A story making the rounds lately is flying pretty much under the radar outside the purview of the blogosphere. The network news seems strangely silent on this topic of the Pentagon seizing and burning Bibles distributed to American soldiers in Afghanistan and printed in at least two Afghan languages.
Nevertheless, some among the right are running with the story, and demanding answers to this seeming assault on the religious liberties of uniformed service men and women. Nor are all factions of the left ignoring it. Some atheists are demanding an investigation as to how American soldiers ever became a seeming tool of religious fundamentalists to begin with. Aside from them, however, it would seem the Obama Administration is eager to downplay the story, for obvious reasons.
Yet, there is a legitimate cause for some concern here. It seems like there has been a cadre of Christian evangelicals at work in the military engaged in proselytization efforts, with not only the tacit permission, but in some cases the active support and encouragement of an officer corps who seem to have formed what might legitimately be described as a conservative Christian cabal.
There is even a story that Rumsfeld, in his heyday as head of the Defense Department, submitted reports and memos to President Bush notated and captioned with Biblical scriptural references. In some of these reports, there would be pictures of American soldiers at prayer, or presumably sharing the gospel with an Afghan civilian. Here from GQ is a slideshow of many of these "memos".
Is the latest move by the new Administration merely an effort at housecleaning, or is something far more sinister at work here?
Some might say it all depends on how you define "sinister". Well, I don't see much in the way of a gray area here.
In my opinion, this is a so-called "conservative" cause in search of a controversy. American soldiers are not sent overseas to engage in religious proselytization. I don't for one second condone the seizing and burning of religious texts-that was going way overboard. A simple warning, and if appropriate in individual cases a reprimand, would have been sufficient. Soldiers are in the pay of the military and the government, and have no business engaging in these sorts of activities.
They are actually creating problems for other soldiers, and for the Afghan civilians they come in contact with who might accept some of these Bibles out of a misguided sense of graciousness and hospitality, which is a big deal in their culture.
If allowed to go on unchecked, it might get to the point where other Afghan civilians might well shut off contact with our soldiers out of a fear of attention brought upon them by radicals, who would gladly snatch their children up and kill them, maybe even rape the young girls, in front of their eyes, just to make a point. They take a big enough chance associating with our soldiers as it is, if it is seen they are accepting such gifts as Bibles, it would be like pouring gasoline on the fire. They would become pariahs in their own community, not only amongst radicals.
This story has already become the subject of a documentary produced by Al-Jazeera. Here is a video from Al-Jazeera's James Bays that seems to detail the proselytizing efforts of one group of soldiers.
That makes this a deadly serious issue. Indeed, others have followed up on Al-Jazeera's accusations, as illustrated by this rant from the pages of American Muslim.
You have to exercise common sense in affairs such as this. The perceived need of a handful of Christian conservative activists to "save souls" (and now, it would seem, to score political points) should not be allowed to endanger the overall mission at hand, especially when, by the way, those who do so are actually handing their enemies what amounts to a slam dunk in the way of a propaganda victory.
Once the mission is accomplished, hopefully won, and the nation is secure and prosperous, and we have normal diplomatic relations, that would be the time to make such inroads. Then, if a private citizen visits the country as a tourist and engages in proselytizing or winning converts for Christ, then they can do so on their on initiative and at their own personal risk.
Now is just not the time for that. It is never the time for a representative of the American government to do it, under the best of conditions, let alone in the case of American soldiers conducting a war with the purpose of rooting out religious fundamentalists determined to impose the darkest of possible visions-one in which this kind of proselytization is seen not only as an affront to the dignity of Islam (such as it is) but a validation of the accusations that Americans are engaged in a modern-day renewal of the Crusades.
Some might respond that there is not only a perceived spiritual need, but an expressed desire amongst some within the Afghan population for this kind of religious outreach. If so, all the more reason why they should be encouraged to provide us the aid we need to make this mission a successful one, so that they might then pursue their legitimate religious yearnings freely, without the fear of recrimination.
Granted, that time is doubtless a long way off, if indeed it ever arrives. Until such time, the only sacred duty the American soldier has is to defend our nation and do the assigned job at hand. It is their job, when it comes to Afghanistan, to clear away the obstacles to progress. It will then be up to the Afghans, with our guidance and assistance, to build the road to their future destinies, not only their material future, but their spiritual ones as well, hopefully as free individuals in a nation guided by the rule of law.
It is not helping when a small minority of well-meaning though misguided individuals engage in activities that could result in serious repercussions, not only to the mission at hand and the real lives of Afghan civilians, but perhaps even to the cause of the God who, in their religious zeal, they mean to serve.