Infidel Redux

Hipster

Without question, my short post last year on why it’s a bad idea for troops to embrace the term ‘infidel’ has been my most popular. It has garnered the most comments and is usually the post that attracts the most viewers per day. Judging by the comments, people get very emotional about this topic and have strong, mostly unshakeable and extreme opinions. Those who are ardent advocates of the brand cannot be convinced otherwise and in many cases, take to insulting me, my writing ability, or my credentials to make or punctuate their argument.

The point I was trying to make in that post was to say that while troops are entitled to their right to free speech, it is unprofessional to embrace the term infidel for the reasons I outlined. In reaction to my opinion, in the comments section, I have been accused of being a sympathizer of the enemy, an “incredible dumbass,” a poor writer, an empathizer, one who has a “hidden agenda,” dishonorable, a fobbit, an “embarrassment to our military and country,” someone “who needs a kick to the balls with a spiked combat boot,” and most recently, a traitor.

There is something deeper underlying that kind of defensive behavior that has led me to re-examine this phenomenon.

When I wrote the post, I knew it might attract some opposing views. I had no idea, though, that it would be so pervasive, persistent, and filled with hate.

Now, over a year later, I’d like to revisit the topic to see what has changed – if anything.

There is nothing outright “wrong” in displaying an infidel bumper sticker or getting it tattooed on the body. The word ‘infidel’ or its Arabic counterpart, kafir (كافر), is not in and of itself, extremist. This is not to say that those who brandish the term are or are not extremist. Some might just like the pretty Arabic script and others might just enjoy how ‘cool’ the word sounds. But I think some use the fact that the word is not considered a ‘hate word’ in the same way as a racial or ethnic slur to barely hide an extremist viewpoint.

Now, seeing the response and having thought harder on the subject, and having dug a little further into the regulations which cover extremist behavior, I think there may be a case for a closer examination as to whether this is appropriate behavior for service members.

The relevant portions of DoD Directive 1325.06Handling Dissident and Protest Activities Among Members of the Armed Forces:

8. PROHIBITED ACTIVITIES

a. Military personnel must not actively advocate supremacist, extremist, or criminal gang
doctrine, ideology, or causes, including those that advance, encourage, or advocate illegal
discrimination based on race, creed, color, sex, religion, ethnicity, or national origin or those that advance, encourage, or advocate the use of force, violence, or criminal activity or otherwise advance efforts to deprive individuals of their civil rights.

9. PREVENTIVE ACTIVITIES

a. Commanders should remain alert for signs of future prohibited activities. They should
intervene early, primarily through counseling, when observing such signs even though the signs may not rise to active advocacy or active participation or may not threaten good order and discipline, but only suggest such potential. The goal of early intervention is to minimize the risk of future prohibited activities.
b. Examples of such signs, which, in the absence of the active advocacy or active
participation addressed in paragraphs 8.a and 8.b are not prohibited, could include mere
membership in criminal gangs and other organizations covered under paragraph 8.b. Signs could also include possession of literature associated with such gangs or organizations, or with related ideology, doctrine, or causes. While mere membership or possession of literature normally is not prohibited, it may merit further investigation and possibly counseling to emphasize the importance of adherence to the Department’s values and to ensure that the Service member understands what activities are prohibited.

According to the directive, a service member does not have to be using direct hate speech or be an active member of an extremist group in order to warrant a command action, but merely be ‘in the orbit’ of such speech or behavior. I’d argue, given the vitriolic comments to my infidel post and the ease in which you can find extremist views just beneath the surface of a Google search for ‘major league infidel,’ that displaying these things just might warrant command action.

While free speech for service members is protected, hate speech or extremist views are not.

To quote Army Pamphlet 600-15Extremist Activities, “Our soldiers do not live in a vacuum.” Individual soldiers have a responsibility to understand the things that they do and the potential consequences, on and off duty.

I do not think that everyone that slaps an infidel bumper sticker on their car is an extremist or holds extremist views. But I know some of them do. It’s evidenced right here on this blog, by those who said as much in the comments. While soldiers have a responsibility to know what they’re getting themselves into when they start marketing an idea on their body or property, commanders have a responsibility to remind their soldiers that we are a military with values, and that extremist behavior is not compatible with those values. Additionally, given DoD Directive 1325.06, commanders have the authority to lean in if they suspect a soldier of being in the orbit of extremist activity. The way that the term ‘infidel’ is slung around, there is a good argument that brandishing it puts a person in that orbit.

Lastly, the thing that really bothers me about this theme is how it looks like it will endure longer than the actual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a brand, an image. They sell ‘infidel’ shirts at the PX. What value is their as self-identifying as an ‘infidel’ if you go fight in some other war? It’s troubling to me, because a soldier should not be self-identifying as anything but a soldier (or marine, airman, what have you).

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This “total war on Islam” nonsense

I saw the article at Danger Room titled “U.S. Military Taught Officers: Use ‘Hiroshima’ tactics for ‘Total War’ on Islam” shortly after it was posted. I took a deep breath, fired it off on Twitter disgustedly, and then went to work. Since then, some friends have prompted me for my opinion on the matter and a number of other blogs I read have referenced the article (Mondoweiss, The Arabist).

Andrew Exum (Abu Muqawama) writes:

“Plenty of U.S. military officers and troops were inspired by their service in either Iraq or Afghanistan to learn Arabic or Dari and study the peoples of the region. I left the Army in 2004, as a matter of fact, to pursue a master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Beirut,” says Andrew Exum, a retired Army captain who now serves as a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “But plenty of other officers and troops began their own amateurish studies of Islam and now, like Lt. Col. Dooley, peddle claims to know the truth about the violence and hatred at the heart of Islam. Pope’s warning that a little learning can be a dangerous thing is certainly relevant here. These hucksters, like the Robert Spencers of the world, know just enough to make themselves sound credible to an uninformed audience and hide their prejudices under a thin layer of amateurish, ideologically motivated scholarship.”

Like Exum, I was inspired by my service in Iraq to go and study the Middle East and Arabic – mostly because I saw firsthand how much we didn’t know. As a result, I studied abroad in Morocco and Egypt and did my masters at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where I wrote my thesis on the experiences of Iraqi soldiers during the Iran-Iraq War. On this blog I write about military things and Middle Eastern things. As much as I hate getting into these kinds of weeds, this blog sits at exactly the intersection of the military and Middle East Studies (a very uncomfortable intersection, mind you). What I’ve found is that this subject is extremely sensitive for everyone involved. People hold strong opinions on this, for whatever reason.

So here’s what I think.

Exum is right, over the past ten years there has been a cadre of opportunists who took advantage of the the military’s thirst for knowledge on a subject they know relatively little about (Islam) and used that opportunity to spread their own ideas of what Islam is and how to best fight the war on terror. For a long period of time, these guys went unnoticed (internally, anyway), probably because there weren’t many people to call their bluff. This course in question was pulled after an unnamed officer who took the course alerted someone higher to the objectionable curriculum. I’d be willing to bet that he had taken some courses on Islam or the Middle East before (or maybe he just understood that ‘total war’ on an entire people based on their religion was not a good thing).

Thankfully, General Dempsey already came out and condemned the coursework that Danger Room uncovered as “objectionable, against our values” and “academically unsound.” The Department of Defense is currently conducting a review of material to root out any traces of material that is combative towards Islam or rooted in some kind of Islamophobia.

Unfortunately, the damage has already been done, as most of the headlines regarding this incident inferred that the US military was indoctrinating its officers with this viewpoint, when that’s not the case. Outsiders looking in read the headline, read the article, and then conclude that what they’ve always thought was true: the US is at war with Islam or the military is filled with Islamophobes. This is unfortunate, because neither is true, and events like this degrades the way the public views the military.

But this incident points to a larger issue that exists, which I wrote about previously in the infidel post. There is still a poor understanding of the peoples of the Middle East and Islam as a religion within the armed forces and this poor understanding can manifest itself in ugly ways.

Why does this happen? My hunch tells me that people want to explain difficult things away by going for the low hanging fruit – “they” hate us because of their religion, or their culture, or worst of all, “they” are violent by nature. Fighting is hard, and everyone has to reconcile why they do it in their own heads at some point. Fighting a war on global terrorism, a vague thing in-itself hardly provides a person a good starting point to why he or she is wherever they are in the world fighting whoever it is he/she is fighting. But if they are fighting someone because that other person automatically hates our way of life, or that person is inherently violent or evil, it makes the process a whole lot easier.

Simply stated, it’s easy to blame complex phenomena on one’s culture or religion. Unfortunately, that’s wrong. Following that path 1) won’t work, 2) is wrong, and 3) will piss everyone off.

While this revelation is a public relations setback, I think it is bringing to the surface an important issue which can now be rapidly addressed. I know I’m doing my part.

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Enough with the ‘infidel’ stuff. Seriously, stop.

I keep a list of things I plan on writing about and they sit and wait for me to get to them. One of them that has been sitting there for awhile is a blog post about the way some troops enthusiastically embrace the title ‘infidel.’ Well, I missed the ship on this one and there was actually a great article on this topic over at Military.com. It’s worth the read and I’d be happy if you stopped here and just read that article, but there are a few things I would like to add.

First, this is a topic that I naturally gravitate to because it sits at the intersection of my two lives: the infantryman and the Middle East Studies student. Without question, Middle East Studies and studying abroad has made me more aware of things in that orbit. And having been an 11B for five years, I feel confident that I understand how the infantryman’s culture works.

Second, I see this stuff everywhere. Bumper stickers on post, t-shirts in the gym, posts on Facebook. Without question, there are a number of people in the military who enthusiastically embrace the term ‘infidel.’ And there are a host of companies out there ready to cash in on the trend.

I get it. The word infidel sounds cool, and there is something neat about repurposing a supposedly negative title and owning it. When I speak with people on the subject, enthusiasts of the term usually speak in generalities (“That’s what we are to them, infidels. So it’s not like we’re saying anything outrageous.”) The problem is that when people say “them” they are usually referring to jihadists (a loaded term itself). But enthusiasts are using a term that is generally religious but not necessarily tied to Islamic terrorists. Yes, there is an Arabic word كافر and it means a number of things to different people, with varying degrees of intensity. That is, just like there is no such thing as one Islam (just as there is no universal Christianity), there is no one way in which the idea behind the term ‘infidel’ is understood or used.

My problem with this phenomenon is twofold: 1) whether people mean it or not, the word casts a conflict in religious terms, which is what we don’t want, and 2) the brand is worn to be antagonistic, not simply factual.

More importantly, what are people trying to communicate by wearing a t-shirt that says كافر or a bumper sticker, like the photo above, that says ‘Major League Infidel?’ The word كافر (kafir) can mean a number of things: irreligious, unbeliever, infidel, atheist, ungrateful (Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, 1976). Since I haven’t seen any shirts with the word ‘atheist’ or ‘unbeliever’ paired with كافر, I would assume most of the time people are aligning themselves with the word infidel: “a person who does not believe in religion or who adhere’s to a religion other than one’s own.” (Oxford Dictionary). So by using the term, the person is declaring themselves an atheist or some religion other than Islam, since that is where this is directed.

The word is completely wrapped in religion and doesn’t belong in our discourse on war, officially or unofficially, seriously or playfully.

Just like the Vibram Five Finger shoes “controversy,”, this is a topic that attracts strong emotions. Look at the hundreds of comments and some of the vitriol over at the article on Military.com. It’s bad. Why is this the topic that people want to get excited about or hold strong feelings on? I don’t know the answer to that, but it must get to something at the core of people to pull such bitter feelings.

I’m doubtful that this will be going away anytime soon. I’m hopeful though that people will keep writing about it and exploring the topic. I know I will.

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