09/27/2011 01:18 pm ET | Updated Nov 27, 2011

An American Imam Preaching Peace In Afghanistan

Every summer, I seem to find a way to depress myself. Last summer I, together with seven other Muslim-American leaders, visited Nazi concentration camps in Poland and Germany where we witnessed the horrific legacy of the Holocaust. This past summer, I spent the first 10 days of Ramadan in Afghanistan. It was very painful to witness the bleeding wounds of Afghan society as a result of four decades of war and destruction. It is not very well-known fact here in the U.S., but Afghanistan produced a heartless communist regime, a brutal theocracy, and went through the invasions by two superpowers and numerous other calamities in one person's lifetime.

I was primarily invited by the Afghanistan Academic and Islamic Research Center (AAIRC) led by an inspirational Muslim leader Mawlana Ataurrahman Saleem, who aims to spread and promote moderate and peaceful teachings of Islam through this organization. I saw it clearly that this breath of fresh air religious think-tank and saintly scholars behind it are up to mountainous tasks in Afghanistan because Islam, as it is understood and practiced by most Muslim scholars in the country, has been nothing but a curse and has been pulling the entire nation down. Religion clearly became a source of oppression, despair and destruction in the hands of the Afghani religious leadership, which represents one of the most troubling interpretations of Islam. Afghanistan is a prime example of how religion can turn into something destructive in a deeply broken society.

I travelled extensively in central and Northern Afghanistan during my 10 days. I gave several talks mainly to Ulama and met with government officials and representatives of various NGOs. Almost everyone I met in the country complained and grieved about the worrisome reality of the role of religion and religious leadership. I was able to get my own "taste" of this grim reality in my personal interactions with hundreds of religious scholars that I talked to. I was primarily dismayed how uninformed and uneducated these people were in various Islamic Studies. It doesn't take too much for any learned Muslim to realize that these Muslim leaders actually know very little about Islamic theology, history and philosophy. Their training is limited to a very selective and literalist approach filled and mixed with many troubling cultural and traditional practices.

A telling example: I was told that women are not allowed to enter the mosques in Afghanistan. I honestly shared my dismay and disapproval of this practice wherever I spoke. I challenged scholars to show me any Islamic justification for this practice. This upset many Ulama. One of the leading ones in his defense of the practice said that there is a verse in the Quran that clearly says "women are incomplete in their rationale and in their religion." He was referring to a controversial "hadith," or "saying of the prophet," which was said in a very specific context -- thinking that it is a verse in the Holy Quran. I immediately pulled out my pocket Quran and extended to him as I asked him to show me where the verse is in the Quran! Through numerous similar encounters with these religious leaders, I was convinced that none of them could pass the graduation exams in any divinity schools in the Muslim world. These Afghani religious leaders' views and practices on women, religious violence / extremism and non-Muslims, are the most painful ones. Despite their troubling views, they are very powerful, and they have a captive audience in the mosques where they pretty much run the whole show in the area of religion with no real competition.

I have been constantly reflecting since I left Afghanistan how come this kind of horrible religious interpretation could resonate with so many people in Afghanistan? How can a beautiful religion, which sustains me and hundreds of millions of others, turn into something ugly, harmful and poisonous like that? I am getting increasing clarity, as I review my memories and notes over and over, that the answers to the questions are neither religious nor political but pastoral and psychological.

I believe the real destruction took place in the mental and psychological worlds of Afghanis. As a chaplain, I went through years of challenging but rewarding training in the area of mental health, especially in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) recovery. Almost everyone I met in Afghanistan was revealing different levels of PTSD symptoms. Many of them were in a constant state of grief because of what they had been through. Here in the U.S., we just went through the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Remember the amount of grief we Americans, rightly so, revealed in response to this one day of barbaric attacks which claimed more than 3,000 lives? Undoubtedly, everyday was 9/11 for Afghanis in the last 40 years or so. Generations grew up seeing nothing but bloodshed and murder.

This analogy is not an attempt to justify or even endorse what is going on in Afghanistan, but a humble appeal to empathize with these wounded people. Try to walk in their shoes by comparing some of our similar wounds and hurt. I think our foreign, military and economic policies should be shaped by this kind of pastoral approach. We should seek advice from various mental health professionals and include them to our team as we design our efforts towards Afghanistan. I think if we do not understand the scarred souls of Afghanis, we will continue to limit ourselves to militaristic or cheap economic solutions in our aid efforts to Afghanistan. Most of what we say will end up become blaming the victim and adding insult to their injuries.

Where am I going next summer? I don't know but it is really hard to beat Afghanistan.