Originally published in the July 2003 Marine Corps Gazette
By demonstrating knowledge, concern, and respect for the Islam religion, Marines will make better ‘ambassadors’ when in Muslim countries.
Recently, II Marine Expeditionary Force conducted a professional military education (PME) event entitled, “Culture, Religion, and Islam.” These types of PMEs are essential to better prepare our Marines for the operating environment that they might face. Being the Nation’s crisis response force, Marines, like those of Task Force 58, will continue to deploy to the Middle East and South Asia. In these regions Muslim populations and cultures are predominant. Therefore, a greater understanding of the people, their beliefs, and their misperceptions will enable us to better accomplish our mission. Ultimately, creating bridges that celebrate civilizations and enhance U.S. standing will be central to winning the war against global terrorism.
U.S. standing and image in the “Muslim world” is low for various reasons. There is an ever-growing misperception that the United States is at war with the Muslim world and has a double standard when it comes to dealing with Muslim countries vis-à-vis other western nations. Unless changed, this low U.S. standing will continue to adversely impact the war against global terrorism by providing our enemies an endless source of support.
Although the United States does not view the war against terrorism as a religious issue, and our government has no interest in treating it as such, many misinformed Muslims in the Middle East and South Asia believe that the war on terrorism is a surreptitious assault on their beliefs and culture.
Presently, the common view on the “Muslim street” aligns with Samuel Huntington’s prophecy of a “clash of civilizations.” All the more dangerous, this prophecy is also shared and fueled by Islamic extremists and terrorists who condone the indiscriminate killing of innocents and establishment of oppressive regimes. Therefore, any interaction that happens between Marines and noncombatants should focus on celebrating and building bridges between our two cultures rather than highlighting the differences. The following considerations, although not all-inclusive, are meant to serve as a point of departure to help Marines and operational planners better understand the operating environment and overcome the prevailing misperceptions that they may encounter.
The United States and the Muslim World
While our society is pluralistic and respects all peaceful religions, our government is secular and our national business is secular and is not thwarted by religious considerations. Although terrorists seek a religious conflict “holy war,” the United States seeks to defend itself and people of every faith and religion against terrorists. The war against terrorism is not a religious war against Islam. It is a war against terrorists and rogue leaders who support terrorism and oppression. Together they have indiscriminately targeted people of all faiths, including Muslims. These terrorists (and rogue leaders) have hijacked Islam—a religion of peace. In so doing, they seek oppression and indiscriminate killing of people. Alternatively, like people of other faiths, Muslims seek prosperity for their children and each other.
The inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are the same that are espoused in the Qur’an and that Muslims, like people of other faiths, cherish. The basic notions of representative democracy—equality under the law and freedom of expression, press, and assembly—are central to the creed of Islam. Upholding and defending them are likewise central to good citizenship. Unfortunately, although Muslims cherish these rights, given the lack of education and economic and political opportunities in the region, most Muslims have not experienced them.
America has over 7 million Muslims who are an integral part of American society. In fact, thousands of Muslim Americans, along with Muslims from various other countries, are actively involved in our fight against terrorism.
The United States and the Muslim world have been longstanding friends. The first country to recognize U.S. independence was Morocco, while the oldest standing treaty the United States has is with a Muslim nation—The Treaty of Friendship (1781) with Morocco.
Unfortunately, based on television shows and Hollywood movies, the Muslim street has misperceived America to be a “morally lacking society.” The Mullahas exploit this misperception. In reality, per capita the United States has more churches, temples, and mosques than any other nation. Moreover, Americans give more to charity for its citizens and aid to foreign countries than any other nation.
Throughout its history, the United States has assisted several Muslim nations. U.S. forces defended Saudi Arabia, liberated Kuwait and Afghanistan, and stopped the massacre of Muslims in the former Yugoslavian Republics. Immediately following Operation DESERT STORM, U.S. forces provided humanitarian assistance to the people of Bangladesh. The United States has longstanding relationships with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the Gulf Cooperation Countries. In addition, the United States provides significant military and economic aid to Egypt, Jordan, and Pakistan.
Our positive relationships with several Muslim countries such as Oman, Egypt, and now Pakistan should be accentuated. In particular, our relationship with Turkey, an integral partner of NATO and a longstanding ally of the United States, should be highlighted as a model of prosperity between civilizations.
Despite what the “prophets of doom” espouse, we are all “children of Abraham.” Muslims do not view Islam as “Arabic” but rather as people of “the true faith—the faith of Abraham” and those who submit to God. Unfortunately, given the low literacy rates in the Muslim world, the majority of the people cannot read or write. The Qur’an, written in Arabic, is recited and memorized in Arabic rather than the worshiper’s actual language. The belief is that this allows the Qur’an to remain “pure” in its original language and without dilution from human translation. Given that only approximately 20 percent of the Muslim world speaks or understands Arabic, the Mullahas then provide the reader with their own translation/interpretation/meaning of the Qur’an. This is where Islam becomes politicized/radicalized, and the poor uneducated masses are exploited into believing that Islam views complex issues as purely black and white. In fact, most uneducated Muslims don’t realize the common bond among Christians, Jews, and Muslims—that all are children of Abraham. They also don’t realize that the Qur’an tells us:
• Killing oneself and killing in the name of God are expressly forbidden.• Religious freedom, no matter the faith, is a right guaranteed by Islam.• Just because someone claims to be a religious cleric doesn’t mean he can dictate what he thinks God intends.
When possible, we should recognize and participate in Muslim holidays as we do other religious holidays. We should recognize Eid holidays, and during Ramadan, military and political leaders should hold Iftari functions (breaking the fast). The U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, Ms. Wendy Chamberlin, did this, and it was very well received. Additionally, defense attachés should be directed to hold (and publicize) such functions. This will help change the perception within the Muslim community that the United States and its representatives throughout the world do not respect Muslim beliefs or culture. This would also help to bridge the understanding of Islam.
There are approximately 60 Muslim countries in the world of which the United States has the 25th largest Muslim population (more than Libya, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Jordan, et al.). Given our large Catholic population we have an Ambassador to the Vatican; with such a large Muslim population, the United States should have representation at the Organization of Islamic Conference to lead and influence the Muslim world—rather than respond to the diatribe of extremists. On the surface, this idea seems so simple and can easily be scoffed at, but with Muslims composing one-quarter of the world’s population (the fastest growing religion), they are a part of the future that the United States needs to help shape. Obviously, this U.S. representative must be an established (and successful) Muslim American with a great deal of credibility, commitment, and the time to be effective.
The forward presence of Marines safeguards our vital interests while reinforcing the role of the United States as a leader of all free peoples regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity. With a better understanding and education of the prevailing misperceptions that Marines may encounter, we can clarify and navigate through lingering misperceptions to create bridges that celebrate civilizations and help to win our war against global terrorism for this and subsequent generations.