Religious groups are training American soldiers to view the world as a clash of civilisations
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* Matthew Harwood
* Friday June 27, 2008
* Article history
A US sniper uses the Qur'an as target practice in Baghdad. A US Marine hands out coins to residents in Fallujah that ask in Arabic on one side: "Where will you spend eternity?" The other side is inscribed with a Biblical verse: "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. John 3:16." An American soldier who performed two tours in Iraq is denied promotion when his superiors learn he is an atheist, after he refuses to pray during Thanksgiving dinner (pdf). An anti-Islamic poster adorns the door of the Military Police office at Fort Riley, Kansas, featuring a quote from conservative pundit Ann Coulter: "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity." And as the New York Times reported this week, some cadets at West Point and the Naval Academy feel pressured by their schools to adopt a Judeo-Christian worldview.
Some may say these are isolated incidents of religious intolerance, but evidence is mounting that a virulent evangelical Christianity is spreading through the American armed forces, breaking the constitutional barrier between church and state and worse, like our jihadist enemies, presenting the "war on terror" as a clash of civilisations between the Christian west and the global Muslim community.
The process of creating good Christian soldiers starts early, according to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), a group fighting to maintain the secularism of the armed forces. At Fort Jackson army base in Columbia, South Carolina, the director of the Christian outreach group Military Ministry, Frank Bussey, tells soldiers that "government authorities, police and the military = God's ministers". Photographs exist of Bussey's student-soldiers posing in their fatigues with rifle in one hand and Bible in the other, an eerily similar pose to jihadist martyrs with their rifles and Qur'ans. His Bible study classes are known as "God's Basic Training", where attending cadets learn "when you join the military, you've really joined the ministry."
Military Ministry was established in 1964 by Bill Bright, the founder of the controversial fundamentalist Christian organisation, Campus Crusade for Christ, because, according to the group's website, "he recognised the military as a special audience for evangelistic outreach."
But what the group means is that soldiers are prime for easy indoctrination. In 2002, according to MRFF, the Military Ministry's website carried a brutally honest description of the group's strategy:
Young recruits are under great pressure as they enter the military at their initial training gateways. The demands of drill instructors push recruits and new cadets to the edge. This is why they are most open to the "good news". We target specific locations, like Lackland AFB [Air Force Base] and Fort Jackson, where large numbers of military members transition early in their career. These sites are excellent locations to pursue our strategic goals.
An investigation by MRFF in 2006 into Military Ministry's activities at Lackland Air Force Base and Fort Sam Houston, an army base, uncovered evidence that Military Ministry staffers have successfully converted incoming soldiers with the approval of top commanders.
In another episode in 2002, Campus Crusade for Christ made a promotional video at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, featuring three cadets and two chaplains in uniform, thus violating a prohibition against endorsing a non-federal entity while in uniform. The video also talks of "spiritual programmes" on Monday nights encouraged by the academy, and Campus Crusade's campus director Scott Blom calls the cadets he indoctrinates "government paid missionaries" for Christ.
A similar promotional video for Campus Crusade's Christian Embassy, a social networking organisation for Washington DC's evangelical elites, also caused the department of defence's inspector general to rebuke seven military officers. His report (pdf) last year said that each officer's appearance in a promotional video for the group while "in uniform with rank clearly displayed, in official and often identifiable Pentagon locations" conferred the appearance that the defence department endorsed Christian Embassy.
As Jeff Sharlet wrote in Harper's Magazine in 2006, in the video Major General Jack Catton "says that he sees his position as an adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a 'wonderful opportunity' to evangelise men and women setting defence policy. 'My first priority is my faith,' he says. 'I think it's a huge impact. ... You have many men and women who are seeking God's counsel and wisdom as they advise the chairman [of the joint chiefs] and the secretary of defence.'"
But the proselytising doesn't end at the Air Force Academy or within the halls of the Pentagon, according to the New York Times. West Point and the Naval Academy are guilty too. Nine midshipmen at the Naval Academy recently asked the American Civil Liberties Union to petition the school to abolish daily prayer at lunch where attendance is mandatory. The academy denied their request. Sources ranging from seven cadets, two officers and a former chaplain at West Point told the Times that those that didn't attend religious services were sometimes called "heathens". Mandatory banquets begin with prayer.
MRFF's founder and director, Mike Weinstein, a former legal counsel in the Reagan administration, says that by giving such evangelical Christian organisations and sentiment such privileged access, the defence department is "creating a fundamentalist Christian Taliban." While this may sound like hyperbole, creating soldiers that have no tolerance or respect for other faiths or belief systems has real consequences.
Militarily, it slowly creates a soldiery divided by sectarianism, when it should be unified to fight for one and one thing only: the United States constitution.
Overseas, the impact is more immediately felt.
When news broke last month regarding the shooting of the Qur'an, 1,000 Afghans rioted; three people died. Also, the news that an American sniper was riddling their holy book with bullets didn't go over well with the Sunni tribes the US had cobbled together into a coalition, known as the Sunni Awakening, to fight al-Qaida and its fellow travellers in Iraq. The episode led Major General Jeffery Hammond to go prostrate before tribal leaders in Radwaniyah and say: "I come before you here seeking your forgiveness. In the most humble manner I look in your eyes today and I say please forgive me and my soldiers."
Incidents such as these can be exploited by al-Qaida and other jihadists to argue, rather convincingly, that the United States is not in a war against terrorism but a war against Islam. When peaceful Muslims come to buy into this narrative, al-Qaida and its fellow travellers become heroic defenders of the faith, and a new generation of Muslims become vulnerable to radicalisation.
In the statement apologising for the sniper's conduct, the military said the incident was "not representative of the professionalism of our soldiers or the respect they have for all faiths". This may be so, but until portions of the American military stop giving preferential access and treatment to evangelical fundamentalist Christian organisations like Campus Crusade for Christ's Military Ministry, jihadists will have evidence that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are nothing more than a 21st-century crusade to reconquer Muslim lands for Christ's salvation, led by a president who wears his crucifix on his sleeve.
Robert Kaplan describes American soldiers endearingly as "imperial grunts", but this fundamentalist subsection of American soldiers is more akin to "evangelical grunts" - soldiers who believe that there is no difference between American national interest and god's interest and are zealous to spread this message through the force of arms.
American national security can only suffer from such a divisive belief.http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jun/27/military.religion