image (only indirectly related to the below) from
“In September 2014, the U.S. secretary of state announced a new maxim for foreign policy: ‘religion matters,’” noted an Army judge advocate, Major Theresa Ford, in an article, “Religious Engagement and the Seventh Warfighting Function: Time to Stop, Listen, and Engage,” in the September-October, 2015 issue of Military Review. Major Ford’s article relates many of her heartfelt experiences in Afghanistan’s Helmand province in 2013.
Public Diplomacy officers who read the full article will find much to appreciate in Major Ford’s case studies – the value of language training, English teaching, translations of famous books into local languages, respect for cultural sensitivities, and Thanksgiving celebrations. Here are only a few of her insights:
- Religion matters for the work of soldiers as well as diplomats. Soldiers need to know not only how to “shoot, move, and communicate” but also how to “stop, listen, and engage,” especially when dealing with religious issues. It is immaterial whether soldiers themselves be religious or have any personal interest in religion. What is important, however, is that they know that in many parts of the world, religion does matter—it can affect the operating environment, just as it did in Helmand in March 2013.
- Understanding the religious beliefs of the people whom U.S. forces endeavor to influence through training, advising, or assisting is imperative in places where religion matters to those people. Engaging in religious dialogue, not to be confused with proselytizing, can create a vital bridge between cultures. It can show a desire to learn about and understand others, which is vital for building trust and respect—the pillars of any enduring relationship.
- A few weeks after my key leader engagement with the deputy chief of police, the Quran desecration incident occurred in Helmand Province. The deputy was now trying to restore order to the district as residents called for the execution of the suspect. One day after the gunfight, I met with the prosecutor and told him in Dari that I was sorry to hear what happened to the holy books, to which he turned to me and asked why I would care about his religion.
- . . . Again, I mentioned Zam Zam, the prophets, and the fact that we shared many of them. I told the prosecutor that I respected his religion. He then appeared to realize that we had more in common than he thought; he said none of his advisors ever mentioned these things, and he thought Americans did not care about religion or Islam.
- Like all the other Afghans I met, he was surprised that I believed in God—and even more surprised that I knew anything about Islam.
- I noticed that the ANA soldiers kept to themselves, and I made a point of speaking to as many individuals as I could, roughly twenty to twenty-five soldiers. I continued to cover my hair, as several ANA soldiers commented that they appreciated how this showed respect for their culture. After a few weeks, a soldier asked me why the Americans did not talk to them. I could tell by his facial expression that this bothered him, and, no doubt, it bothered other ANA soldiers as well.
- I taught English classes to ten members of the ANA and Afghan Uniformed Police (AUP), and one asked me in Dari if I knew of any famous books that were translated into Dari. I only found one, the diary of Anne Frank (Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl). I told him about the story of Anne Frank, about the Holocaust, and about how Anne was killed because she was Jewish. He had heard of the Holocaust and thanked me for the book. A few days later, he said he could not put it down and asked if I had any more famous books in Dari. He said he knew the translator of the book, who was from his village in the Panjshir Valley, northern Afghanistan, and he said other soldiers in his barracks wanted to read the book.
- When I arrived, the first thing the [Jordanian] commander said was that I did not know how much it meant to him to see that I covered my hair as a show of respect for his culture and religion. I told him this was proper adab, or good manners, a subject mentioned in various hadith (narrative records of the sayings or customs of Mohammad and his companions). I told him I studied the hadith because I was a lawyer. After tea and a large meal, I thanked him for his hospitality.
- Wanting to reciprocate the gesture of good will, I invited the commander and his staff to attend a Thanksgiving dinner. Before eating, we watched a movie about the pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving. The commander asked various questions during the movie, including why turkey was eaten and why the passengers on the Mayflower drank beer. After I explained that beer was safer to drink than water, he interpreted this for his staff, including his imam, and everyone laughed. After the movie, we ate a traditional Thanksgiving meal, with the imam saying a prayer and the Jordanian commander saying that now he knew what Thanksgiving was all about.
- The dinner was important for another reason: an Army chaplain was present, and she was introduced to the imam. The two had not met before, and the occasion allowed these two spiritual leaders of different faiths to forge a relationship. Moreover, the imam became acquainted with an important American holiday with spiritual values that resonate with Muslims—giving thanks to God for family, friends, and good health.
- Soldiers do not have to be religious in order to be effective with religious engagement. All that is required is that they be respectful of others, regardless of whether they personally agree or disagree with the beliefs of host-nation or coalition partners. Showing respect for others is a fundamental principle and one of the core Army values.