When I was in command of the first U.S. Army Civil Affairs battalion to deploy for Operation Iraqi Freedom, spending the first six months in the southern city of An Nasiriyah, it soon became clear to me that, in order to begin facilitating what one of my soldiers called "giving them their country back," I had to reach out to the one person whom most of the Iraqis looked to for guidance, information, and opinion. In a Shi'ite province like Thi Qar, that would be the Imam.
After a few weeks of seeking an audience, I had my first meeting with Sheik al-Nasiriy, explaining to him that the reason I came to him was that it seemed to me that the greatest damage done -- and thus rehabilitation to take place -- was psychological and not physical. "As the caretaker of these people's souls," I told him, "I must seek your advice on what we can do in our limited capacity to help these people rebuild their lives as well as keep you informed of what we're doing."
In this way, I was empowering him -- but he was also empowering us, because he dominated what today is called "the narrative" of public opinion there, simply by what he said at his sermon every Friday afternoon. Over time, we developed a strong relationship, the whole of the province knowing that every Tuesday evening we met at his residence.
I steered clear of any discussions of religion, until one day he casually asked me my personal beliefs and my attitude toward Islam. I replied, without hesitation, that I had been brought up in Catholicism, but also recalled a remark John Paul II made at a council of world religions at the United Nations in 1995. Calling for greater tolerance of and by religions as well as dialogue among them, the Pope -- in an unprecedented moment -- explained that "there are many paths to the truth."
I also told him of the time I was in Jerusalem, then 10 years prior, standing within a less than one-mile triangle including the Wailing Wall, the Dome of the Rock, and Golgotha -- three of the most sacred sites to religions representing more than half the population of the world -- and noting the irony that despite how close they were in mythological as well as physical terms they couldn't get along, simply because so many of their followers couldn't get past their symbols.
"My personal opinion," I shared with him, "is that if you are a true follower of your faith, then your path to the truth is as legitimate as mine, and we all wind up in the same place. Besides, all the great religions teach the Golden Rule -- do to others as you would have them do to you."
Three Wednesdays later, my interpreter-assistant told me that he had received a phone call that the Imam would very much appreciate it if I could join him at Friday prayers. Sitting at his right hand in front of thousands of worshipers, hearing him refer to me as "his brother in faith," it was as exhilarating as my first firefight in combat -- except much more pleasant and uplifting.
It was among the most moving moments in my 30-year military career.
My assistant then presented me with a dare, telling me that if I or any of my soldiers were to get out of our vehicles, take off the body armor, and simply walk out among the crowd, nothing would happen to us, even though it was the time when Al Sadr was visiting cities like An Nasiriyah exhorting fellow Shi'ites to kill Americans. So, my sergeant-major and I went down to the local market and did just that. We were greeted as celebrities, people coming up to shake our hands and, of course, beg for assistance.
I later told this story to a colleague working in the Pentagon with the Defense Science Board as an example of how civil-military operations are perhaps the most effective and cost-efficient way of "force protection." (Instead, the military still prefers to spend billions of dollars on more technical, defensive measures to protect soldiers than more behavioral, offensive measures.)
Religious tolerance and dialogue, however, isn't an operational concept or a tactic. It's really applying a mind set, one that begins at home. Whether for individuals or nations, the Golden Rule - in its karmic adaptation -- applies equally to each and all of us.
The right of the pursuit of religious happiness without the infringement of another authority is among the fundamental reasons this country was founded. It is also one of our main strengths. No other country can or does embody the democratic principle of tolerance as well as multiculturalism to the extent and on the scale than the United States. Even if the Chinese eventually had twice our gross national product, they can never pirate this societal software. And they know it.
Yet, in the many displays of religious intolerance and ignorance-based fearmongering of late in this country, we are carelessly frittering away this advantage and, inadvertently, contributing to our own decline. As in my email comment to a speech a couple of summers back by Mayor Bloomberg during the swirl of controversy around the building of an Islamic community center a few blocks from "Ground Zero": "If we have no confidence that our culture of inclusiveness can withstand its inherent risks, then we might as well hang it up and join the rest of the world. And that, my friends, is not a very pretty place."
Quite a number of Americans claim the United States is a Christian country. So, then, prove it -- in deed and not just word.
Because, even if it were true, then shouldn't Christians emulate the teachings and acts of their inspiring young rabbi, whose greatest contribution to humanity and the spirit of mankind -- in the supreme act of tolerance, if we believe he was indeed divine -- was to stretch his arms across a tree in the last full measure of commitment to his main teaching of loving one's enemies and praying for those who persecute you?
Isn't this, after all, what this time of year is about? Isn't this part of what we Americans should be about?