A Modest Proposal

BY Herschel Smith
16 years, 7 months ago

There is yet another discussion thread at the Small Wars Journal that convinces me that I must try one more time to explain the involvement that coalition forces should have with culture and religion in a counterinsurgency campaign.  Much confusion swirls around this issue because, in part, people reflexively respond (a) by assuming that you are calling for a holy war, or (b) assuming that your mindset is one of a social scientist hunting for another lever to pull or button to push to cause certain reactions.  The former category reacts to my modest proposal by denying that religion should have any role in how one man relates to another, with the later category honestly attempting to engage the issue, but as counterinsurgency professionals using ideas such as center of gravity and societal power structure.  Neither camp really gets it yet.  So let’s use two simple examples that might show how religion and cultural understanding might aid the counterinsurgency effort in Iraq.  These examples are not meant to be sweeping or comprehensive, nor am I constructing doctrine in a short, simple little article.  I am attempting to make this simple rather than complex.

In the first example, I will imagine that I am a chaplain in Iraq serving U.S. troops.  I will endeavor to ensure that the spiritual and life issues of the men under my responsible charge are squared away, but along with this, I approach my Commanding Officer and ask to arrange a meeting between the local Imam and me.  The meeting is arranged, and begins with me thanking the Imam for meeting with me, and telling them that even though I am Christian, I am very impressed by the ‘smartness’ of the Kalam cosmological argument, and that the Islamic scholars who teach this have reason to be proud.  We share food and talk about family, and then I request that he teach me something of his faith.  The reason, I share with him, is that I want to ensure that the men who represent the United States act with honor.  There will be many cultural and religious things of which they are unaware, and families, the man of the house, and women might take offense to actions behind which there was no intention of causing such a reaction.  He can tell me things that he would not say to the Commanding Officer, I tell him, and he can trust me with confidentiality.  I will work with the CO or simply with the men, but work I will, very hard, to ensure that no offensive action is taken that would violate the religious sensibilities of his people.  I know that this can work, since a national religious conference has already occurred, put on by the Department of Defense at the request of Muslim clerics who approached our Chaplains as fellow holy men.  I am but a single Chaplain, but I believe that I can take the intent behind the national conference and apply it at a local level.  Finally, I end my meeting with the Imam by requesting a series of meetings so that I can learn his faith and work with him and his people to ease their suffering to the extent that I am capable.

In the next example, it is the year 2004 and Sadr is in the custody of U.S. Marines (the Marines of 3/2).  I know that there is a large group of Shi’a who are moderate, and in fact, many Sunni look upon them as uncommitted Muslims.  I also know that many see the Sunni as hardened Muslims who follow the Salafist or Wahhabist jihadist traditions.  But as a religious man who has his attenna up with these things, I know that these generalized views can lead to very wrong conclusions.  I know that the Sunnis of Western Iraq are much more secular than the Sunnis in Saudi Arabia, and want none of the radicalism of the hard line schools.  Recently slain Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Reesha was a chain smoker whose hands would have eventually been cut off by the jihadists to stop him from his smoking.

On the other hand, I know that Sistani has not yet met with coalition forces or representatives of coalition forces because we are the “great Satan.”  Likewise, Sadr is a believer in a form of radical Shi’ism that comes from the Mullahs in Iran, and can be trusted only to subvert a stable Iraq that allies with the West against religious extremism.  I manage to convince coalition authorities not to release Sadr.  In this example I manage to use my knowledge of religion to diagnose which sect can be trusted and which cannot.

Such can be the results of a religious understanding between coalition forces and the people of Iraq.  This understanding can be there if it is not contrived or forced, as some sort of tool of counterinsurgency appealing to societal power structures or centers of gravity in order to persuade the Iraqis to do something or be a certain way for us.  I am in favor of honest and open dialogue in military matters concerning the enemy, and likewise in matters religious and cultural.


Chaplain (CPT) William Johnson, the 1-8 Combined Arms Battalion chaplain, gives candy to Iraqi children on the streets of Balad.

See also Chaplains as Liaisons with Religious Leaders: Lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan.


  1. On September 29, 2007 at 5:40 am, kehenry1 said:

    A few thoughts for future discussion:

    1) Not everyone is able to engage on the level of ideological discussions. In our current war (as in every war), we have LTs strait out of OCS or Academy who may have the fundamentals of philosophy, but are probably not knowledgeable in such subjects as you note above. As my grandmother once said, it is better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool then to speak and prove it.

    However, these men are often the first and only contact for some time in a new area of operations. My thoughts are that, even without the ability to have a philosophical discussion on religion or out reach through a chaplain, they should be able to engage based on common understanding of what the mosque generally provides in the community. That we should not neglect this territory simply because we fear the philosophical question because doing so allows open “human terrain” for the enemy to exploit even as we work towards setting up secular governance and infrastructure within the community.

    Since the mosque is often deeply intertwined with the community and has a rather convincing voice, that presents a serious danger. Particularly if the enemy is able to engage it even as we ignore it. But also, recognizing that the mosque is an organizational or power structure in the community, by our actions of working with or towards secular governance, the mosque and its religious leaders may, indeed, feel that we are doing exactly as the enemy has said we are: marginalizing Islam. Or, at least, marginalizing them.

    Keeping in mind that even a religious institution has something invested in maintaining its status in the community. Your allusion to the Jewish insurgency comes to mind, but also the rather infamous discussion regarding the Catholic church in the resistance to Joseph Bonaparte in Spain. The church had a vested interest in deposing Bonaparte and the French version of democracy. They were going to lose their property and power. The church was very political (and still is). We should give the Imam and the mosque no reason to believe we are not vested in their existence either.

    Dealing with it on a social organization level is something that most LTs should be able to manage without having a deep understanding of the religion. However, even a man without this education, could request assistance from the Imam in comprehending social niceties. It is, of course, another good way to develop information in a non-confrontational manner and provide the open door for a Chaplain or other engagement.

    2) Problem. What we should want to be careful of is empowering the mosque beyond its established role. We still want to set up a secular government, security and economic structure. If we support the mosque beyond its existing role, we could actually alienate it from the public and cause the reverse of the “human terrain” issue above. Or, equally, once it is empowered and we depart. Who might move in to exploit that power?

    It’s a balancing act, to be sure.

    Also, we should be cognizant that the Imams or other leaders in the mosque are likely conscious of the problems that their interaction with us could cause and may not be open to such engagement. Do we force it, keep insisting, or simply work around it? This is why I pose the issue as an “organization” or “power structure”. How we treat it isn’t always about engaging the ideology, but how it acts.

    3) Subversive engagement of ideologies. As noted, the enemy says over and over that western civilization is intent on destroying Islam. By engaging the mosque as a social organization, but not the ideology, leaving them to determine the best method to preach and practice their religion, we enforce some subversive engagement qualities if we exploit it properly.

    That being to remind those we encounter that we do not interfere with their religion, but when the extremists come, they will. Freedom to practice religion is one of our base tenets and we adhere to that. the enemy does not. We are interested in learning. The enemy is only interested in enforcing their ideology and religious practices. We will eventually leave them to their life and religion. The enemy will not.

    4) I don’t dispute the engagement of Chaplains with the Imams of a mosque. However, keeping in mind the above, the initial non-philosophical interaction is a way to engage and prepare the way for the Chaplain. Even then, a Chaplain does not have to know deep theological philosophies of Islam. What he knows, as you point out, is the need to maintain the spiritual strength of the men in the unit. He can engage the Imam simply on that level. What can a man of the clothe do to support the mosque in providing the same for his flock?

    Of course, we are trying to put an “Iraqi” face on things so maybe it is not our Chaplain at all that does the “engagement”? I read recently that, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, indigenous forces handed out prayer rugs and such.

    I will say again though that we should be a) concerned about empowering the mosque beyond its actual role in the community; b) forcing engagement on an entity that may wish or demand to be independent in order to maintain its own appearance of integrity. thus we invite. thus we ask. and if rebuked, we seek a different angle.

    Always keeping in mind our message: freedom to practice religion and be independent is what WE stand for, not the enemy.

    5) yes, I should hope that we are able to develop some ability to engage philosophically with religious leaders and followers. Primarily because the enemy does so. Contrary to some beliefs in how the Islamists spread their ideology, they actually do, as bin Laden noted, practice some form of Socratic discussion. Dawa is a primary pillar of Islam. They use this to convince others to follow their beliefs. Even the least educated can ask questions and receive answers.

    However, there is a technique to it and some degree of hierarchic management of these discussions. Zawahiri rebuked Zarqawi for being, shall we say, uneducated while trying to convince others to follow because of his apparent disrespect. That was also when he rebuked him for trying to enforce religious law on others when he was not educated in the manner and when it was causing many a rebellion among possible allies.

    fortunately for us and unfortunately for him, he was too arrogant both in his approach and in his reply to Zawahiri. I often wonder if his rather terse replies is what got him fingered; I once wrote that I thought the outing of some of the leaders was kind of mafia like – guy gets offed by the enemy, becomes a martyr with good propaganda value and is simultaneously no longer a problem for the movement and allows a consolidation of power – maybe another discussion and definitely exploitable.

    Finally, some of my points might explain Kilcullen and Petraeus’ “reluctance” (maybe planned) to engage the mosque. We are not at war with Islam, we are at war with takfiri. We don’t want to change their religious practices or destroy Islam, contrary to the enemy’s propaganda. We leave that to them. In most cases, literally. Vaguely covert enforcement of our own ideology: freedom of religion.

    However, I wonder if we have been slow to emphasize that difference between the enemy and us?

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You are currently reading "A Modest Proposal", entry #631 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Religion and was published September 29th, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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