One of my favourite classes I've taken at American University, 'The World of Islam', has introduced me to new and revolutionary ideas about how the Islamic world can be understood. Our professor, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the former Pakistani high commissioner, and Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, has challenged the class through their rousing class discussions on present day issues regarding the study and understanding of the Islamic world.
On Friday, October 4, 2019, Ambassador Ahmed hosted the recently retired Lieutenant Colonel Evans of the US Army to lecture to our class on US Armed Forces' relations with the Islamic world. The lecture introduced me to a topic that helped radically shift my understanding of the nature of dialogue between civilisations.
Evans started his lecture with a brief description of his military career. He retired four months ago after twenty years of military service. Having started his career as an infantry officer with a deployment to Kosovo, his unit was deployed to Afghanistan shortly after 9/11. He would go on to serve two tours in Kandahar and one in Iraq. In 2009, Evans transitioned into the Foreign Area Officer (FAO) programme specialising in South Asia, spending his year of in-country immersion in Pakistan and learning Urdu. His experiences as an FAO further introduced him to military diplomacy and other cultures, especially during his time at the University of Balochistan in Quetta. Evans' interactions with Pakistani officers challenged him to rethink his perspective, and broadened his understanding of his experiences in Afghanistan.
Evans' interactions with Pakistani officers challenged him to rethink his perspective, and broadened his understanding of his experiences in Afghanistan
Evans outlined areas of opportunity for cooperation and conflict that affect the ways in which US relations with foreign powers progress. Peacekeeping, human rights work and humanitarian assistance fall under areas for cooperation, whereas support of regional enemies poses the primary area of conflict. Religion was not regarded as a primary factor in creating difference. Especially on the international stage, differences in religion are easily resolved through intercultural communication and understanding. Unless emphasised, religious difference does not greatly influence relations between the US and foreign powers.
Evans faced incredible difficulty breaking down the perceived difference between Afghans and his own soldiers. When soldiers and civilians perceived their interactions as being between two fundamentally different individuals–a heavily armed Christian American soldier and an unarmed Muslim Afghan civilian trying to survive a warzone–the interaction became unbalanced, and fostered malice between both parties. Both moved to characterise the other with harmful stereotypes and stayed away from cooperation. Evans' own personal emphasis on avoiding falling into the trap of the perceived difference helped develop a common understanding, and therefore cooperation with the civilian groups that he encountered during his deployments. This understanding helped minimise animosity between his soldiers and Afghan civilians, and actively furthered his ability to reach his military objective.
Evans was tasked with securing a road through a valley that had been the target of multiple attacks on US convoys. In the first couple of days of his entrance into the valley, he received word from intelligence that the imam of a mosque, high up on the ridgeline, was preaching anti-American sentiments, and that he was tasked with detaining that imam. In response to that request, Evans chose not to immediately detain the imam and move public opinion against the unit. Instead, he went up to the mosque and discussed the situation with the imam. It turned out that there had been a misunderstanding, and the imam had just been telling the children of the village to avoid the US forces and stay away from the road because of the potential for an accident.
In another incident, Evans was tasked with ensuring that a local militia commander wouldn't provide a threat to US Army forces in the area. He was told that the commander was a Taliban sympathiser and a threat to the valley, but Evans was unsure about the intelligence and chose again to prioritise dialogue. After a brief discussion, Evans realised that the commander was starkly anti-Taliban, and primarily sought to protect the village as well as maintain his own status. They reached a deal that ensured that US troops would not face a threat from the commander while also allowing the commander to maintain his ability to protect his village and maintain his prestige. For every week, after Evans chose to talk, the commander would come to their patrol base with a sack of fruit also containing a slip of paper detailing any potential enemy activities near the village.
By choosing dialogue over conflict, LTC Evans was able to foster peace and encourage cooperation between US forces and the local civilian body. The mutual understanding led to a marked decrease in the amount of conflict that Evans faced. In contrast, a fellow officer tasked with protecting another part of the valley did not make the same choice of dialogue over conflict, and faced resistance from villagers.
As a student in a class that focuses heavily on the concept of dialogue between civilisations, these smaller scale stories of how perceived differences can be superseded by the conscious choice to engage in dialogue first, and conflict only if necessary, illustrated how individuals can overcome the myth of the 'clash of civilisations'. It also illustrates the extent to which individuals must dedicate themselves to dialogue and recognise the perspective of the other in order to counter a perceived difference and truly approach an understanding of all individuals being equal through their common humanity.
The rhetoric of difference that we are all exposed to from birth permeates our worldview and warps the ways in which we perceive events around us, erasing the fundamental understanding of common humanity that we are all born with. Evans' simple act of choosing dialogue in a war that easily took on the trappings of the clash of civilisations proved to me that individuals can always choose to move past the difference that is constructed around them in search of common ground from which peaceful interactions can bear fruit. As a student seeking to join the military myself, I will take this lesson with me throughout my life and will look to let it guide my actions.
I am so appreciative of the opportunities that Ambassador Ahmed's World of Islam class has given me, and would like to thank Lieutenant Colonel Joe Evans' for the knowledge he has shared.
The writer is an undergraduate, studying the Arab World at American University in Washington, DC.