According to a recent poll, 63% of Americans now favor the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. The percentage of Americans favoring immediate withdrawal has increased from 31 in June to 37 now, while those favoring gradual withdrawal has declined. 30 percent of Americans want to stay the course, a figure unchanged from June. This 30 percent is the hard core, the Bushite faithful, corresponding in large measure to the evangelical religious right.
Just as this poll comes out we learn of a scientific study that suggests that over 600,000 Iraqis have died in war-related violence since 2003. That’s about three times the number I’d have thought, but the researchers’ methodology has been validated by experts in such polls. So I’m going to assume with the researchers that the war death toll is at least at the level of their low figure of 392,979.
My question to the 30 percent is this: If this study is accurate, and not dismissible as just a bunch of liberal propaganda, how can you continue to support the war in Iraq?
Let me try to put myself into the head of one such person, and imagine what sort of logic I might apply -- in that mental mode -- to the present situation.
“Well,” I’d have to think, “first of all, civilians die in any war. But our troops -- the international coalition troops -- take every precaution to prevent the loss of civilian lives. Only a small number of those 600,000 were innocent civilians killed by our soldiers. A lot of them are insurgents, Baathist Party fascists and Islamist terrorists who hate freedom.”
One problem here is that U.S. commanders have estimated the number of insurgents at under 20,000.
“Well,” I’d have to respond to that information while playing devil’s advocate, “a whole lot of those dead are good Iraqis who want freedom, killed by the bad Iraqis. A lot of the problem is sectarian violence between Shiites and Sunnis that goes back centuries and has nothing to do with us. Anyway we have to protect the good, peaceful ones from the bad, violent ones. So we have to stay the course.”
One problem with this is that according to a poll taken by the U.S. State Department itself, 71% of Iraqis want the troops out within a year. 61% say they approve of attacks on U.S. troops in their country. That makes for a whole lot of bad Iraqis.
Here’s where the logic must leap headlong into the realm of faith.
“Well, look. These people are Muslims. They don’t know Jesus Christ as their personal savior. So how can they know what’s good for them? The Qur’an teaches them to spread their faith through violence, which we experienced on 9-11 when the Muslims attacked us. So to defend ourselves we need to stay in Iraq, support democracy, and one day when the situation is stable we’ll be able to send Franklin Graham and other missionaries to bring them the true Word of God. Once they’ve received it, they won’t threaten us anymore.”
There are lots of problems with this, of course, including the entirely irrational “us versus them” conflation of al-Qaeda’s Saudi terrorists and the rest of the billion-strong Muslim world. But the main problem for those framing the argument is that it’s only persuasive to those (who like any kind of fundamentalist anywhere) are disinclined to stand outside themselves a moment and try to sympathetically understand the other. To do that is for them not a sign of intellectual sophistication but a shameful capitulation to the enemy. They “don’t do nuance,” or tarry to listen to commentators patiently challenging their rigid dogmatic views, picking holes in their alternative reality that is -- thank God! -- nicely packaged by Fox News.
We can dismiss them as hopelessly deluded, but we’d be unwise to ignore them. After all, there many of them, they are well-organized, and constitute the president’s social base. Many are surely sincere, nice to their children, leading upright and in some ways admirable lives much as your ordinary German did in the late 1930s. Maybe it is worth trying to reason with them, to crack this 30 percent figure, to get it down to, say 10 or 15.
But how to do that? How to reason with the faith-based mind deeply suspicious of human reasoning itself as an affront to the higher truth of the gospels? Well, maybe one can attempt to point out contradictions in the Christian war supporter’s position. “How,” we can ask, “can you reconcile the teachings of Jesus Christ with so destructive an attack on a country?”
“Christ said he came to bring a sword,” might come the reply. “And the Book of Revelation teaches us that there will be a bloody war in the Middle East before Jesus returns to establish His Kingdom.”
You could reply that this Book of Revelation has been interpreted variously for almost 2000 years, and that Martin Luther (highly regarded by most evangelicals) thought that the Pope in Rome was the Antichrist. You can question whether the scripture really justifies a U.S. war in Iraq. But you don’t want to get dragged into a long debate about theology.
You could ask if Biblical prophecy is the person’s main reason for endorsing the war. You can always return to that issue later. Ask if the person agrees that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, since the hard core of war supporters still tends to actually believe that. Ask if he or she really thinks that Saddam was working with al-Qaeda. These are beliefs so easy to refute that the believer engaging you in conversation might, if you persist politely, concede that indeed these charges made before the war were false, or at least mistaken. But he or she may declare that none of that really makes any difference since, as the president puts it, “Saddam was a threat” by his very nature. He’d attacked his neighbors and had sought nuclear weapons. Isn’t it obvious that the world’s better off with him out of power?
Try some more logic, then, focusing maybe on the Christian issue. If things have improved, why are tens of thousands of Christians fleeing Iraq, especially for secular Syria? Point out how so many categories of Iraqi are most certainly not better off in today’s Iraq. Don’t focus on the professors, getting offed like flies; your debate partner may think that’s just desserts since professors are such liberals. Maybe better not to bring up the plight of Iraqi gays. But mention the conditions of women, doctors, and Christians all targeted by the Shiite militias who support the U.S.-backed regime. At least try to sow some seeds of doubt in the believer’s head: No, it’s not obvious that Iraq or the world is better off with the dictator gone. At least it’s a question to think about, isn’t it?
Isn’t it important to think too about the support the U.S. gave Saddam, from his youth when he collaborated with the CIA to the 1980s when he made war on Iran with crucial American support brokered by none other than Donald Rumsfeld? Do you think it was Christian for the Reagan administration to sell Saddam chemical weapons components? It did, you know. Or to assist Iraq’s attacks on Iran with satellite surveillance photos?
Maybe the hardcore Bush supporter will concede that this wasn’t necessarily a good idea. Every government makes mistakes sometimes. But you can in response point out the hypocrisy of a government that helps a country attack its neighbor, and then later in order to vilify the former, protests about such behavior as a reason to invade it. The point is to gradually whittle down the misguided’s argument to the purely doctrinal. And to plant doubt.
“Okay,” you want him or her to say. “Maybe Bush did want to go to war with Iraq from square one. Maybe he did use 9-11 to get support for it. Maybe the reasons given were wrong.” (With that admission you’ve made some progress.) “Still, Islam is a false and dangerous religion, and the Muslim countries produce terrorism. So whenever we attack them, I figure we Americans have to support it, or we wind up being on the Islamist terrorists’ side.”
Maybe point out that Islam has mostly spread through the world as a result of peaceful trade and missionary activity. Certainly that, rather than conquest, is the reason you find so many Muslims in Indonesia (the world’s most populous Muslim country), and in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa and in China. It’s true that the Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula were united under Muslim leadership in the early seventh century and that they, like many non-Muslim peoples before them, conquered a large stretch of the earth’s surface during the next couple centuries. It’s also true that for many centuries they generally tolerated Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus within the territory conquered, to a far greater extent than European Christians tolerated non-believers in their midst. Tell the war supporter not to take your word for it, but if interested, study the issue. It’s easy these days on the internet.
The point is to keep plugging away, to affirm the value of reason, writing off no one, and certainly not Christian fundamentalists generically, as incorrigible. “The truth shall make you free” says Jesus (John 8:32). We can work with that concept, while exposing the wolves in sheep’s clothing who prey upon piety as they pursue goals that are anything but holy.
Gary Leupp is a Professor of History, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion, at Tufts University and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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