In my travels through the Greater Middle East for the Afterparty book project, I went out of my way to meet Muslims. I visited mosques in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, met with the leading Afghan Islamic scholar at his mosque in Kabul between afternoon prayers, discussed religion with secular, Shia and Sunni Muslims in Iraq. Interviews with Muslims, from army officers and a hospital CEO to a former mujahedin fighter and a frustrated Afghan housewife, permeate the Afghanistan and Iraq chapters. In the final chapter, I explore the notion of Islam as a violent religion. Here is an excerpt from the closing chapter of “WAR: The Afterparty.”
Islam is not the problem.
Unequivocally, the Muslims I encountered during my trip insisted on the peaceful intentions and practices of their religion, and fiercely insisted that ISIS, the Taliban and al-Qaeda were violators of Islamic tradition. It’s a personal choice to embrace tolerance and non-violence, or to provide a rich education for one’s children, regardless of gender. Hate, anger and domination are part of the human condition, free to breathe inside or outside of religious tradition, tribe or nationality.
If you’re looking for scriptural justification for violence, that’s easy to find.
As the United States prepared to invade and occupy Iraq, I accompanied my ex-wife, Paula, and my daughter to the Auburn Parkside Church of the Nazarene. Andrea, 16, had been “witnessed” to by a friend and so spent some months exploring Parkside’s fundamentalist brand of Christianity. Paula’s Brazilian Presbyterianism preached a less austere but no less faithful practice. Her fiercest complaint was that the music sucked, understandable for a music-obsessed Carioca.
As I fidgeted in my church pew, I was already perplexed by the stated mission of the impending Iraq adventure. Sitting in my car in the parking lot of Jerry’s Deli in Marina Del Rey some days prior, I heard President George W. Bush articulate seven separate reasons as to why we were going to war. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said after the invasion, “The truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy, we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on, which was weapons of mass destruction.”[i]
Jews have a habit of skipping to the back of the book; Hebrew scripture goes from back to front. Parkside’s pastor focused his sermon on war. He exhorted us to pray for the troops (no prayers for the soon to be slaughtered and displaced Iraqis), imploring the congregation to be “prayer warriors.” To complete the martial framing of the sermon, the reverend quoted from the Book of Joshua. There is a YouTube video with rosy-cheeked pre-teens singing “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho.” A commenter on the video page objected to the warlike implications of the song, and another responded, “God was responsible for blessing the Israelites. They wouldn’t have been successful without God. God loved. The Israelites listened. Joshua led them.” The Israelites circled Jericho, the Lord exhorting His people to blow down the city walls with trumpet blasts and, then . . . what? Skipping ahead of the pastor’s liturgical reading of chapters four and five, here is what the One True God demands of His chosen people in Joshua, Chapter Six.
Verse 20. When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city.
Verse 21. They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys . . .
Verse 24. Then they burned the whole city and everything in it, but they put the silver and gold and the articles of bronze and iron into the treasury of the Lord’s house . . .
Verse 27. So the Lord was with Joshua, and his fame spread throughout the land.
The choice of scripture, God’s injunction to commit genocide in Jericho, stayed with me through the years of Iraq’s subjugation, humiliation and devastation. As I visited museums and historical landmarks in western Europe on my way to Serbia, I noticed a similar claim of divine providence inspiring the British, French, Belgian, Dutch and German colonial empires. Justification for wanton violence, for the mission civilisatrice, by those chosen as exceptional by providence, whether historical or divine, goes something like this:
God has chosen us,
to bring our superior values, code and way of life,
to inferior races, cultures or political systems,
justifying the overwhelming application of violence,
and the looting of the treasury on behalf of the chosen.
We Americans see others as having diabolical aims, and see our own instincts as noble. In Sven Lundqvist’s travel classic, “Exterminate the Brutes,” he documents the disgust of British colonials at the rapacious behavior of the Spaniards in the Americas. Over 90 percent of the population under Spanish rule was extinguished in a hundred years. But, in bringing Christian civilization to new lands, the outcome was no different in “El Norte.”
In 1492, Columbus arrived in America. The extent of the so-called demographic catastrophe that followed has been estimated differently by different scholars. Certainly it was without equivalent in world history . . .
About five million of the indigenous American population lived in what is now the United States. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, half a million still remained. In 1891, at the time of Wounded Knee — the last great massacre of Indians in the United States — the native population reached rock bottom: a quarter of a million, or five percent of the original number of Indians . . . When the same phenomenon occurred as a result of Anglo-Saxon occupation of North America, other explanations were required. “Where the English come to settle, a Divine Hand makes way for them by removing or cutting off the Indians, either by Wars one with the other or by some raging, mortal Disease,” Daniel Denton wrote in 1670.[ii]
Abrahamic religions have endorsed wholesale murder in the name of God since Abraham himself nearly slaughtered his son Isaac to slake the divine will. When communism was ‘just cause’ for global power projection and expanded military budgets, we heard little of Muslims as an existential threat due to a millennium-old mandate to convert the world. When the Soviet Union revealed itself to be a crippled economic basket case, politicos and broadcasters replaced the worldwide communist conspiracy with the global plot to create a caliphate and impose Sharia law.
[i] Packer, G. (2005). The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, p. 60.
[ii] Lindqvist, S.& Tate, J. (1997). “Exterminate All the Brutes”: One Man’s Odyssey into the Heart of Darkness and the Origins of European Genocide. New York: The New Press.
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