06/01/2015 05:22 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016

Interreligious Opposition to the Iraq War: We Were Right in 2002 And We're Right Now


Sen. Lindsey Graham just announced his candidacy for the 2016 Republican nomination for president with fear-mongering and promising to immediately fight our "enemies," especially "radical Islam."

In effect, Graham thinks we should re-fight the Iraq War with more bombing and even ground troops to fight Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq, and in Syria. While other GOP candidates have stumbled over whether the 2003 attack on Iraq was a mistake Graham does not think so.

In a sense, that is true. The attack on Iraq in early 2003 was not simply a "mistake," it was wrong.

It was wrong then and it's wrong now.

A broad and diverse coalition of U.S. faithful knew it and organized against attacking Iraq well before "Shock and Awe" rained down a barrage of bombs on the people of Baghdad. The interreligious community continued to oppose the war over more than a decade as it became ever more clear that this war-of-choice had been a moral, strategic, and fiscal disaster.

We are now, in 2015, being treated to Iraq War 2.0 (or even 3.0 if you include the Gulf War), a re-litigating of the original 2003 decision in the run-up to the presidential election of 2016. Yet, the faith-case against the war, which was powerful and broad-based, is still being ignored by those who want a do-over on the Iraq decision, and the license to use military force against self-styled Islamic State (ISIS).

No. Not again.

Let us be clear. The inter-religious faith community was right in 2002, we were right throughout the conduct of the war, and we are right now.

More war today, either bombing or boots-on-the ground, will not fix the mess we made of Iraq (or stop the debacle of Syria). In fact, the Iraq War catastrophe has given us the scourge of the current extremism of ISIS that plagues Iraq and is spreading throughout the Middle East and beyond. Why would more war be the way to change that?

Yet, as a Pew Poll Indicated earlier this year, there is increasing support for using military force against ISIS, up to and including U.S. combat forces. Sen. Graham is staking out that hawkish position in the election season, and other candidates will surely follow.

To argue for the use of military force to combat ISIS is just to continue the tragic theological mistakes of the Bush Administration, especially when President Bush used the word "crusade" (i.e. holy war) on September 16, 2001 to frame the moral ground for the U.S. response to the attacks of 9/11.

The failure to grasp why wars fought as "good versus evil" are profound theological errors leaves many current political leaders vulnerable to making the same mistakes again. This is why they cannot understand that ISIS needs us to attack them because they too are working from "holy war" type framework. Therefore, what these politicians cannot seem to see is that ISIS cannot have a cosmic war of good against evil if the chief cosmic enemy doesn't send bombs or troops, but just works on politically and financially undermining them.

In 2002, in the run-up to the attack on Iraq, it was Saddam Hussein who was portrayed as the great purveyor of "evil" in the world. But interreligious war resisters knew from the start of that case for war was gravely morally distorted.

Rita Nakashima Brock was a member of an international coalition of religious leaders who were publicly against the war before its onset and who organized initiatives against it even as public opinion was slow to turn against it. That coalition of organizations included leaders of Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, and Humanist traditions.

Just before the attack on Iraq, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite appeared on a special Nightline Town Meeting to debate whether the United States should attack Iraq, a country that had not attacked us. Senator John McCain, along with Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention and James Woolsey, a former director of the CIA, argued in favor of this pre-emptive attack. Ambassador Joe Wilson, Senator Carl Levin and Thistlethwaite argued against.

This Nightline special was called "Why Now?" The panel was asked the question, "What is the rush to war?"

The pro-war argument was that Iraq had "weapons of mass destruction," or that at least there was a "clear and present danger." "Inspections don't work," said Senator McCain, categorically. The threat that Saddam Hussein would "provide weapons of mass destruction to Al- Qaeda justified pre-emptive war (the so called "Bush Doctrine") and he said smoothly that that the "people of Iraq will rejoice and be grateful to the U.S."

Sen. McCain was wrong both about the pretext for attacking Iraq, and wrong about the response of the people of Iraq who did not seem to rejoice at being attacked. Juxtapose that then, to the current McCain position that tracks that of Graham: send "thousands" of ground troops" as well as air support.

The anti-war argument articulated by Thistlethwaite, and repeated by many in the faith-based opposition to attacking Iraq, was that it was a fundamental moral wrong to attack a country that had not attacked us; this violates Just War theory, a case Thistlethwaite had previously made earlier in 2002 in the Chicago Tribune.

In addition, Just Peace theory, as articulated by Thistlethwaite, warns that post 9/11, the U.S. was "creating the enemies we need" to pursue a cosmic conflict of good versus evil the pursue a cosmic conflict of good versus evil, a polarizing and ultimately theologically bankrupt approach to U.S. foreign policy.

Can we then see how much ISIS is the "enemy we need," even an enemy we helped create?

Mass demonstrations took place around the U.S. during this period, with strong religious leadership from U.S. Civil Rights leader, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who early on condemned the idea of attacking Iraq, and from President Bush's own United Methodist church that rejected his administration's plans as "without any justification according to teachings of Christ." In fact, with the exception of most conservative evangelicals, just about every Christian denomination opposed attacking Iraq. The Rev. Dr. Bob Edgar, Executive Director of the National Council of Churches, led a candlelight faith vigil outside the Senate on the day it voted to grant the president sweeping authority to launch the attack on Iraq.

One of the effects of 9/11 was the growth of the interreligious community in the United States, and its increasing clarity on and public opposition to the Iraq War. As the war dragged on, and the horror of the torture at Abu Ghraib unfolded, as well the indisputable fact that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction, the opposition grew and diversified religiously.

Sixty faith organizations, representing approximately 100 million people, held a service at New York's Riverside Church on April 4, 2015 to mark the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr's famous 1967 speech against the Vietnam War and the founding of Clergy and Laity Concerned.

The service began with a statement by Dr. Susannah Heschel, Jewish scholar and daughter of Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who was one of the leaders of the 1967 event. James A. Forbes Jr., senior minister of Riverside, participated in remembering Pope John Paul II, who had died that week and spoke out against the war. Some of the twenty speakers were Sister Joan Chittister, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Rev. Jessie Jackson, and Gold Star Mothers Cindy Sheehan and Celeste Zappala.

In addition, Brock's organization, Faith Voices for the Common Good, presented a declaration against the war, "Peace Not Poverty," written online by 13,000 people in a three-day "Write-In" using a proprietary collaborate software system called Synanim. Online participants ranged from young activists to the distinguished senior theologian, ethicist, Civil Rights leader and leading architect of Black Theology, Gayraud Wilmore. The statement included the following:

The war in Iraq violates law and perverts our sense of justice...Our compassion and care for our fellow human has been twisted and warped into intolerance, hatred, and bigotry...This war promotes fiscal insanity for us and future generations and it narrows and degrades our soul. It is a cancer that, if left unchecked, will only spread. ...We must also wrestle with the biggest factors of our aggression and we must reduce our dependence on oil... We must demonstrate our strength at home and abroad by apologizing to the Iraqi people, to the United Nations, and to the world. By redressing the wrongs that we have inflicted, we demonstrate respect for freedom and democracy.

The service, which packed the church with over 1000 people, launched a Freedom and Faith eight-state bus tour.

In September 2005, after a month of protests in Crawford, TX, hundreds of thousands gathered over a weekend in Washington DC to march against the war. The interreligious community marched and also held a large evening tent revival with speakers from a variety of traditions, including 1976 Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire.

And yet, still this diverse and powerful interreligious coalition of people of faith was ignored and the moral, strategic and fiscal devastation of the Iraq War continued.

As the Iraq war went from bad to worse, by 2005 it had became clear to more and more analysts that it was providing terrorists with "a training ground, a recruitment ground, the opportunity for enhancing technical skills," according to David B. Low, the national intelligence officer for transnational threats in a CIA briefing. "There is even, under the best scenario, over time, the likelihood that some of the jihadists who are not killed there will, in a sense, go home, wherever home is, and will therefore disperse to various other countries."

One of the chief risks today, as Iraq is again being debated, is that the decision to attack Iraq is being separated from the violent chaos the U.S. helped create in that country, a violent chaos that has led directly to ISIS.

We dare not let this distorted interpretation to take hold in our public discourse.

It is essential to keep showing that the interreligious opposition to the Iraq War has been correct in every respect, from the immorality of actually attacking a country that had not attacked us, to the enemy-stereotyping of dualistic views of good and evil, to the gross moral corruption of torture, to the risks of increasing rather than decreasing terrorism, and to the draining of resources that could be used to end poverty, provide quality education and health care, and a decent standard of living. Instead of enabling positive change, trillions of dollars have gone to create greater instability and extremism in the world.

Another Iraq War, this time framed as 'taking the fight to ISIS,' is equally theologically bankrupt, as well as morally, strategically and fiscally wrong.

We in the interreligious community are right today about why we cannot bomb or fight our way out of the brutal extremism of ISIS.

Join us.