CVE, Afghanistan, and the Theological Castration of Muslims

The 1988 American action film Rambo III portrayed fictional events towards the end of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Despite the terrible acting the movie does serve as an important historical window into American attitudes about Muslims and Jihad at the time. At the beginning of it we follow the field officer with the U.S. Embassy in Thailand, Robert Griggs, and Colonel Sam Trautman as they track down John Rambo who happens to be living in a village in the Southeast Asian country where he was attempting to put his life of combat behind. They show him photos of tortured civilians, including children in Afghanistan suffering at the military might of the Soviets. Colonel Trautman uses this as pretext for organizing a covert U.S. mission to supply anti-Soviet rebels in Afghanistan, known as the Mujahideen fighters, with missiles to give them an upper hand in their battles. Although Rambo initially refuses he does eventually go after learning that Soviet soldiers kidnapped the Colonel during the mission.

Interspersed between the action scenes are conversations between the characters that shed light on how nearly 30 years since the release of this movie, U.S. public opinion has transformed 180 degrees. In a scene where the arms dealer Mousa Ghani takes Rambo across the border from Pakistan to Afghanistan they take a moment to look at the valley and have the following exchange:

Ghani: This is Afghanistan. Alexander the Great tried to conquer this country, then Genghis Khan. Then the British. Now Russia. But Afghan people fight hard, they never be defeated. Ancient enemy make prayer about these people. Do you wish to hear?

Rambo: Mhm.

Ghani: Very good. It says, “May God deliver us from the venom of the cobra, teeth of the tiger, and the vengeance of the Afghan.” Understand what this means?

Rambo: That you guys don’t take any [expletive]?

Ghani: Yes. Something like this.

In another scene Rambo listens to Masoud, the leader of the Mujahideen in the village he camped at, telling him about how this war for them has as much a spiritual significance as it does a material one. He is further told that the Mujahideen will help him rescue the Colonel because in doing so their plight may garner international attention, and they see America as an ally in this for them. It is fascinating to note how positively Jihad, resistance of the occupier, and turban-wearing men screaming “Allahu Akbar” on their horses as they went into battle to save Rambo and Colonel Trautman from the Soviets, were portrayed in this film. It was all a symbolism of Jihad literally saving America.

One of the most captivating scenes is one in which the first interrogation session of Colonel Trautman takes place. His Soviet interrogator, Colonel Zaysen, explains that they fight in Afghanistan because they want disarmament and peace, and asserts that their victory will be realized in due time. Colonel Trautman’s response may be one of the most ironic statements made by a character representing America:

“There won’t be a victory. Everyday your war machines lose ground to a bunch of poorly armed, poorly equipped freedom fighters. The fact is that you underestimated your competition. If you had studied your history you would know that these people have never given up to anyone. They would rather die than be slaves to an invading army. You can’t defeat a people like that. We tried. We already had our Vietnam.”

The final scene of the movie has Ghani asking Rambo to stay, to which Rambo gives the eerily foretelling response where fiction intersects with real life “Maybe next time.” As the camera pans out and before the credits roll a dedication appears in the middle of the screen to the bravery of the people of Afghanistan:

While Rambo III may be a fictional movie, the historical context in which it was made and the American attitudes towards Afghanis and Jihad were very real. During the 1980s the U.S. government spent millions of dollars to produce and smuggle through clandestine networks textbooks that encouraged a “jihadist outlook”. These books were the work of the U.S. Agency for International Development by the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and they served as the Afghani school system’s core curriculum. The main focus throughout their pages was fighting. Their concept illustrations included drawings of bullets, guns, and dead Soviet soldiers. For example, to learn basic algebra students would see, “If out of 10 atheists 5 are killed by 1 Muslim, 5 would be left.”

Although this program ended with the collapse of the communist government in Afghanistan, these books can still be found in circulation in some Afghani markets today where they can be bought to indoctrinate children against America with the same lessons taught to fight Soviets in the 1980s. Life is an ironic tragic comedy. Regardless, in circulation or not, what is more important to note here is that no amount of money will make books write themselves. Supported by funding from the U.S. government, Muslim Afghani academics and scholars helped write these texts. This was sold to them as necessary support for their legitimate resistance efforts against the Soviets. The idea behind it was that to be properly indoctrinated with the belief in resistance being a religious duty, it must be done at a young age.

So, what does Rambo III, the Soviet-Afghan war, and U.S. commissioned and funded textbooks to indoctrinate a generation of Afghani children 30 years ago have to do with Muslims in America today?

On September 3rd the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) hosted a debate at the 2016 Islamic Society of North America Convention. The topic was “Debating Countering Violent Extremism (CVE): Engagement with Law Enforcement, Harm or Benefit?” The main points raised by Sahar Aziz and Dawud Walid against having American Muslims engage in CVE programs were concerned with the deputizing of Muslims for law enforcement; the securitization of the relationship between the government and Muslim communities where Muslims are treated as suspects first and citizens second; and the diversion of precious resources to CVE programs when they could be funneled to much needed social, economic, and political efforts. In addition, there are grave religious concerns that will not be overcome if imams get involved with CVE programs, which include the violation of trust and privacy between them and their communities; being viewed as “sellouts” by members of the community, especially by those who may have bought into extremists’ propaganda; and most dangerously the audacious involvement of government in interpretations of the Islamic texts and tradition.

In support of CVE programs Kamran Bokhari and Muqtedar Khan were concerned with the restrictive framing of the debate. Although they acknowledged the points against CVE, they maintained that Muslims needed to be pragmatic and realistic. They held that CVE is a very minor yet significant aspect of the U.S. government’s counter-terrorism budget, which will proceed and develop with or without Muslim involvement. As Khan put it, the government needs a counter-narrative to ISIS, and if we do not provide it, Daniel Pipes will. Both panelists further emphasized the need for Muslim communities to be active in taking any available opportunity to challenge the public perception that Muslims are not actively trying to combat radicalization in our midst. Although they accepted the criticisms against CVE, they saw them as evidence for the need to have Muslims engage in these programs to have their say, as these initiatives are still work in progress. If we do not participate now, they contended, we risk being excluded from the development of policies that will have direct impact on our communities.

Listening to the side calling for Muslim engagement in CVE programs I could not help but think that the points they raised in support for their position were actually undermining it. Khan emphasized the need for Muslims in the U.S. to show in a way that goes beyond issuing verbal condemnations that our communities are against the things that ISIS militants do and stand for, and he saw CVE serving this end as an official action-based soft confrontation with radicalism and anti-Americanism. Bokhari expressed his belief that since Muslims are living under a climate of Islamophobia, we will not get a seat at the table by pushing back in the way Aziz and Walid were advocating for. On close reflection, these are very revealing positions to take. They are first rooted in fear, and second but more dangerously in an implicit acceptance of the general framing of the discourse on Islam and Muslims in America.

Despite any claims to the contrary, according to the U.S. Department of State website, CVE programs are specifically about Muslims and no other group. In remarks offered in February 29th, 2016 by the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, Sarah Sewall stated:

“Violent extremists are not a new threat; they have raged against civilization as long as we have tried to build it. What is new is how the United States and our partners around the world are pushing them back – with a more comprehensive, preventive, and civilian-centered approach we call Countering Violent Extremism, or CVE.

How did we come to embrace this new approach? The answer is simple: learning.

Learning from more than a decade since the searing experience of 9/11. Following those horrific attacks, the U.S. arrayed a range of counterterrorism tools to keep Americans safe: from airport security and intelligence collection, to military operations, and security assistance.

Yet as the U.S. targeted al-Qa’ida, its remnants dispersed and adapted. They and other terrorist groups exploited local grievances about insecurity, unemployment, sectarianism, or marginalization to merge with militias, criminal networks, and insurgencies. In doing so, they created affiliates and inspired savage new groups like Boko Haram and the so-called Islamic State, or Daesh.”

As a side note, it should be highlighted that these remarks blame the rise of militant groups to “local grievances” and deliberately omit mentioning the U.S.’ direct role in creating the very conditions that led to them in the first place. They also speak to a point Bokhari made during the debate, which is that bringing up terrorism exercised by white supremacists is a fallacious equivocation and diversion. Unlike white supremacists, Muslim extremists, he tells us, do not have local interests and instead have world geopolitical aspirations. This is why radicalization in Muslim communities requires specific attention in the form of CVE programs.

But this begs the question about what these aspirations are specifically. Ever since 9/11 we have been constantly drowning in a sea of articles, books and “experts” called upon by mainstream media to explain the role of religion in violent acts carried out by Muslims. Before ISIS declared their “caliphate” we still had room to try and stress the geopolitical factors of this violence. Even after the rise of ISIS we talk about the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the political vacuums created in Syria and Libya combined with the history of Sykes-Picot, and everything else wrong that has been taking place in that part of the world since World War I. But ISIS did something none of its predecessors have done, which is the explicit and very vivid creation of a narrative supported by a sophisticated use of visuals and social media that entangles Islam with their violence. If 9/11 made Muslims walk on eggshells, ISIS exchanged the eggshells for a bed of hot coal. With our feet to the fire many of us just want a way out.

We might be living in the largest Pavlovian conditioning experiment ever conducted. Trapped in a discourse that perpetuates a perception of a necessary connection between Islam and violence, we try to rationalize our learned conditioning to automatically salivate when the subject of radicalization comes up. It simply does not matter what the research says about radicalization and the nature of religion’s role in it. Despite our best attempts to steadfastly assert that ISIS’ actions have nothing to do with Islam, due to the barrage of headlines in Western media combined with ISIS’ sophisticated propaganda machine, like water drops on a rock over a long time the assumptions of the dominant discourse eventually penetrated our subconscious and in an Aschian fashion many Muslims accepted this connection, but with a caveat.

Muslims moved from asserting that “ISIS has nothing to do with Islam” to “this is a deviant interpretation that must be refuted”. It is worthy to note here that for one to interpret they must first be versed in the texts they are interpreting. But we know from a number of reports that 70% of recruits feeding the ISIS machine barely know the texts they claim to be following. Before we “refute deviant interpretations”, we should recognize that the majority of those we say need refutations are ignorant of what is being negated in the first place. Nevertheless, unable to change the dominant discourse, we changed tactics and accepted we have a problem, but we needed a scapegoat. That is where Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia came in.

In a way, this can be seen as a blessing in disguise for many Muslims. The enormous financial resources at the disposal of a minority, coupled with the symbolism of being the caretakers of the two holiest sites in Islam, allowed Saudi Arabia the means to propagate a particular version of the religion that for better or for worse at times contrasts with what most Muslims have practiced, and often with judgmental hostility that seems to easily declare its opponents as innovators and heretics. It was only a matter of time before the ill-resourced majority took a swipe back. Showing ISIS using Islamic references that mostly come from a Saudi-bred or -supported background gave that perfect opportunity to hit two birds with one stone: dissociate mainstream Muslims from ISIS, and direct Islamophobic attention to Saudi Arabia and Wahhabism, which by extension also implicated Salafism given how it is often mentioned in the same breath with them.

Regardless of what one’s opinion is of Wahhabism, its history, and Saudi’s influence on Islam and mosques in the West, or what Ibn Taymiyyah has to do with all of this, it is interesting to note that in the public discourse these were never linked to radicalization and violent extremism in the not too distant past in the way that they are today. There is a simple reason for that: as we are exposed to it, radicalization is a term used in a political context but under a veneer of it being a religious one.

As we have accepted it as a religious problem, we now find ourselves in a precarious position where not only are we debating CVE, but even the limits that define Islam have become blurred. After seeing how ISIS goes about and justifies its violence towards Muslims, many of us in the West are becoming increasingly sensitive to discussions about what makes a Muslim in fact a Muslim. To assert that there are certain basic tenets of belief one must uphold in order for he or she to be within the already very broad folds of Islam is at best politically incorrect, and at worst can smear one’s reputation as intolerant, bigoted, extremist, and even a, wait for it, “takfeeri” (an excommunicator of Muslims). Furthermore, in the name of tolerance and coexistence we are witnessing a rise in the questioning of rulings that from an Islamic perspective have always been considered known from the religion by necessity.

CVE is not just about deputizing Muslims for law enforcement. It is an outcome of the wholesale enlistment and manipulation of Islam to serve the goals of the American empire. It is about a greater effort to reshape Islam as a religion so it is rendered deaf, mute, and blind after it had previously been packaged for Afghanistan in a way that focused on its armed resistance aspect. It is about how we as Muslims think of our own agency, our religion, and our role in the world. Instead of being independent witnesses upon the people as we are called to be in the Quran [2:143], which means there will be times when we have to stand up and call people to doing good and declare when we believe they are committing evil, we are rationalizing how we can theologically castrate ourselves and pass through this part of our journey to God unnoticed. We have submitted our understanding of Islam to governments, and now believe we are being true to its teachings because we recognize the concepts and Islamic terms being used. This is the result of making Islam subservient to political goals.

The oppressor will always try to pacify the oppressed by stipulating what forms of protest and resistance are acceptable. It is absolutely astonishing that it could be said during the ISPU debate that we must engage in government-sponsored CVE programs because the U.S. government needs a counter-narrative to ISIS and in the current climate of Islamophobia we cannot afford to be seen as dissidents.

While we can acknowledge their genuine concern and good intentions, what seems to have escaped those advocating for Muslims engaging in these government programs is that such rationalizations make it clear that CVE is in reality a Westernized version of what is known in the Islamic tradition as Ulama’ As-Sultan, i.e., Scholars of the Government. This was also the case with the U.S. government-sponsored Afghani textbooks teaching 30 years ago the diametric opposite of what CVE aims for today. In short, our religious will is subject to the whims of politicians. To put it bluntly, many of us have accepted a relationship with the U.S. government in which when we are told to theologically jump we ask, “How high?” In his article Muslim Intellectuals and America’s Imperial Project Dr. Hatem Bazian aptly described this situation:

“The intellectual class in general and the Muslim part of it in particular has been reduced to a series of engagements initiated by government needs and set in motion according to a pre-determined agenda. Rather than being independent, creative and reflective, the intellectual class (with some exception) has accepted its role as problem solvers for persistent U.S. imperial problems that emerge out of intervention abroad, militarism, racism and obscene capitalism.

American Muslim intellectuals are joining the bandwagon and fitting in perfectly as functionaries of this massive and persistent domestic and global imperial enterprise.”

The rationalizations for pragmatism and realism in support for engaging in CVE programs are rooted in a false sense that moving from the field to the house equates to arriving to the Promised Land. But a field slave and a house slave are still slaves. We cannot let a climate of Islamophobia and negative media scare us into literally giving up equal rights guaranteed under the rule of law. We also should not be fooled by euphemistic titles into willingly participating in our own persecution. Jon Stewart’s farewell advice in his final episode as host of the satirical political comedy show The Daily Show comes to mind: “Whenever something’s been titled ‘Freedom’, ‘Family’, ‘Fairness’, ‘Health’, ‘America’, [or CVE], take a good long sniff. Chances are it’s been manufactured in a facility, may contain traces of [expletive].”

We cannot be so naïve as to believe that by engaging in these government programs we can positively influence the development of policies that will impact our communities. We should instead be challenging any attempt to develop security programs designed with Islam and Muslims in mind. The very nature of these initiatives and their goals necessarily begin with an assumption that Muslims are a people on edge because our religion is a schizophrenic one and anything coming out of CVE programs will be like prescriptions of Risperidone, Clozapine, or Olanzapine. Make sure you talk to your imam about potential side effects to know which treatment is right for you. The words of Ghani to describe Rambo may in fact be applied to us: “God must love crazy people. He makes so many of them.

Engaging in CVE programs is playing by the rules of the oppressor. A seat at a table that serves a three-course meal starting with isolation, followed by emasculation, before finally getting a dessert plate of subjugation is not something to aspire towards. The oppressor does not maintain power by asking permission from the oppressed, and the oppressed will not be free by avoiding confrontation. Instead of asking for a seat at the table we should have the backbone to declare that the table is crooked, the food is terrible, and demand that the manager and chef fix it because we are equal stake owners in this restaurant and will not go anywhere else to eat.