Barack Obama’s new national security team is a "Best and Brightest" group as befits an administration that is pledged to being super-competent and smart, the implication being that George W. Bush’s foreign policy has been incompetent and ham-handed, his ideology over-riding his sensibility. I do not believe "ideology" is a bad word if by ideology you mean the promotion of Western values. And diplomacy is a tactic, not a strategy. But, there can be little doubt that Bush’s prosecution of the war on terror has suffered from the kind of neo-conservative myopia that was utterly absent from the stage in Chicago yesterday.
The group could start by reading the current issue of Commonweal where Michael Peppard has an article about religious abuse of Muslim detainees both in Iraq and at Guantanamo. Specifically, Peppard relates how U.S. guards have desecrated the Qur’an in front of Muslim detainees and explains why this is an acute form of torture from the perspective of the detainees. They view the Muslim holy book as itself divine and so stomping on it is like stomping on God. We may think this is ridiculous, but it is what they think that matters.
And not only to them. Moderate Muslims may not view the Qur’an in the same way as these detainees but they, too, will draw conclusions from American behavior such as this. The episodes lend credence to the fanatics’ claim that the war on terror is really a war on Islam. If we wish to be seen as champions of freedom, including religious freedom, desecrating anyone else’s sacred texts or symbols is counter-productive. We want moderate Muslims to see the detainees as fanatics, not us.
There is a deeper reason these actions are so awful. Showing disrespect for anyone’s religion is a betrayal of our Western values, of those values we are supposed to be fighting for in the first place. This desecration of the Qur’an is a victory for the terrorists who can only win if they convince us to change ourselves, to let fear turn us into something repugnant, to become the caricature these fanatics have said we truly are.
The good news about the terrorists is that they are few in number. The war on terror is not like World War II; Osama bin Laden does not have the military-industrial might of a large nation to call upon. The terrorists can disrupt our lives but they can’t subjugate most of Europe. The only way they can win is if they terrorize us into changing who we are and how we behave.
Obama’s national security team can begin demonstrating their non-ideological hyper-competence by striking a blow for America’s ideological devotion to the First Amendment’s protections of religious freedom. Stop desecrating the Qur’an and punish those who do so. It is the smart thing to do. It is the right thing to do.