The wars of perception

"Nothing threatens Americas national security more than the perception that we are at war with Islam," I wrote four years ago in this magazine.It was a follow-up ("Disgrace") to a longer piece about the role that perceived abuse of religious items and symbols played in the memories of former Guantanamo detainees ("The Secret Weapon"). To my knowledge, those two articles still remain the most thorough treatment of the place of religion in U.S. detention facilities during the so-called war on terror. (A version with footnotes can be found in this excellent volume affiliated with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.)Unfortunately, the false perception that the United States has some kind of official, national anti-Muslim stance has persisted, despite the efforts of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama.Just like the detainees I wrote about in 2008, the hunger strikers at Guantanamo -- eighty-six of whom were cleared for release years ago -- have claimed that the event catalyzing their activism was the mishandling of a Qur'an. And before you say So what?, recall, as I and many others have argued, that the proper Christian analogy of the Qur'an is not the Bible, but the person of Jesus Christ. And now today CBS News reports that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev left a note in the boat where he was hiding.

"Basically, the note says ... the bombings were retribution for the U.S. crimes against Muslims in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and that the victims of the Boston bombing were 'collateral damage,' the same way innocent victims have been collateral damage in U.S. wars around the world," said CBS News reporter John Miller, who is a former spokesman for the FBI. ... The note summed up with the idea that "when you attack one Muslim, you attack all Muslims," CBS News reported.

As I pointed out in my previous articles, there were several ways in which the United States did intentionally abuse the symbols and ritual practices of Islam in the early years of the Bush administration's "war on terror." These abuses were later cited by others as justifications for retaliation against U.S. troops and citizens.Granted, those who engaged in such un-American activities are no longer in charge of detainees, and as far as we know, the worst of the practices has ceased. But the wars of perception go on much, much longer. History has shown that the collective memory of religiously themed violence endures for generations.The very notion that a country could be at "war" with a religion of over 1 billion people that takes diverse forms and covers most of the globe is absurd. But we must continue to fight against that perception -- if not for a noble reason, then only for self-interest.

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and on the staff of its Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. He is the author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard. He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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