Marines Teach “True” Islam in Afghanistan

The following is a guest post from Cris, a Ph.D. student in Anthropology at the University of Colorado-Boulder. This post originally appeared 30 August at his blog, Genealogy of Religion.


It is always a sign of war going badly when the US mounts a “winning hearts and minds” campaign to go alongside conventional military operations. It surely is a worse sign when US Marines teach Afghanis to read the Koran so they can “help people understand Islam’s true nature.” When Devil Dogs are tasked with winning hearts and souls for Allah, you know things have taken a turn for the surreal.

Over at The Atlantic, Brian Mockenhaupt reports that US Marines are teaching a kinder, gentler kind of Islam than that which prevails among the Taliban. Who needs Mullah Omar’s conservative and bellicose version of Islam when you can have the Huffington Post’s progressive and peaceful version:

A chaplain since 1999, [Navy chaplain] Solomon had arrived for his first Afghanistan deployment ready to deliver sermons, lead Bible studies, and offer counsel about marital problems, fear, and the sharp grief of losing friends. He has performed those staples of military chaplaincy, but he and his colleagues have also increasingly found themselves in the unexpected role of counterinsurgent.

This is tricky territory for chaplains, whose job is to facilitate religious expression, but not, as noncombatants, to participate in the prosecution of war. That’s an easy distinction on a battlefield: say prayers with the troops; don’t fight beside them. But what about when interpretations of religion can either feed violence or quell it?

The relative lack of education in rural Afghanistan complicates this challenge. Many of the area’s mullahs, the equivalent of small-town preachers, can’t read and write in Pashto, never mind Arabic, the language of the Koran. That makes it hard for them to deeply understand the Koran and the tenets of Islam, and easy for the Taliban to spread its version of both the duties of good Muslims.

Here, “deep understanding” is code for “our understanding.” Solomon and his Afghani assistant are giving “Koran lessons” so local citizens can understand “Islam’s true nature.” Islam does not have an essential  “nature.” Lacking any such nature, there can be no “true” Islam. There will always be many kinds of “Islams.”

All this aside, the Marines would get more bang for their proselytizing buck by teaching literacy in conjunction with reader response theory. And if the Marines really wanted to be subversive, they would hire Stanley Fish to revise his book and ask the locals: Is There a Koran in This Village?

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