The Sandbox

GWOT hot wash, straight from the wire

Welcome to The Sandbox, a forum for service members who have served or are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, returned vets, spouses and caregivers. The Sandbox's focus is not on policy and partisanship (go to our Blowback page for that), but on the unclassified details of deployment -- the everyday, the extraordinary, the wonderful, the messed-up, the absurd. All correspondence is read, and as much as possible is posted, lightly edited. If you know someone who is deployed who might have something to say, please tell them about us. To submit a post click here.


April 28, 2008


Name: CAPT Doug Traversa

Posting date: 4/28/08

Returned from: Afghanistan

Milblog url: Afghanistan Without A Clue


All of my previous Hamid postings have been about discussions just the two of us had. Towards the end of our tour, my hut mates would join us in our little chats. By this time Hamid was becoming a bit of a celebrity. A couple of the other interpreters would read my blog and tell Hamid he was famous. My roomies, Doug, Mike, and Drew, were also starting to contribute to AWAC (my blog), so we were all one big happy blogging family.

One day Drew and Mike joined us for lunch. Poor Hamid. His brains hurts enough when I talk to him; imagine the migraine he must have had after talking to the three of us. I don’t remember how we got on the topic, but we ended up discussing freedom of religion.

“People in Afghanistan don’t need the freedom to switch religions; no one would leave Islam,” Hamid assured us.

“Well, how would you know?” I countered. “Right now it’s like having a gun held to your head. Remain Muslim or die. Your government forces everyone to remain Muslim. Leaving the faith is never a realistic possibility for anyone, unless they flee the country.”

“But no one would ever leave Islam. It is the perfect religion.” Hamid was very confident on this point.

“Hamid, you’ve never even read the Qur’an. Don’t tell me it’s the perfect religion.”

Mike joined in: “I find it amazing that so many people here have not read their most holy book. I’m not talking about people who can’t read, I’m talking about those who know how, but never bother.”

I piled on. “Why haven’t you read it? It’s the most important book in your life, and you’ve never read it.”

Hamid didn’t hesitate. “I don’t need to. My mullah tells me what is in the Qur’an.”

[Yes, I know, we’ve had this discussion before. Please bear with us.]

Mike (did I mention he is a lawyer?) pounced: “So you are basing your entire set of beliefs on what one man tells you? Why would you do that? What if he’s wrong?”

“If he is wrong,” replied Hamid, “Someone can say something in the mosque.”

I had to jump on this one. “Hamid, has anyone ever stood up and said that the mullah was wrong about anything?”

He paused, then shook his head. “No. But they could if he was wrong.”

“Hamid,” I disagreed, “No one is going to contradict the mullah. They are probably afraid, or think he knows better than they do. That’s why no one ever disagrees with him. But let me ask you something else. Do you think it would be a good idea to change the law in Afghanistan to allow people to change their religion?”

Hamid seemed puzzled. “No one would do that. Islam is the perfect religion.”

“That doesn’t matter. Would you change the law if you could?”

“No,” he said simply.

“Why not? What are you afraid of?” I demanded.

“We don’t want people to go to hell.”

Mike joined in: “In our country, you are free to worship as you please. The government doesn’t tell you what to believe or how to worship. I could make up a new religion today if I wanted to, and they wouldn’t stop me.”

“Yes,” I added. “I could worship that chair if I wanted to.”

Hamid gave us one of his exasperated looks. “But the government must stop you from doing that. It is crazy.”

“No,” insisted Mike, “In America, the government is forbidden to interfere in your worship, even if it seems crazy. We believe in the marketplace of ideas. If you want to convince someone that your religion is true, you must do it by words, not by force. If you had that freedom over here, people might not stay Muslim.”

“No, no one would leave Islam.” Hamid was firm on that point.

Drew finally joined in: “How do you know? Let me illustrate. Suppose you went to get ice cream, and every day all they had was vanilla. Then one day they also had chocolate chip, but the guy serving it refused to give it to you. How do you know if you would like it unless you were allowed to try it? Here, the people aren’t even allowed to try another religion, so how do you know what they’d do?”

“Do you even study what other religions believe?” asked Mike. “Are you even allowed to read a Bible?”

“Our mullah tells us about other religions,” replied Hamid.

“Yes, and you say he claims that the Bible spoke about the coming of the Qur’an and Mohammad. Yet I can tell you the Bible says no such thing,” I pointed out.

“So you are saying the mullah is lying?”

“He is probably mistaken, or ill-informed, but I have read the Bible several times. I assure you, it doesn’t speak about Islam. If it did, don’t you think more Christians would become Muslims?”

“But the Qur’an came after the Bible; it must be better, it is that last book from God,” protested Hamid.

“Oh, there are many books that came after the Qur’an that some religions claim are from God. The Book of Mormon came later. Are you going to become a Mormon?”

We talked some more, and I wish I'd had a tape recorder, because it was a good discussion. Mike got up to leave and said, “Hamid, we aren’t being mean. We are trying to get you to think. If you believe the Qur’an is God’s word, then you need to read it so you know what it says, not what one man tells you it says.”

This is good advice for everyone, regardless of our personal beliefs. People are very good at leading us astray, whether intentionally or not. Although we were encouraging Hamid to critically examine his beliefs, it brings into sharper contrast the blessings of our country, where we are truly free to do just that. Imagine what it would be like to live in a country where the people do not have freedom to choose their faith (or choose to have none). I don’t have to imagine it; I’ve been there. It’s a scary place.


A friend that was the book-keeper for a non-profit was being grilled by us as to our financial status. Finally, he said, "Torture a statistic and it will confess to anything." I often remember that when people are adamant about what they believe the Bible says.

I love these Hamid stories. They illustrate how difficult it is to disturb the very essence of the self-identity of people in a lot of Muslim countries. We have to understand that the worldview of people in other countries is radically different from ours and it's not just a matter of introducing the concept of democracy to them, but of introducing the concept of independent rights and responsibilities, combined with the obligation as free persons to educate ourselves and to exercise our free will.

You are planting seeds which may one day bloom into a freer society in Afghanistan.

But it's so much easier just to be told what to do. research is hard :(

I love Doug's blogs, especially the Hamid tales. Keep them coming, Doug. Gary, Western Australia.

Good stuff.

I'm intrigued, imagine really being open-minded, reading Bart Erhman's "Misquoting Jesus" or Sam Harris' "The End of Faith" or Richard Dawkin's "The God Delusion."

That is the most illuminating literature I've read lately.

Imagine indeed.

Thanks for your writing Mr. Traversa.

Corollary: people with a mentality like this won't be influenced by any outside events, including US policy, into being friendlier. If their mullahs and imams tell them to kill unbelievers - and many do - that's what Allah commands and that's what they will do. Period.

When you unpack the implications of that, they're pretty significant, and go a long way beyond bromides re: "acceptance of different cultures' way of thinking."

The good news is that not all Muslims are like Hamid, and many do question or even stand up to Islamist supremacism and the idea that Imams are beyond question. People like Michael Totten, who reports back from Iraq, Lebanon, et. al., do us all a service by reminding of that.

Mr. Traversa also does us all a service, by reminding us of this mentality. Which is not all pervasive - but is not rare, either.

Nice reading.. I hope Muslims in my country will read this...

Srikanth, India

Good stuff, Capt. Traversa.
The closest analogy back here is American Catholics can and to talk back to the Pope. (They're not supposed to though.

Umm, I thought the story of Sarah, Abraham and Hagar was the beginning of Islam. Is that not true? In that case, isn't the Mullah right?

~This is my first time visitin' this blog but I purchased The Sandbox the other day and your writings are in it. I absolutely love readin' about you and Hamid. And I am very thankful that you are tellin' him about how we are over here in America. Most of them see the bad side of us and not the good, just like how on the news we see the bad side of them and not the good. Also, I want to thank you for what you have done for this country you and your fellow are truly brave...I pray for all of you every night, you are always in my prayers!!!! P.S. Tell Hamid I pray for him too!!!!! :o)~

It's a good article, because it underlines a great problem we face today. People say something and others follow. Follow without thinking if it could be the truth. What I see in this article is the determination of a muslim who sticks to his faith. We as christians could learn in this way from them. How often people say they are christians, but find all kind of excuses not to stick to their faith. Somehow along the line christians can learn also from muslims.

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