‘Muslim’ doesn’t mean ‘anti-American’

Newsweek published an interesting article about a Guantanamo guard who converted to Islam. The guard, Terry Holdbrooks, recounts how after he converted, his fellow soldiers staged an “intervention,” which involved forming a circle around him and yelling, asking if he had become a traitor and to remember who’s side he was on. The experience of Capt. James Yee is also referenced. Yee was a Muslim military chaplain at Guantanamo who was arrested for among other things, “aiding the enemy”. All charges against Yee were eventually dropped. Both Yee and Holdbrooks accuse the military, particularly the command at Guantanamo, of making systematic attempts to vilify Islam.

This attitude is a major obstacle for America in the global war on terror. It’s been said over and over, but yet frequently forgotten, that only a tiny percentage of Muslims are extremists, and even fewer are terrorists. However, if the U.S. continues to paint all Muslims, even those who volunteer to serve honorably in the U.S. military, as ‘traitors’, it will only increase the number of extremists and terrorists. When the U.S. says that Islam is the enemy, then it creates millions of enemies that didn’t exist before. Instead of being ostracized, men like Holdbrooks and Yee could be valuable resources in understanding Islam and understanding what separates an ordinary Muslim from a terrorist.

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Published in: on April 2, 2009 at 3:01 pm  Comments (3)  
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Recognizing “A Problem from Hell”

My Ethics and World Politics class is reading Samantha Power’s book “A Problem from Hell” about America’s reaction (or lack thereof) to genocide. It’s a fascinating read, but I was especially intrigued because the first few chapters deal with the Armenian genocide, which occurred before the word ‘genocide’ even existed. At the time, there was a large-scale and highly visible grass roots movement in Europe and America to provide aid to Armenian refugees. However, while this helped the few Armenians who survived, it did nothing to stop more from dying. States were the only entities with any power to actually stop the Turks from killing Armenians, and not a single government stepped in. The U.S. refused to even symbolically condemn Turkey’s actions. When World War I ended, none of the perpetrators of the genocide, from the officials who crafted the policy to the soldiers who carried it out, were punished or even condemned.

One passage that particularly stuck in my mind is when Power quotes Hitler as saying, “Who remembers the Armenians?” before the Holocaust even began. The Armenian genocide taught Hitler a clear lesson; not only would states look the other way while genocide was occurring, they would not seek justice or retribution afterwards. This lesson had far-reaching effects, not only for Hitler’s victims but for the victims of future tyrants, the Milosevics and Pol Pots of the world. I believe that even a superficial acknowledgement that a state is committing genocide (ideally but not necessarily combined with concrete actions to stop it) canĀ  have important consequences. At the very least, perpetrators of genocide would know that the world saw what they were doing and found it unacceptable and abhorrent.

This leads me to my current disgust over the U.S. government’s continued refusal, almost 100 years later, to recognize the Armenian genocide. Yes, I recognize that there are important geopolitical implications and that it is in the U.S.’s interests not to offend Turkey. Turkey is a key ally in a volatile region, a relatively secular and democratic state in the Middle East, etc, etc. Yet on a purely human level, I cannot help but feel that genocides will continue to occur until governments decide that there are more important things than “offending” allies.

Published in: on March 26, 2009 at 2:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Lessons from “Control Room”

After watching the documentary “Control Room” I was dismayed at the complete lack of respect CentCom (and by extension the United States government in general) gave to the media with regards to the Iraq war. CentCom clearly appreciated that the media was a powerful tool that could be manipulated for propaganda purposes, but apparently failed to understand how it could also be used to reach out to the Arab community. American news networks were given the best facilities and access to information. Yet it wasn’t American support that was essential to the success of the U.S. in the Iraq war, and in the Arab region in general. What the U.S. needed was the support of the Arab public. The best way to gain that support certainly isn’t by dismissing al Jazeera, the most popular Arab news source, as nothing more than propaganda an unworthy of the U.S.’s attention.

Throughout the documentary, al Jazeera is consistently portrayed as fair-minded and open to analyzing all sides of an issue (although this likely reflects some degree of bias on the part of the producers of “Control Room” since some amount of bias is inevitable). If CentCom was willing to respect al Jazeera as a legitimate news outlet, the network could have been incredibly effective at portraying the American viewpoint. The press officer in the movie, Lt. Rushing, serves as an excellent example of the inattention and even blatant disrespect given al Jazeera in particular and the Arab media in general. Rushing was the most junior press officer at CentCom with absolutely no background in the Middle East, but was assigned to al Jazeera because he seemed to get along with some of the reporters. It seems obvious to me that more thought and strategy should have been given to attempting to influence public opinion than simply haphazardly assigning unqualified officers to the most important news network in the region.

That being said, I believe that people like Lt. Rushing are perhaps the military’s best hope of improving its image in the Middle East. Although he had no background or training in the region, Rushing displayed a genuine interest and curiosity in the Arab people, culture, and history. He was able to develop a positive rapport with the al Jazeera reporters and see them as reasonable people capable of expressing and listening to rational opinions. In turn, the reporters were able to put a human face on U.S. policy, even when they disagreed with it. Rushing’s curiosity of and respect for the region ultimately serves U.S. interests. Instead of insultingly dismissing Rushing’s suggestion to call on an al Jazeera reporter first at a press conference as a sign of respect, General Franks would have done well to listen to him. Such a simple measure would have cost Franks nothing and been a step towards developing a positive rapport. It appears the military could use more soldiers as open-minded as Lt. Rushing.

Published in: on February 19, 2009 at 10:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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