When it comes to terrorism, US foreign policy, US military operations, the true nature of Islam and the extent of Islamic radicalization, there are no shortages of opinions. As a survivor of the 9/11 attacks and a former US soldier, I certainly had my own. But when it came to discussing Islam intelligently, I had more questions than answers. Frustratingly, most interviews I’ve read or seen were apologias for Islam; of course, a few were reflexively anti-Islamic shoutfests.
So it was with an eye towards conducting a challenging, clarifying conversation that I asked Sayed and Deen, two Muslim-American veterans, to sit down and talk with me. We bonded quickly, the way soldiers do, over jokes, bullshit and some shared bitching. I was impressed with their thoughtfulness and their passion. But our goal was understanding, not agreement. I found, in their answers, cause for both optimism and concern. This interview is hardly the final answer on many of these subjects — we spoke for three hours and we could have spoken for twelve. But hopefully, over the course of this nine-part interview, we’ve managed to shed a little more light than heat on a range of subjects that sorely need it.
— Christopher Paul Meyer
CPM: Is there any enemy that you could see the United States declaring war against or fighting against, that would make you feel uncomfortable or compromised?
Sayed: I think if the US was to declare war on a faith, whether it’s Islam, Christianity, Judaism. If tomorrow, President Obama says we’re going to attack all Protestants, because they’re the next threat, I would have to object.
CPM: (laughing) Even if it was only Unitarians?
Sayed: (laughing) Oh, well, then…
Deen: Yeah, if you’re singling out a sect, a religion, a group of people, that’s not within the Army values or Air Force values.
CPM: What if we declared Wahhabism as the problem? You guys both have intelligence backgrounds, what if the US decided to target Wahhabist sects? Would that give you a problem?
Sayed: It depends — how would you do it and who would be doing it? Would you be sending Baptists to go do that? Because that would be a problem.
CPM: Let’s say you were given orders to infiltrate mosques overseas, to find out who is getting radicalized. You’re supposed to put X’s on doors, report back with who is doing the recruiting, where the weapons are being stored, that kind of thing — we want to disrupt their operations and take as many dots out of the matrix as possible.
Deen: I would have no problem with that, but I’m going to look at it as an officer. During the planning process, I might say, “OK, I know what we’re trying to do, but maybe we need to get rid of that terminology — “Wahhabism.” Sometimes people love to use key words, buzz words, no damn clue what they’re doing, they’re just mimicking what their boss might be saying.
As an officer, I think that generals get really screwed up information, because that full-bird Colonel or whoever’s briefing them doesn’t know enough to tell them what’s really going on.
CPM: Why is the terminology a problem? Is it because it’s inaccurate or just because it can piss people off for no reason?
Deen: Well, are Wahhabists a problem? Yes. Now, are all Wahhabists out to kill people? No. A good majority of the terrorists are Wahhabists, granted, but let’s not make more enemies by misrepresenting something. If you, internally, want to call them that, fine, but we have to learn how to identify things in a way that doesn’t put us in hot water if a document leaks. Terminology is very important.
CPM: So there’s very much an information operations/ psychological warfare aspect.
Deen: Right. Let’s agree on terminology that — if it’s leaked or something — doesn’t make us look like ass clowns.
Just like that old advice about when you’re writing an email, make sure you’re not saying anything that you wouldn’t be comfortable with the whole world seeing.
Sayed: For me, as an enlisted guy, if we targeted Wahhabists, I’d have no issues with it. But I would make sure the leadership knows to give us time — it’s a very time-intensive process, you’re not going to see fruits right away, you’re not going to use this mission to get promoted to your star. It’s going to be longer than that.
CPM: But ideologically or morally you wouldn’t have a problem?
Sayed: No, as long as it’s done right. What I mean by that is you have to put Muslim soldiers on the ground, you have to work with other moderate Muslims — again, I don’t want to use that term, because Deen’s right about that term — and other Muslim countries.
CPM: So let me ask, what should we call “radical Islam?” Is “radical Islam” an appropriate name? Or what other name would you suggest?
Sayed: “Radicalism.” When you say someone is part of “radical Islam,” all they are hearing you say is, “I’m a part of Islam.” They don’t hear the “radical” part. Other people in the world can start to think we mean “Islam” and that Islam is inherently evil or that the radicals are only “radical” in the sense that they’re taking actions others won’t.
CPM: But isn’t “radical” too vague? Isn’t it important to connect the dots and show the common denominator between different types of bad guys? I mean, the Colorado abortion clinic shooter may be a radical, too, but he’s not part of the network we’re targeting.
Sayed: I’d use, “radical al-Qaeda terrorist,” “radical Daesh terrorist.” Don’t let them have the “Islam,” let them have their own entity. If I’m talking about a radical Boko Haram terrorist, I’m not putting anything about Islam in there. I’m not associating them with their religion, so when someone says, “I’m a Muslim,” they don’t have to wonder if that person is radicalized.
CPM: Here’s my concern. I understand we want to divorce the religion from the ideology. But I think we end up sacrificing clarity in the name of sensitivity. There’s such a thing as “radical Christianity,” and “radical Judaism,” but those aren’t our issue right now — we’re talking about “radical Islam.” The word “radical” is simply an adjective. If I meant “all Muslims,” I would say, “all Muslims,” but I don’t — I’m only talking about radical Islam.
I think that intentionally blurring our language has real consequences. Like the frequent, knee-jerk reaction following terrorist attacks where politicians or talking heads will say the attack was the work of an “isolated extremist,” or, as in the case of Nidal Hassan, the first-ever case of “pre-traumatic stress disorder” — as though there is no network, no guiding ideology, no relationship between Hassan and Anwar Al-Awlaki.
When we were fighting WWII — the gold standard of war, as far as pop culture is concerned — we didn’t split hairs over calling our enemies “Germans” or “Nazis.” If somebody said we were killing “the krauts” overseas, it was clear that we meant the Nazis, we weren’t trying to foment mass riots against German-Americans.
If clarity gets sacrificed, I think we end up confusing ourselves and quibbling over nomenclature becomes a distraction from identifying the enemy and going after them. Am I wrong?
Sayed: You have to realize that your words go further then they did in 1943. Even if you’re not a politician — you could be a celebrity, a religious leader, a pastor who has no weight, no power, and Americans all know that — but Al Jazeera plays your comments, they translate it to Arabic, and suddenly it becomes, “Reverend Chris says that Islam is the enemy because it’s radicalized.”
Donald Trump’s words don’t hold any weight to us, but somebody in, say, Indonesia, doesn’t see him as a “possible GOP presidential candidate.” Between translations and cultural differences, they’ll end up thinking that he’s actually the next president of the US.
CPM: Is it fair to say that our words are our warfare right now?
Deen: Yeah, and we suck at information operations. We don’t want to understand the ideology. For the military the easiest thing is to drop a bomb or put a bullet in you. But it’s harder to deal with the ideology. And the ideology, it’s just going to keep on going, it’s just going to morph into something else.
Sayed: Samuel Huntington had that idea about a “clash of civilizations” between East and West. I know he got it wrong — I don’t think, I know he got it wrong. The war is not Islam versus the West, it’s society versus radicalism. Every country has its own problems with radicalism and it’s funny how so many radicals kind of think alike. Whether you’re a suicide bomber for Hezbollah or a pro-Life terrorist, you can be on completely different sides of the earth, completely different ideologies, but linked by radicalization.
I think that Islam is not the enemy of the West and the West is not the enemy of Islam. I think all civilizations have to face radicalism and that’s the greatest threat to our existence.