Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Good Soldiers - David Finkel

The Good Soldiers is the most moving book I've read in years. When I tried to read a passage over the phone to my daughter in California, I could hardly make it through the page. She immediately went to the bookstore to purchase a copy, and texted me from the bus on her way home, "This is not a book to be read in a public place."

I was in Baghdad for two years, but my experiences do not begin to compare with those of the author who was there during some of that same time. I was living in the relative safety of the Green Zone; he was on patrol with soldiers near Sadr City. I spent many hours in bunkers waiting for the All Clear following incoming rockets and mortars, but he was in Humvees attacked by Improvised Explosive Devices and lived with the soldiers who both survived and succumbed to those attacks. The magic of the book is that the author tells their story, not his.

One paragraph in the book that literally took my breath away, however, was not another emotional description of an injured or dead soldier. It was when battalion Commander Ralph Kauzlarich blurted in frustration, "The whole religion of Islam is supposed to be a peaceful religion, in which the jihad is supposed to be that internal fight to be the best person you can be. I mean the Iraqi people, they're not terrorists. They're good people."

The second part is true. Iraqis, and Saudis, and Moroccans, and Bangladeshis, and Afghans, and Pakistanis, and Palestinians, and American Muslims living in DC and LA, are wonderful people. Not all of them, of course, but many. Just like Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Atheists, People Who Haven't Yet Figured Out Exactly What They Believe, and People Who Just Know They Don't Believe The Way They Did Five or Ten or Twenty Years Ago.

But the first part of his statement is not true. Islam, as designed and practiced by Muhammad, is not a religion of peace, and jihad is not an internal spiritual struggle. Let's look at both propositions, the second one first.

From Jerusalem to Monterey CA, I've heard people argue that jihad has a primarily peaceful meaning. I was astonished to hear the response of an "expert on Islam" when asked pointblank by a Turkish student during a lecture at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey to define jihad. The expert reminded us that the Arabic noun in sentences such as "He put forth his best efforts" is "juhud", the plural for "jihad". He repeated the "weak hadith", which means it is not considered authoritative and which I've never once heard in hundreds of hours listening to Arabic TV, when Muhammad commented while returning from a raid that his followers had just completed the "lesser jihad", and were now to engage in the "greater jihad" of becoming more spiritual Muslims. The statistical fact is that jihad is mentioned well over 100 times in the Quran, and more than 95% of all those references refer to the primary meaning of jihad which is to remove all obstacles to the spread and domination of Islam. Jihad has this same meaning in the authoritative hadiths, and in Islam throughout history.

The first proposition is also not true. Islam, again as envisioned and practiced by Muhammad, only becomes a religion of peace when it is dominant and Muslims as well as non-Muslims live in quiet submission under their Muslim leaders, whether they are just or tyrants. Hundreds of people were killed during Muhammad's lifetime, both among his followers and those they attacked, in his campaigns to build his empire. Thousands of people were killed in the months following his death in the "Ridda" wars led by his first successor, Abu Bakr, when they discovered they could not leave Islam as easily as they had entered. And untold millions of people have died since in battles in which Muslims killed Muslims. Even in my lifetime examples include the war between Egypt and Yemen under President Nasser, the conflict between East and West Pakistan leading to the creation of Bangladesh, the long struggle between Morocco and Mauritania over the Southern Sahara, the Iran-Iraq war, the fight between Libya and Chad, the slaughter in Algeria, and the current conflict between the Houthis and government forces in Yemen.

What is happening now is even more tragic, because American solders are dying by the thousands in Iraq and Afghanistan to try and stop Muslims from killing other Muslims. In the final analysis, that is all that is happening. Al-Qaidah Sunni Muslims are killing Awakening Movement Sunni Muslims in Iraq, Muqtada Sadr Shia loyalists are killing rival Shias, and the Shia and Sunnis are killing each other. The conflict in Afghanistan is between competing tribal factions. Muslims are doing what Muslims have always done, and we are caught in the middle. And our only response is to blurt out in frustration with Ralph Kauzlarich, "Islam is supposed to be a religion of peace." Why? Because that is what we have been taught by Muslim apologists and defenders.

In 2006, Wafa Sultan was listed by Time magazine as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World following her appearance on Al Jazeerah TV in which she challenged an Islamic scholar. In 2009 her very important book, A God Who Hates, was bypassed by the same media. Why did she go from the poster child "bad girl of Islam" to being ignored in only three years? The reason is she crossed the line that American academics, political officials, and media personnel are unwilling or afraid to cross. She came to the same conclusion that I reached after two years in Iraq and serious study of the original texts of Islam, the Quran, the Hadith, and the Sira (Muhammad's biography). During those two years I moved from believing the problem was Islamic terrorism to Islamic extremism to political Islam to...well, just Islam.

Chances are Ralph Kauzlarich has never heard of Wafa Sultan and won't read "A God Who Hates." And he'll probably never find the answer to another question he pondered in The Good Soldiers:

"Sometimes Kauzlarich would wonder exactly what the Iraqis hated about the American soldiers. What were they doing, other than trying to secure some Iraqi neighborhoods? What made people want to kill them for handing out candy and soccer balls, and delivering tankers of drinking water to them, and building a sewer system for them, and fixing their gas stations, and never being aggressive except for rounding up the killers among them?"

1 comment:

aemish said...

"What is happening now is even more tragic, because American solders are dying by the thousands in Iraq and Afghanistan to try and stop Muslims from killing other Muslims. In the final analysis, that is all that is happening."

That's odd. I could have sworn American soldiers were dying by the thousands in Iraq and Afghanistan because they had been duped into serving as security for Blackwater, who in turn serve as security for Haliburton, who in turn service the private oil and war profiteers. With all due respect, the only thing tragedy visible from where I'm sitting is what a bunch of suckers -- or worse: psychos! -- they must be.