Today’s Washington Post has a short but fascinating story on the “religious enlightenment” programs we’re providing for Muslim detainees at a military facility in Iraq that we call the “House of Wisdom.” According to the Post,
The religious courses are led by Muslim clerics who “teach out of a moderate doctrine,” [Marine Maj. Gen. Douglas M.] Stone said, according to the transcript of a conference call he held from Baghdad with a group of defense bloggers. Such schooling “tears apart” the arguments of al-Qaeda, such as “Let’s kill innocents,” and helps to “bring some of the edge off” the detainees, he said.
I have a number of reactions to this, and they are not entirely consistent.
My first reaction is to cheer. For one thing, this approach seems to be working quite well, on at least two levels. First, the detainees’ differing responses to the training help us to distinguish hard-core detainees who pose a continuing threat from those who can be released. Second, the training seems to be quite effective in reducing recidivism:
Since May, Stone said, he has released about 2,000 detainees “and we’ve not had any coming back.” He said his goal is to keep those who are released from harming U.S. troops or anyone else. “They’re not going out of here unless I can feel comfortable about that,” Stone added. “I’m not doing mass releases.”
Naturally, reasonable minds might question the sincerity of any “conversions” that occur under such circumstances, but one anecdote in the story seems inconsistent with the idea that moderates are faking it:
Stone described a sort of religious insurgency that occurred at one detention facility on Sept. 2. “We had a compound of moderates for the first time overtake . . . extremists. It’s never happened before. Found them, identified them, threw them up against the fence and shaved their frickin’ beards off of them. . . . I mean, that is historic.”
They “shaved their frickin’ beards off of them.” Maybe that should have been the title of this post.
I also love the fact that we’re using our heads to address the roots of the insurgency instead of confining ourselves to a conventional military response. So often I hear people advocate military operations in Iraq on the ground that we have to do something — as if there were no other possibilities. Whatever else these “religious enlightenment” programs are, they are not a failure of imagination.
So what inconsistent reactions do I have? Mainly, it’s that I have trouble squaring my basically positive and basically visceral reaction to this program with my pre-existing ideas about state-sponsored religious education. I generally support a prominent place for religion in the public square, and I happen to think that distinctively religious arguments are quite proper on matters of public policy. I sometimes make them. At the same time, I do not believe government should ever try to establish orthodoxy in religion, and I developed a hearty dislike of President Bush’s religious allusions in some of his more apocalyptic speeches because they struck me as bad theology. As a Christian, I think Christian prison ministries here in the U.S. are wonderful, but I guess I would be nervous about state-sponsored lessons on the “right sort” of Christianity. (Come to think of it, I have no idea what sort of institutional approval is generally required before an outside organization can come in and establish a prison ministry in the U.S.)
So is my positive reaction to this story primarily a consequence of my not being Muslim? Do I find it easy to brush aside separationist concerns because I know our government could not plausibly be suspected of establishing Islam as the state religion? I’d be interested to know what reasonable minds think about this.