2016-06-30
I published an article over three weeks ago that explored the fallout surrounding Newsweek magazine's May 9 report on the desecration of the Qur'an by U.S. guards at the Guantanamo Bay prison. The Newsweek report, you will recall, led to a subsequent retraction by the magazine and the deaths of more than 15 people in related protests in Afghanistan. I ended my article by cautioning readers not to jump to conclusions on the basis of questionable reports, suggesting that Muslims, even when probably wronged and insulted, should wait until the facts are all in, before stoking the fires of anger and demanding apologies and retribution.

On June 3, the Pentagon issued a "final" report on the issue, owning up to five events in which the Qur'an was desecrated at Guantanamo. The report variously characterized these actions as hare-brained, misguided, or accidental and ascribed them to a handful of thoughtless guards. In light of this official admission and the disclaimer, that while such things did take place, they are not countenanced by the U.S. government, a new line of inquiry needs to be opened.

Why? Because the report seems designed to dismiss the guards' actions as isolated and relatively minor. Nowhere does it address the fundamental, underlying issues of federal and military culture, or the role religion plays in the government and the armed forces today. To put it bluntly, the official report on Guantanamo completely ducks a pervasive political reality: that a significant number of congressmen, senators, White House officials, and members of the American military, right up to the top brass and the President's West Wing, are evangelical Christians with a mandate to save souls and "share" the "good news," which, unfortunately seems to be code for "actively proselytize and convert those who don't share our views."

With this point-of-view so prevalent in the halls of power, national leaders have been plainly granted permission to insult other faith communities from time to time, as we have seen in the past two years' worth of nasty denunciations of Islam, Muhammad, and Muslims in general. Pentagon official Lt. General William G. "Jerry" Boykin made headlines two years ago when, appearing in uniform at a speech at an Oregon church, he said: "Why do they [radical Muslims] hate us? Why do they hate us so much? Ladies and gentlemen, the answer to that is because we're a Christian nation." In another speech he recounted the time he chased down a Muslim Somali warlord who was bragging that the Americans would not capture him because Allah would protect him. "My God is bigger than his God. I knew my God was a real God, and his was an idol," Boykin said.

In other such incidents, Christian leader Franklin Graham, a spiritual counselor to President Bush, characterized Islam as "evil and wicked," and the Rev. Jerry Vines, past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, which also has close ties to the Bush Administration, called the Prophet Muhammad a "demon-possessed pedophile."

As early as 2002, the marriage of religious dogma and political ideology in conservative politics had become so complete that it was possible for Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma to tell the U.S. Congress that the current conflict between Israel and Palestine is not rooted in issues of politics and territory but rather is a "contest over whether or not the word of God is true." (He then quoted the Old Testament to "prove" that Israel alone should control the Holy Land.) With remarks like this, and the climate that supports them, we are, as Reza Aslan has argued in his new book, No god but God, speaking the language of the Crusades.

The latest instance of this institutional evangelizing is a series of articles in the national media concerning the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado. These reports, based on insider whistle-blowing and quickly confirmed by the Academy's leadership, acknowledge current problems in the U.S. military far more candidly than the official picture we've been offered of Guantanamo.

What is the climate at the Air Force Academy? According to Religion News Service, "a pastoral care consultant from the Yale University Divinity School was asked to assess the Academy's chaplaincy programs" in 2004. The report, authored by Kristen Leslie, found "stridently evangelical themes" in the chaplains' programs. In a separate interview, Leslie remarked that similar themes resound throughout the Academy. In her view, one religious voice, "the conservative evangelical Christian voice...has decided that it has the right to lay claim to the environment, and it is able to do that by working with the Academy power structure."

In case you think Yale may have an axe to grind here, consider the remarks of the Academy's own Superintendent, Lt. General John Rosa, Jr., who spoke to the Anti-Defamation League the other day and confessed that the Academy has a pervasive religious bias problem. According to the Colorado Springs Gazette, "This issue is very insidious," Rosa said. "It doesn't automatically jump out at you. It's been at the academy for a while and it's going to take a while to fix."

It may not automatically jump out at you, if you're Christian, but it does apparently jump out, if you're not. In a recent survey, 84% of Christian cadets and faculty remarked that the academy supports their religious freedom, while 42% of non-Christians say it does not.

According to a recent Los Angeles Times article, last season the Academy football coach "hung a banner in the locker room laying out a 'Competitor's Creed,' including the lines 'I am a Christian first and last' and 'I am a member of Team Jesus Christ.'

In other examples cited in the same article, and originally gathered in April by the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, "Campus chaplains have encouraged proselytizing among the students, and younger cadets who skipped out on prayer services have been forced by their seniors to march back to their dorms in a ritual called "heathen flight." On one occasion, every seat in the dining hall was covered with a flier advertising a showing of [Mel Gibson's Hollywood film]"The Passion of the Christ," including the tagline, "This is an officially sponsored USAFA event."

Enter Cadet First Class Casey Weinstein who found the flyer on his chair and, with his father, Mikey Weinstein, an attorney and Academy graduate himself, registered a complaint, one of many the father has drawn attention to over the years. Being observant Jews involved with a federal institution, they also remarked on the mass email messages urging all cadets to attend special screenings of Gibson's film. The flyers disappeared, but, according to the article, the Weinsteins' complaints "did little to stop the continuing barrage of Christian messages that critics claim are a routine part of daily life at the Academy."

Last week, the U.S. Air Force announced it will appoint a task force to investigate allegations of religious intolerance at the Air Force Academy. Yet one is forced to wonder, once the issue dies down in the press and the red tape begins to strangle General Rosa's public avowal, whether he will ever get the chance to change the climate of his school.

What has all this to do with Guantanamo? Plenty. The U.S. Air Force Academy is one in a handful of elite educational institutions serving the most powerful military on earth. It and its sister campuses serving the Army and the Navy are the nation's most hallowed training grounds for future U.S. officers, including those who will sit on the highest war councils in the land and oversee the deportment of our military in future versions of our present engagement in Iraq, our global assault on terror, and our management of prisons like Camp X-Ray and Camp Delta in Guantanamo.

Accidents don't just happen. They happen in a context, and so do human rights infractions. They are the result of military and political culture. When that culture is convinced in its bones that its view of God and religion is the only right one, and that it is a Christian's unshirkable spiritual duty to convert everyone who may think differently, what hope does our foreign policy have to escape being labeled (and dismissed) by much of the world's population as representing an arrogant, heavy-handed crusader nation hell-bent on re-making every other religious culture in its own image? What is more, what hope do we have for a democratic military or a democratic government of, for, and by all of the people?

Nonetheless, in the government's official report on the Qur'an scandal, the context and culture of Guantanamo are brushed aside, ignored. The questions any "final" official report on Guantanamo ought to ask are: What is the relationship between increased Christian evangelism in the military (and other Federal institutions) and the events in American prisons concerning Muslim terror suspects and the Qu'ran? What is the relationship between an absolutist religious vision that not only excludes every other version from salvation but also actively rejects and insults people who are born into other faiths by the millions and billions? And how does that affect a prison guard's attitude toward the people he is charged to imprison and interrogate according to American law and the Geneva Conventions? Does it not make it just a little easier, for instance, to desecrate a Qur'an?

Many people have noted that, even now, no official apology has been forthcoming for these acts of desecration. Perhaps it is time to stop asking for apologies. Perhaps it is time--as President Jimmy Carter, Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, and The New York Times have all recently advised--to close down the Guantanamo prison camps and places like it, for good. U.S. Senator Mel Martinez, a Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, now says he thinks so. After all, activities as reported at Guantanamo Bay are a double-edged sword that cuts American interests to the quick in two directions.

On one hand, keeping Guantanamo open has created a public relations disaster that is America's greatest single gift to al-Qaeda recruiters around the world. On the other hand, the continued operation of this prison brings America unpleasantly close to repeating mistakes it made at the outset of World War II with the Japanese internment camps. In this vein, The Times called Guantanamo "a propaganda gift to America's enemies," an embarrassment to our allies, a repudiation of our nation's justice system, and a recruiting tool for terrorists.

A few weeks ago our media were debating whether Newsweek had overstepped its bounds by reporting a scandal at Guantanamo based on unnamed sources. Today, they are reporting and in some cases editorially supporting the closure of the prisons. All the while, the American government continues to overstep a different sort of bounds: the limits of sensible foreign policy and ethical Christian behavior.

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