WASHINGTON, 26 January 2005 — The US military is learning an embarrassing lesson. Lack of knowledge about Arab culture and Islam is resulting in civilian and military deaths that could easily have been avoided if only soldiers and Marines had been “armed” with knowledge.
Just last week, according to The American Forces Press Service, two Iraqi civilians were killed when the vehicle they were driving tried to speed through a US military patrol in northern Iraq. The civilians’ children were in the back of the car and escaped unharmed. Military officials say army soldiers used hand signals to try to halt the vehicle. When that didn’t work, the soldiers shot at the car to stop it and in so doing, killed both the driver and the passenger in the front seat.
The statement said the military “regrets” the incident, but added: “The military must take appropriate action against possible threats” because of the prevalence of car bombs. Experts say, however, that the hand signs which mean “stop” are different in the US and Iraq and that the tragedy was likely due to cultural incompetence and unawareness.
Although the US military has been told to “win the hearts and minds” of Iraqi civilians, it is difficult if the military is ignorant of the culture, religion, traditions and history of the region. Although some commanding officers require their officers to read material on Arab culture and Islam before being deployed or redeployed, the US military has yet to require all US military personnel be briefed on the subject before being sent to Iraq.
Next month, Army Lt. Gen. John R. Vines will take over as the United States’ new ground commander in Iraq. Before deploying, Vines has asked his senior officers to read eight books about Islam before their tour begins, and Professor Malcolm Clark’s “Islam for Dummies” (Wiley, 2003) is first on the list. Professor Clark taught world religion for 36 years before retiring from Indiana’s Butler University in 2002; his classes about dealing with Islam were so successful that a former student recommended him to the editors of the “Dummies” book series.
In a recent interview, Clark said that officers needed to learn a great deal about Islam: “Since 9/11, there’s been more dissemination of information, so most Americans know that Muslims worship the same God as Jews and Christians and share many scriptural stories. But they need to know the nuts and bolts of daily practice. A business traveler needs to know that when people are fasting dawn-to-dusk for Ramadan, it’s a bad time to do business. And (officers) need the sensitivity to avoid doing or saying anything that might be taken as an insult,” he told the Baltimore Sun.
Specifically, Clark tries to dispel negative concepts Americans, including American soldiers, have about Islam. Learning how women are regarded in Islam will help soldiers on the ground, he said, and he stressed the vital importance of not equating Islam with terrorism. He also dispelled rumors that the Qur’an permits Muslims to lie to non-Muslims. “In the historical context in which Islam arose, it was OK to make a temporary truce with an enemy in a situation in which you were not envisioning a permanent peace. Along with this are passages that talk about killing infidels and Jews. You can make anything sound bad or good, of course, if you take four or five words out of context,” Clark pointed out.
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