28 May 2009
Afghanistan: Bible Blitzkrieg
A fundamentalist Christian movement within the US military seeks to convert locals to the detriment of US strategy in Afghanistan, Jody Ray Bennett writes for ISN Security Watch.
By Jody Ray Bennett for ISN Security Watch
As if the Obama administration needed more problems with regard to Afghanistan, it can now add another to the growing list of concerns challenging American strategy in the 'graveyard of empires': Christian fundamentalists.
This time, at least, the problem has nothing to do with “the enemy” - Taliban insurgents, covert Iranian influence or otherwise - as much as it has to do with the American forces itself. Indeed, the latest concern has everything to do with a seemingly opaque yet ubiquitous religious culture within US forces that has enabled a specific fundamentalist Christian movement to turn its sights on the Afghan public.
On 5 May, Al-Jazeera English network released seven minutes of unedited footage that showed a Bible study session comprised of US soldiers led by the top chaplain on Bagram Air Force Base explaining various techniques to proselytize to a majority Muslim public. The video was shot by an American documentary filmmaker and released by Al-Jazeera after the Pentagon responded to the original edited footage as “grossly misrepresent[ing] the truth.”
Amid criticism that the network has an “anti-American bias” in its coverage, Al-Jazeera English network stated that it was inspired by an article in Harper’s Magazine titled, “Jesus Killed Mohammed: the Crusade for a Christian Military.” The article outlines serious implications for an American strategy that claims it must win the “hearts and minds” of the Afghan public to achieve some sort of coherent and cohesive success. The article paints a picture of a Christian extremist fringe movement that adversely impacts the image the US military claims it is attempting to build: an efficient, supportive, ally against a cruel and extremist Taliban insurgency.
The Pentagon has stated that the stacks of Bibles that were translated into local Pashto and Dari languages and were intended for public distribution in Afghanistan by the organization have been confiscated and destroyed. A military spokesperson on the Bagram airbase confirmed that the US military removed the Bibles, citing US Central Command's General Order Number 1 which “forbids troops on active duty – including all those based in Iraq and Afghanistan – from trying to convert people to another religion.”
It was a reminder of spring 2008, when residents of Fallujah, Iraq were given coins by US Marines that were engraved with a message in Arabic: “Where will you spend eternity?" on one side and, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life -John 3:16,” on the other.
In the videos released by Al-Jazeera, the chaplains clearly demonstrate that they realized the organization’s activities were in violation of General Order Number 1 and explain how to circumvent the regulation: “Do we know what it means to proselytize? […] You can't proselytize, but you can give gifts.” The religious leaders then went on to share previous experiences with US soldiers about reciting scripture and giving Bibles to locals as gifts.
Losing hearts, minds…and souls
This situation does not bode well for US forces in Afghanistan. Recent public opinion polls in Afghanistan indicate that while the public overwhelmingly identifies the Taliban as the country’s biggest threat, its support for the US military’s ability to reshape, rebuild and provide security is rapidly eroding.
Families who bear the costs of the ongoing conflict, many of whom have been uprooted from their local communities and forced into refugee camps, hardly require an injection of Christian theism into their lives, especially on behalf of representatives of the US military who are already largely seen by opposing sides as a part of a neo-Christian crusade.
The situation in Bagram has caused some critics to point out that the prevalence of religiousness has been nothing short of absent in militaries throughout history. On this specific issue, one critic aptly notes: “The British imperial army was often preceded by Christian missionaries in its African conquests […] The US has evolved a more efficient system integrating the missionary function into the military itself.”
Indeed, this holds a historical significance that could greatly impact the relationship between soldiers as perceived security providers and the Afghan civilian population as the seed to rebuild Afghanistan into a so-called modern, liberal democracy. If this is Washington’s aim, then it thwarts its own strategy to appeal to the civilians on whom it relies to defeat the Taliban and secure and rebuild the country.
In a recent interview with Democracy Now!, Air Force veteran and founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, Mikey Weinstein, explains that these sorts of movements within the US military are not a fringe phenomenon, but rather ubiquitous: “There are so many para-church organizations [within the US military]: the Worldwide Military Baptist Missions, the Soldiers Bible Ministry, the Campus Crusades Military Ministry. You can’t count them all. This is how bad it is. And, you know, docile and supine America needs to wake up, because what we’re doing, we look exactly like the Crusaders of 1096 to the Iraqis and now the Afghans.”
And it looks even more as a ubiquitous phenomenon when the US military advocates Christian ministries on its bases to combat the increased suicide rate among soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Even more damaging are the recently surfaced cover sheets of intelligence documents that were prepared by the Department of Defense during the Bush administration and delivered to the then-president by Donald Rumsfeld that “juxtapose[d] war images with inspirational bible quotes.”
It is reminiscent of a post-9/11 atmosphere when Lieutenant-General William "Jerry" Boykin spoke to evangelical audiences and “compare[ed] Islam to Satanic evil and framed the 'war on terror’ as one of spiritual warfare.” To this end, the American Prospect noted, “If a form of evangelicalism that is actively encouraged in the military equates perceived Islamic enemies with Satan's legions, it's not hard to imagine how justification for torture could follow.”
Are Christian fundamentalist groups the US military’s unintended Trojan horse? Or has the US military allowed these groups to proliferate without much scrutiny, oversight or assessment into how they affect a broader agenda in pursuit of American interests? In the context of Afghanistan, if victory is partially defined as a willingness to at least appear as a nonreligious occupying force, then the strategy is surely hampered, if not broken altogether, as long as theists of any flavor are allowed to use the vehicle of American power to spread their own theories of eternity and the afterlife.
Jody Ray Bennett is an independent writer, researcher and journalist. His areas of analysis include the global defense industry, private military and security companies and the materialization of non-state forces in the global political economy.
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