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My attack on the “Islamofascism” concept and the right-wing extremists’ call for an “Islamofascism Awareness Week” has provoked varying responses, from a lovely invitation to attend an Eid feast to such reactions as the following:
Dear Professor Leupp,
While the issue of exactly what to call those who base their faith in Islam, and at the same time, call for a “world Caliphate” and with the outspoken intent of bringing “all the world” under this Caliphate, ruling via “Sharia Law”, there can be no rational debate over the issue of intent, one merely has to record the words of the Islamic leaders around the world.
As to the idea that Iran has not attacked anyone in centuries, you seem to have lost sight of the act of war Iran committed when it invaded our Embassy in 1979. In case you’ve lost sight of it, embassies are considered “sovereign territory” of the Nation whose embassy it is, and any such attack is considered “an act of war” in accordance with Geneva Convention.
You also give Iran a free ride in ignoring the fact that Iranian Revolutionary Guards put in place Iranian saboteurs who used half a dozen satchel charges to disable airliners sitting on the runway and taxi-way of Beirut International Airport, the same year, and assassinated various Lebanese Government officials fomenting an Islamic war against the Constitutional government of Lebanon.
It is a fact that Hezbollah is an Iranian terrorist organization, and that it has been used to keep Lebanon from having a civil government by agitation and the usurpation of authority among the Islamic sector of Lebanon, and bringing about the “Lebanese civil war” which still rages today.
I spent the winter of 82-83 as part of the “Multi-National Peace-keeping Force” which halted the Islamic aggression, removed arafat and his minions, established arafat as a “bargaining partner”, and prevented the Israeli Defense Force from pursuing the minions of arafat some 2500 terrorists, and destroying them. We kept the IDF and the Syrian Army from battling out the control of Beirut, and provided security for all the non-Islamic people of Lebanon, who have been deliberately targeted by Hezbollah and the many Islamic militias fomented by Iran.
You apparently don’t know much about what has gone on in the middle east in the past three decades, or you would have a column that could be based on facts, explicated, rather than on feelings and opinions without the backing of facts.
If you really want to know what it is like in the middle east, you have to go there and experience it. I have, and it doesn’t “experience” anything like it is played out by the media. Even the so called “moderate Muslims” openly proclaim that Islam is not in America to be equal to any other religion, but is here to rule over all. That is the official position of the “Council on American Islamic Relations”, which is merely a new name for the “Palestinian Liberation Organization” which had to change its name to remain in the United States.
[Concluding disparaging remarks deleted]
GySgt, USMC, ret.
* * *
I usually smile at this sort of material, particularly if I find it personally insulting, and delete it. I don’t have time to even answer all the polite emails I receive. But in this case on a whim I replied, asking permission to replicate the letter with my comments so we might both reach a wide audience. The sergeant’s response follows.
* * *
You are welcome to post it, I make no excuses for what I write, it is what I have found through experience. My only hope for this world, is for those who are indeed “moderate” to find ways to actually communicate, and find a way and means to compromise and find peace. I am reminded of the story of the first weeks of our post revolutionary war post articles of confederation time, when our forefathers sat down with the intent to “fix the articles so they would work more aptly to further the life of the colonies”. They spent weeks with no real hope, every representative seeing his own desires for his own State as being opposed by the desires of the others with the same goal.
Benjamin Franklin stood up, at 82, and spoke out to the convention. He asking why “we can gather here together” with the intent of forming a new kind of bond between Sovereign States, after fighting a war where “we sought the answer to our questions from before the first shot was fired, from the God of Creation, and held our judgment until we found our answer, yet we have opened this most difficult task, and have entirely left our supplications for wisdom behind”. He then asked that the chaplain be brought forward and they had prayer and sought guidance.
From that day on, the Constitution Convention had prayer of supplication for wisdom to meet all the needs of the delegates, and out of it came the single most important contract between a people, and their prospective government that has ever been written. It is the document that spells out our “contract” between all of us, it defines the role of the federal government, and it does all of this with an even hand for all who pursue liberty while restraining their own wills with personal self-responsibility.
I apologize for the last couple of personal remarks, I know I disparaged you to some degree, and it was out of anger. I ask that you forgive me the personal remarks, and other than that, take it, reproduce it, and reply as you will. I would appreciate a copy of your comments as well if you will. I am far happier for having a debate than simply taking everything at first glance.
* * *
In the spirit of rational debate, here’s my reply.
Dear Gunnery Sergeant John McClain:
First of all, I dispute the charge that my column was based on “feelings” as opposed to “facts.” You did not cite any instance of factual error. The main point of the column was that “Islamofascism Awareness Week” constitutes a general, unprincipled attack on a world religion in the context of moves towards war with more Muslim countries. It’s intended to distort and vilify.
You make it clear that your reaction to my piece is shaped by your military experience in Lebanon in 1982-3, countering what you call “Islamic aggression.” You are of course speaking of a majority Muslim country that had a government headed by a Christian (in accordance with a French-dictated constitution, a legacy of a Christian colonialism). He had requested the assistance of secular Muslim Syria in the 1970s to halt a civil war. Lebanon had been invaded by Israel in 1982. As I understand it the Shiite population of southern Lebanon initially welcomed the Israeli invasion due to their hostility to the Palestinian presence that Israel drove out. But the mood quickly changed, and Hizbollah was born.
You were involved in the multinational force sent in part to evacuate Palestinians, targeted savagely by the Israelis led by Ariel Sharon and by the Lebanese Christian Phalangists. Where do you find “Islamic aggression” in this scenario? U.S. troops were targeted by Shiites acting in their own country. Who’s the aggressor here? You erroneously call Hizbollah an “Iranian terrorist organization.” No doubt it (or the “Islamic Jihad” group that took responsibility for the 1983 Beirut barracks attack) had Iranian backing, but it consists of Lebanese. But do you really think that in the context of Israeli, French, U.S. and Syrian involvement (this latter, I repeat, invited by Christian Lebanese), Islamic Iran was the “aggressor” here?
Just as an intellectual exercise I might ask you to wrack your brain and list down instances of U.S. aggression in the last 30 years. And next to that column list anything you can possible represent as “Iranian acts of aggression.” Note down the casualty figures and compare. Perhaps you will reject the very notion that the U.S., the USMC in particular, would ever be involved in any aggression against, say, Grenada, or Panama, or Yugoslavia, or Iraq. Perhaps you think those were all noble causes. But ask yourself why people globally, regardless of religion, understand the current U.S. invasion of Iraq, condemned as illegal by Pope John Paul II and then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, as aggression, big-time. And ask why a Muslim might see it as specifically “Christian aggression” against a Muslim state.
You assume I have never been in the Middle East. I have, actually, but that is of little importance. You and I can be living in the same neighborhood of Boston but very different assessments of what is going on. Your very specific sort of experience in Lebanon hardly entitles you assert superior knowledge of the Islamic world, and your references to Palestinians (and apparent disinclination to even capitalize the name of their late leader) suggest you have acquired a very skewed understanding of their plight and response to it.
You make several assertions, implicitly demanding I accept or refute them:
(1) Islamic leaders around the world call for a “world Caliphate.”
(2) Iran (contrary to my claim to the contrary) has in fact attacked other countries in recent times.
(3) Even “moderate” Muslims want to “rule over all” in America.
Before responding to these, I’d like suggest that religion is as much as anything else a matter of cultural identity. It’s not genetically determined, but is generally inherited from one’s parents. Those who come to abandon the faith in which they were raised are surely in the minority. In other words, the billion-plus Muslims about whom you so confidently generalize are comparable to a huge ethnic category (like Europeans) or linguistic group (like English speakers). Among them there is enormous variety. But when you attack the whole group, you tend to encourage them to pull together in self-defense.
World religious statistics might suggest that one-third of human beings are Christians, but how many of those Christians sincerely believe, study scripture, or really care about religion? How many will go to church on occasion, enjoy the atmosphere, church music etc. but would be utterly unable to explain to someone else the articles of the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed? How many would just say, “Well, I don’t know about that stuff. Anyway I was raised Methodist (or whatever)?” How many indifferent, secular people only discover the importance of the religion they’ve inherited when it and they come under attack?
In the old Yugoslavia, the Muslim population was generally secular. I have friends from Bosnia who are religiously indifferent and prefer to be called “Bosniaks” rather than “Bosnian Muslims” because Islam isn’t really central to their lives. But when savage ethnic violence broke out in Yugoslavia, everyone in what had been a very secular society was suddenly a Catholic Croat, Orthodox Serbian, Muslim Bosnian, etc. In that context an attack on a specific religion was basically an attack on a whole ethnic group. The results were horrific.
I personally reject religious belief in general, and in writing about Islam I’ve never promoted the belief system. In the right time and place, I critique religion broadly or analyze as best I can any particular one. You appear to be a Christian. Surely you understand that if one wanted to stress the most shocking content of the Bible (and there is so much of it) and the savagery of Christian history from the burnings of heretics to the forced conversions in the New World to the general carnage occurring within 20th century Christian-European civilization, it would be an easy project. But then there’s the other side: the beauty of the Sermon on the Mount, the glory of Bach’s music, the heroism of the African-American church in the Civil Rights Movement. I think it’s the same with Islam. It’s a complex mix.
But to your specific claims:
(1) Islamic leaders around the world call for a “world Caliphate.”
Which leaders are you talking about? All Islamic leaders? Your statement that “there can be no rational debate over the issue of intent” is obviously an effort to cut off discussion. But the rather authoritative Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (Oxford University Press, 1997) will inform you in its “Khalifa” entry that “in practice, there is little sign of any desire to return to the Caliphate” among Muslims (p. 543).
Islam is a missionary religion, like Christianity. There are Christian evangelicals who want to convert the entire world and are indeed the support-base of this (aggressive) Bush administration. Then there are Christians who celebrate the diversity of belief systems. If you ask a Muslim leader if he/she would desire that the whole world be Muslim, the answer would perhaps be yes. People who experience satisfaction in their faith may wish to spread it, out of love for humanity among other reasons, however misguided I may consider their efforts. The religious proselytizing mentality is hardly unique to Islam. As for the revival of the caliphate, I think there are many opinions within Islam about that issue and it is the last thing on the mind of the ordinary Muslim. The fact that President Bush, who knows very little about history, should hold up this boogeyman of a revived caliphate should tell you something. I’d suggest reading this article from the Oct. 12 Newsweek for some perspective.
(2) Iran has in fact attacked other countries in recent times.
You begin with “Iran” attacking “our” embassy in 1979. In fact, in the course of the Iranian Revolution—the most genuinely mass-based revolution in a Muslim country in modern times, supported by nearly all segments of a complex society—Muslim students seized the embassy. This as you know followed the U.S. refusal to observe the extradition treaty between the two countries that would have returned the Shah to Iran from the U.S. and allowed the Iranians to try him for multiple crimes. (You know, the way the similarly hated and formerly U.S.-backed Saddam Hussein in U.S.-occupied Iraq was tried?) It was not the action of a consolidated state. In any case the fact that it was so widely supported in Iran should alert you to the fact that the main victim here wasn’t the group of U.S. diplomats and CIA agents ultimately freed in a deal as Reagan took office, but a large nation that had been subjected to the rule of a man aggressively installed in power by the government of your majority-Christian nation in 1953 after it had toppled the democratically elected regime.
You note that “embassies are considered ‘sovereign territory’ of the Nation whose embassy it is, and any such attack is considered ‘an act of war’ in accordance with Geneva Convention.” I wonder what your feelings are about U.S. forces storming the Iranian consulate in Irbil, Iraq last January, and seizing diplomatic personnel, computers and documents. That action was denounced even by the Iraqi regime placed in power by the invasion. Should Iran consider that an act of war?
Even if you can find instances of Iranian-sponsored terrorism here and there (and no doubt you can), how does affect my argument? Are you saying that because such things happen, it’s ok to broadly trash Muslims? That these instances stem from something intrinsic to Islam? The burden of proof is on you.
(3) Even “moderate” Muslims want to “rule over all” in America.
Is that allegation the product of research, John? Have you had conversations with moderate Muslims who state that? And if they do, are they saying that they’re working overtime to make this happen through planning jihadi violence in our cities? Or merely that they believe as a matter of faith that ultimately God’s will will be realized as the whole world embraces the truth of the Qur’an?
While some folks are promoting paranoid Islamophobia, Muslim clerics in the U.S. have stated their commitment to ecumenism and tolerance. (These include the CAIR folks you conflate mistakenly with the PLO.) Do you think them insincere? And if the two million Muslims in the U.S. indeed harbor the secret desire to “rule over all,” what do you think “we” non-Muslims should do? Follow the example of Christian sixteenth century Spain and expel the Muslims or force them to convert? Or the example of twentieth century Germany in dealing with the Jews—with concentration camps and genocide? (Recall by the way how the Nazis accused the Jews of trying to control the world and Germany. Do you see no resemblance between such charges and your statements about Muslims trying to “rule all the world” and “rule over all” America?)
As you know current U.S. “defense” doctrine specifies that the U.S. will not permit any rival power to emerge on this planet, will maintain “full spectrum dominance” and engage in preemptive strikes in violation of the UN Charter. The U.S. military budget exceeds that of the entire world combined, and there are U.S. forces stationed in over half the world’s countries. There are 190 US bases in Europe alone. Dick Cheney and his neocons want to “defeat evil” in Muslim Iran and Syria, producing an empire from the Hindu Kush to the Mediterranean. Sounds to me like an effort to “rule all the world”—a sort of American caliphate emerging to the tune of “Onward Christian Soldiers.”
By the way, what do you suppose “Muslim rule” meant historically? Surely you are aware that during centuries when Christian monarchs were driving out Jews, they were made welcome in Muslim societies as a “People of the Book.” And that while Muslims were being driven out of Spain or forced to convert by the sword, the Muslim world generally extended tolerance to Christians. The religious intolerance of a minority of contemporary Muslim states has not been the historical norm since Islam emerged, 1200 years before the birth of the American republic.
Notice how the Christians who had enjoyed equal rights in Saddam’s Iraq are now fleeing in droves from that country to Syria with its Baathist secularist policies as they strive to regain the religious freedom they’ve lost. Note too that Syria is in the U.S. administration’s crosshairs, vilified constantly and conflated with Iran—a very different country politically, ethnically, culturally, and religiously but also Muslim.
Finally, you mention Benjamin Franklin, the Constitution, and the role of collective prayer in producing agreement at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. I’m not sure exactly how this connects with your earlier email, and not sure if your facts are accurate. But this is what I get out of it. Religion can bind people together. Maybe a common belief in a Supreme Being helped focus the delegates’ discussion in Philadelphia. But the delegates at that convention differed widely in their religious beliefs. You may know that Franklin, a man of the Enlightenment, was skeptical about the divinity of Christ although the Christians today want to include him (and the equally skeptical Thomas Jefferson) as co-believers. I think this is clearly erroneous from a historical point of view but it again relates to the question if identity. Maybe they would have defined themselves in some contexts as Christians but they would never have embraced many doctrines in the Bible espoused by other delegates. Similarly, many Muslims today will only selectively embrace aspects of historical Islam. The U.S. press with some justice distinguishes “secular” Muslims in the Iraqi government from “fundamentalists.” Muslim identity like Christian identity is complicated.
Religions and their practices evolve over time. Contemporary Christianity is not that of St. Paul’s or Luther’s time, and Islam today is not that of the Prophet’s day or of the time of the Caliphate. A hostile critic wanting to provoke can always throw an ancient text into a contemporary believer’s face and demand, “Justify that!” or “Explain that!” or “Apologize for that!” I could confront a self-defined Christian with lots of biblical passages in an attempt to embarrass or put on the spot. But what would be the point? I don’t assume the average Christian takes the Bible literally, feels obliged to defend every passage, or wants society to be governed by the Laws of Moses or the instructions found in the epistles of St. Paul. Nor does the average Muslim want to live by the Sharia law you apparently find so threatening.
These days those who stereotype Muslims and essentialize Islam not only don’t know what they’re talking about but are vilifying and dehumanizing others in order to justify more war. I’m not saying that’s your intention, Sergeant, but it’s encouraged by your rhetoric about “the Caliphate.”
A final comment on Franklin. He once expressed fears about the German immigrant population in the American colonies, doubts about the possibility of assimilating German-speakers. He was concerned that there would eventually be so many Germans in what would become the United States that “all the advantages we [English colonists] have will, in my opinion, be not able to persevere our language, and even our government will become precarious.”
Of part-German ancestry myself, I have to shake my head at such unfounded fear. This country—if it’s the country of that Constitution you so revere—should be able to assimilate people from anywhere, regardless of ethnicity or religion, including Muslims.
With best wishes this Eid.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org