In April, a new American president—the son of a black Muslim father from Kenya and a white Christian mother from Kansas—stood on the floor of the Turkish parliament and, in a historic address, declared that the United States “is not, and will never be, at war with Islam.” The fact that President Barack Hussein Obama felt it necessary to make such a statement is evidence of how thoroughly the “war on terror” has become synonymous with a crusade against Islam. So much so, in fact, that the current administration has decided to jettison the term completely and replace it with the more innocuous, if a bit silly, “overseas contingency operations.”
Not surprising, the new phrase, which sounds more like a backpacking trip through Europe than a multipronged military conflict, received a healthy dose of ridicule in the American press. But the change in terminology is not an insignificant move. Indeed, it may be the first step toward fashioning a far more effective response to the challenge posed by radical and extremist forces in the Muslim world than we saw from the previous administration.
On Sept. 16, 2001, President Bush launched the so-called war on terror with a sentence that reverberated across the globe: “This crusade,” Bush said, pausing for what seemed like an eternity, “this war on terrorism, is going to take a while.”
Crusade. The word hung in the air like an undetonated bomb, long enough for its myriad implications to come to mind—long enough, surely, for that one most-devastating inference to be fully absorbed. This is no simple word, but an emblem for an era when the cross of Christ was brandished as a sword by one barbaric, theocratic empire against another barbaric, theocratic empire. It certainly did not help matters that the word “crusade” is rendered into Arabic as hurub as-salib—“The Wars of the Cross”—which is how the Arab press reported Bush’s statement: “this war of the cross ... this war on terrorism.”
True, President Bush made a hasty about-face, going out of his way in the following weeks to assure Muslims around the world that he had no intention of launching a campaign against Islam. But in that first, intuitive reaction to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the president not only gave Americans an apocalyptic lens through which to view the coming conflict with the Muslim world (though, in truth, a great many Americans needed no encouragement), he responded with precisely the cosmic dualism that those who carried out the attacks had intended to provoke. As bin Laden gleefully declared to a reporter a few days after the president’s comment, “Our goal is for our Muslim community to unite in the face of the Christian crusade … Bush said it himself: crusade.”
Fortunately, the new administration seems to understand that if we are engaged in a “war of ideas,” then our words may just be our most effective weapon. And the simple fact is that those three words that President Bush introduced into our vocabulary eight years ago have become so infused with cosmic significance that they have become America’s greatest obstacle in the ideological contest for the “hearts and minds” of the Muslim world. I, for one, say “good riddance” to the War on Terror.
Reza Aslan is author, most recently, of How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror. His previous book, No god but God, has been translated into 13 languages.