a ritual of dancing and hypnotic trances known as the Ghost Dance religion.34 LaBarre’s study indicates when religion and its grand scenarios of cosmic war are needed most: in hopeless moments, when mythical strength provides the only resources at hand.
The presence of any of these three characteristics increases the likelihood that a real-world struggle may be conceived in cosmic terms as a sacred war. The occurrence of all three simultaneously strongly suggests it. A struggle that begins on worldly terms may gradually take on the characteristics of cosmic war as solutions become unlikely and awareness grows of how devastating it would be to lose. The Arab-Israeli conflict, for example, was not widely regarded as a sacred battle from the perspective of either side until the late 1980s. Then the process of sacralization overtook the conflict and transformed it, in the eyes of religious activists on both sides, into cosmic war.
Can Cosmic War Ever Come to an End?
When a struggle becomes sacralized, incidents that might previously have been considered minor skirmishes or slight differences of understanding are elevated to monumental proportions. The use of violence becomes legitimized, and the slightest provocation or insult can lead to terrorist assaults. Those who had been simple opponents become instead cosmic foes. The process of satanization can transform a worldly struggle into a contest between martyrs and demons. Alas, this inescapable scenario of hostility does not end until the mythology is redirected or until one side or the other has been destroyed.
The image of cosmic war can dissipate, however, just as summer storms boil up over the landscape and can leave as quickly as they emerged. A resolution of some of the real-life political and social issues that led to the conflict could undercut the legitimacy of a cosmic war perspective; flaws in the virtues of the groups leading the warfare can also produce disillusionment. The Sikh separatist movement in India came to an end in the late 1980s in part because villagers increasingly saw the young rebels not as heroic warriors for the community but as thugs looking out for their own interests. Movements propelled by cosmic war seldom live up to the virtuous standards that cosmic warriors are expected to manifest.
The idea of cosmic warfare implies more than an attitude; ultimately it is a worldview and an assertion of power. To live in a state of cosmic war is to live in a world in which individuals know who they are, why they have suffered, by whose hand they have been humiliated, and at what expense they have persevered. The concept of cosmic war provides cosmology, history, and eschatology and offers the reins of political control. Perhaps most important, it holds out the hope of victory and the means to achieve it. In the images of cosmic war this victorious triumph is a grand moment of social and personal transformation, transcending all worldly limitations. One does not easily abandon such expectations. To be without such images of war is almost to be without hope itself.
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(1.) Osama bin Laden, “Declaration of Jihad,” in Bruce Lawrence, ed. Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden (London: Verso, 2005), trans. James Howarth, 30.
(2.) Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
(3.) Abdul Aziz Rantisi, co-founder and political leader of Hamas movement. Interview with the author in Khan Yunis, Gaza, March 1, 1998.
(4.) Gen. 1:2.
(5.) Ps. 74:13–17.
(6.) Exod. 15:3.
(7.) Exod. 15:6.
(8.) Deut. 13:6–9.
(9.) Deut. 20:16.
(10.) Deut. 20:16–17.
(11.) Exod. 23:27; Margo Kitts, “Ancient Near Eastern Perspectives on Evil and Terror,” in Cambridge Companion to the Study of Evil, ed. Chad Meister and Paul Moser (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016).
(12.) Exodus 15:3. Regarding the distinction between the Qur’an and the Hebrew Bible on the role of the divine in warfare, see Reza Aslan, How to Win a Cosmic War: Confronting Radical Religions (New York: Arrow, 2010); and Reza Aslan, “Cosmic War in Religious Traditions,” in The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence, ed. Mark Juergensmeyer, Margo Kitts, and Michael Jerryson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).
(13.) Qur’an 2:191.
(14.) Qur’an 2:190.
(15.) Gerhard von Rad, Holy War in Ancient Israel, trans. John Yoder and Marva Dawn (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 44.
(16.) R. S. Smend, Yahweh War and Tribal Confederation, trans. M. G. Rogers (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970); M. C. Lind, Yahweh Is a Warrior: The Theology of Warfare in Ancient Israel (Scottsdale, AZ: Herald Press, 1980); and Stephen Chapman, “Martial Memory, Peaceable Vision,” in Holy War in the Bible, ed. Thomas Heath, Jeremy Evans, and Paul Copan (Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013).
(17.) Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (New York: Anchor Books, 2014).
(18.) “Onward Christian Soldiers,” hymn with words by Arthur S. Sullivan, 1871.
(19.) Harriet Crabtree, “Onward Christian Soldiers? The Fortunes of a Traditional Christian Symbol in the Modern Age,” Bulletin of the Center for the Study of World Religion, Harvard University 16.2 (1989): 6. See also Harriet Crabtree, The Christian Life: Traditional Metaphors and Contemporary Theologies (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991); and The Christian Life: Traditional Metaphors and Contemporary Theologies (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991).
(20.) Arthur Wallis, Into Battle: A Manual of Christian Life (New York: Harper, 1973), 10. The italics are in the original.
(21.) Crabtree, “Onward Christian Soldiers?” 7.
(22.) Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976, rev. ed., 1984).
(23.) von Clausewitz, On War, chap. 2, 56.
(24.) von Clausewitz, On War, chap. 3, 178.
(25.) Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God; Mark Juergensmeyer, Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).
(26.) Kim Murphy, “Last Stand of an Aging Aryan,” Los Angeles Times, January 10, 1999, A15.
(27.) Murphy, Los Angeles Times, A15.
(28.) Murphy, Los Angeles Times, A15.
(29.) Quoted in ABC’s Turning Point, October 5, 1995, Journal Graphics transcript no. 150, 2.
(30.) Mahmud Abouhalima, interview with the author, August 19, 1997.
(31.) Mahmud Abouhalima, interview with the author, August 19, 1997.
(32.) Mark Juergensmeyer, “Chatting with Myanmar’s Buddhist Terrorist,” Religion Dispatches, February 17, 2015.
(33.) Abdul Aziz Rantisi, interview with author.
(34.) Weston LaBarre, The Ghost Dance: Origins of Religion (London: Allen and Unwin, 1972).