Teaching Religious War at the Air Force Academy

The U.S. Air Force Academy just can’t seem to get it right. Six major cheating scandals in four decades. Endemic sexual harassment against female cadets. Christian evangelical officers proselytizing non-Christian cadets. But in February 2008, on the occasion of their fiftieth annual assembly, the Academy brass outdid themselves.

They presented three discredited Islamophobes who spewed religious bigotry and advocated religious war, in the process trampling on the First Amendment and exposing the Air Force to international ridicule.

Walid Shoebat, Kamal Saleem and Zachariah Anani all claim to be “reformed terrorists.” The three men’s narratives “border on the fantastic,” as a Feb. 7 New York Times story delicately put it, including their claims that they killed hundreds of people while still children. Even members of Shoebat’s own family apparently believe that his stories of terrorism are fabricated. Most experts have concluded that they are frauds.

“It’s like inviting O.J.Simpson impersonators to a conference on domestic violence,” Mikey Weinstein, head of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, told InFocus. “They’re snake-oil salesmen, but unfortunately they’re not really funny, because they have the capacity to severely damage national security.” (The three men collected $13,000 for the Colorado Springs caper, according to The New York Times.)

However ludicrous their claims may be, the trio provided Academy brass with yet another opportunity to push the bigoted worldview of the Religious Right, this time under the guise of educating about terrorism. According to Shoebat, Saleem and Anani, the reason why they quit the terrorism racket was because — wait for it — they converted from Islam to Christianity! While supposedly an investigation of terrorism, the appearance of the men was yet another pretext for rightwing elements at the Air Force Academy to promote their noxious brand of Christian fundamentalism at a publicly-funded institution.

But the “X-Terrorists,” as they melodramatically fashion themselves, also promoted the idea that a Christian crusade against Islam is the will of God. “Islam is the devil,” Shoebat has said, along with many other defamations of Islam. If Air Force brass claims not to know of his bigotry — or that most experts believe the three men are frauds — they are criminally incompetent. If they did know but invited them anyway, they’re guilty of retailing hate speech and extremist ideology as reputable academic presentations.

Think about it. The cadet wing at the Academy represents the young Air Force officers of the future. Someday they’ll be in charge of nuclear weapons capable of killing millions. Do we really want our young officers being told that religious war is inevitable? Isn’t it a major crisis when hate-mongers have the political clout in the military to flaunt their murderous 14th century beliefs during a major event at the Air Force Academy, with no chance for Muslims or supporters of religious liberty to defend core American values?

I want young officers at our historic military institutions to hear all sides of every issue, so perhaps inviting clowns like Shoebat, Saleem and Anani could be interesting, if only to study the dynamics of fanaticism — if they weren’t proselytizing evangelical Christianity, and if their Islamophobic vitriol were balanced off by responsible Muslim speakers. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) offered to find Muslims in Colorado who could offer a balancing perspective and speak about ways that Christians and Muslims can support religious pluralism and work together to build better communities. The Academy’s response to this offer was a resounding silence.

Our young military officers desperately need more cultural literacy regarding the Muslim and Arabic-speaking worlds, if they are to properly represent America’s interests. Instead, the Air Force Academy gives them bootleg evangelicalism and religious bigotry. Both are unmistakable attacks on the U.S. Constitution that officers take an oath to defend. The deteriorating situation at the Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs is a disgrace to all Americans and cries out for a Congressional investigation.

Addendum: Due to a national outcry against this mind-boggling attempt at political and religious indoctrination, the Air Force Academy has been compelled to allow three spokespersons with an opposing view to address cadets on April 9.

They are Joseph Wilson, former US ambassador and opponent of the Iraq War; Reza Aslan, a young scholar of Islam; and Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, himself an Academy graduate and a tireless opponent of forced religious indoctrination in the armed services.

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