Respecting Religion

February 26, 2012 — Leave a comment

Cultural insensitivity is alive and burning in elements of the US military. In another unthinking act American soldiers set fire to Qurans at Bagram Air Base, outside Kabul. Despite an apology from President Obama that the act was ‘inadvertent’ and reassurance that those responsible would be held accountable, anti-Western feeling, seemingly never far from the surface, is once again rippling across Afghanistan and focused very much on America.

Gen. John R. Allen, Commander International Security Assistance Force said, “Working together with the Afghan leadership is the only way for us to correct this major error and ensure that it never happens again.”

It is almost impossible to believe there are members of the US Army, which has been in that country for ten years, still so bullet-headed as to not understand the relevance, and far-reaching consequences, of such an action. It is not just the whole of ISAF who is put under even more pressure but as always in conflicts, innocents get caught up in the crosshairs.

The unrelenting pressure of fighting a sometimes hazy enemy must be immense. But whether a soldier has been in the country for many tours of duty or is on his, or her, first, surely one of the most important aspects of pre-deployment training must be to respect another nation’s religion and to exercise cultural awareness. Aren’t discipline, restraint, respect and decency all aspects ISAF, and all the other foreign agencies in Afghanistan, are trying to instil in the people? Along with the hope of a decimated Taliban.

These insensitive behaviours play into the very hands of the people the coalition forces are trying to defeat. The Taliban are no doubt twirling their collective mustaches at the cultural coup given them. “Get rid of the infidels” quickly turns to “Death to America” and “Death to the infidels.” The execution-style killing of two US officers, shot in the back of their heads while at their desks by an Afghan security officer, shows how quickly any inroads in encouraging ‘civilised’ behaviours are quickly negated. An already inflammable race is easily ignited with the resulting death to American and other ISAF troops, not to mention civilians of all nationalities.

After the US shame of Abu Graib, and the British equivalent in Basra, in Iraq, one would have hoped this generation of soldiers would be aware enough not to behave in such wantonly antagonistic ways. Are these soldiers so lacking in restraint and cultural awareness, let alone human decency? If the memory of Abu Graib eight years ago is too distant, then the sight of US Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters earlier this year is not. Neither is the general outcry at such desecration from decent people around the world. Though naturally Governor of Texas, Rick Perry, takes a different view. Perry said in response to the President’s denigration of that incident, “Obviously, 18, 19 year-old kids make stupid mistakes all too often, and that’s what occurred here.” I wonder what else the Governor considers youthful high jinks. This kind of gross lack of respect for other people’s religions and cultures plays directly into the Taliban rhetoric.

History tells us the only victors of any conflict in Afghanistan have been the Afghanis. It took the British three Anglo-Afghan wars, starting in 1839, with the third in 1919 to admit defeat. The Russians tried again in 1979. Eight years later Colonol K Tsagalov wrote to the most senior Russian defence official involved saying, “The experiences of the past years, clearly shows that the Afghan problem cannot be solved by military means only.”

Brave men and women from all 50 countries involved in ISAF make attempts at the ‘hearts and minds’ aspect of soldiering. All their dedication and much of the inroads made into helping those Afghanis who do long for change, is expunged by the asinine behaviour of a few. And lives are lost.

General Allen also said, “I call on everyone throughout the country—ISAF members and Afghans—to exercise patience and restraint as we continue to gather the facts surrounding Sunday night’s incident.”

If we are guests in a foreign country, wanted or unwanted, we have to remember we will not in all likelihood be in their country long enough to live with the consequences, good or bad, of the change we are advocating. Even if it is change desperately wanted by some in the country. We might not always accept or adhere to another culture’s customs but the only way to effect change is through education, respect and time, and with the majority of the population’s will. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try but we must remember to tread lightly and to always respect another man’s religion.

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