When American forces first began fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, criticisms abounded about the lack of troops’ cultural awareness when they entered the Middle East or South Asia. Some of the criticism was unfortunately true, although by the second or third years of fighting, American troops had a better sense of the region and religion than many of those lobbing cheap criticisms.
But while deploying troops must sit through countless hours of cultural awareness training to learn about the region in which they will soon live and fight, many with whom I have talked over the years voice a common criticism about the programs: They are subject to basic, politically correct descriptions of Islam that seem detached from the reality of their missions. U.S. troops who have fought in Iraq and still fight in Afghanistan are fighting not peaceful Muslims who abide by the most benevolent Koranic interpretations, but rather radical jihadis who seek to disfigure and murder in the name of religion.
The same is too often true with Department of Justice training. After having been criticized by Islamist advocacy groups for focusing too much on radicalism, the Justice Department has largely sanitized its training. It avoids controversy by allowing groups like the Council on American and Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA)–which embrace or apologize for some of the worst groups–to help set the bounds of permissible interpretation. Letting CAIR determine what can and cannot be taught about Islamist terrorism is like letting the Taliban have final say on the U.S. Army’s counterinsurgency manuals. To have ISNA have sway on how Muslim military chaplains are credentialed suggests a lack of seriousness about combating radicalism.
While no religion has a monopoly on terrorism, cultural equivalence also rings hollow: There is a far greater problem right now with Islamist terrorists operating across the globe and who use theological exegesis to motivate and justify their actions than with groups which root themselves in Christianity, Judaism, or Hinduism. It is disingenuous to suggest otherwise. To teach counter-terror analysts only about the “Five pillars of Islam,” commonalities between the Koran and the Old and New Testaments, and explain only the most sanitized interpretations of the Koran is simply policy malpractice made worse when questions regarding radicalism go unanswered.
Basic theology is not hard to understand. But if U.S. military officers and Department of Justice officials are truly going to understand the environments in which they serve and the adversary against whom they seek to protect the United States and all Americans, then it becomes essential that U.S. officials are able to understand and explain not only what the five pillars of Islam are, when the Prophet Muhammad was born, or what the 21st century definitions of Greater and Lesser Jihad are, but rather be able to discuss:
- The passages of the Koran which extremists use to justify suicide bombing and precise theological arguments moderate clergy might use to refute those (beyond simply saying Islam forbids suicide).
- The evolution of Islamic interpretation of the Koranic passages which promote beheading of prisoners.
- They should also learn that, contrary to common rhetoric, the Koran is not always the same, either historically or in translation and interpretation.
- All religions evolve. Few Christians would advocate publicly burning at the stake women who might publicly recite the Bible. After all, this is no longer the 14th century. Likewise, while it is important to understand contemporary interpretations of jihad, it is likewise important to recognize that the concept of jihad has evolved over time. That said, when militant groups seek to build a society based on their notion of how Islamic states might have acted 1,350 years ago, it behooves analysts to understand what theological interpretations predominated then.
- The theology that Osama Bin Laden embraced and expounded, and that advanced by Ayman al-Zawahiri or Abubakr al-Baghdadi. If these men preach something un-Islamic, then an official with understanding should be able to explain why–not simply ignore their theology.
President Obama may have sought to project seriousness when he outlined a strategy to combat ISIS on September 10. But until the U.S. government—whether the Defense Department focused abroad or the Justice Department at home—refines its curriculum to address rather than avoid tough questions of theological interpretations, any officer or official participating in the fight will not only be entering it blind but, more damningly, will be entering it blind based on the political desire of their leadership. It’s time to equip those manning our front lines with real cultural awareness, not the religious equivalent of My Little Pony.