May 08, 2007

Name: CAPT Doug Traversa
Posting date: 5/8/07   
Returning from: Afghanistan
Milblog url:

Shortly before we left Afghanistan, we had another of our justly famous conversations about universal truths, and this time Mike and Drew got to participate also. Poor Hamid, his brain 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? 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,” I countered. 

“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 at this point. “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.  “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 on this. “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, 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 here. “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.

Drew finally joined in. “How do you know? Let me illustrate. Suppose you went to get ice cream, and everyday, 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 we 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.”

Mike and Drew left, and Hamid and I talked for another hour. We were trying to squeeze in as much conversation in our remaining days as possible.


You have no idea how much I enjoy hearing about those conversations! If memory serves, Hamid used "circular logic," something to the effect that you use your own statement as proof of your conclusion. It's like a maze with no exit! However, if Islam is the perfect religion, then why shouldn't there be complete religious freedom? No one would leave Islam anyway, and God would be pleased because no one was forced. If there was someone who did not find that Islam was the perfect religion for them, God would still be pleased, for then they would be free to find another path to God. I will miss your Afghanistan blogs!

I really am glad you guys took the time to have these discussions with this man. This is the manifestation of what a 'hearts and minds' strategy is all about. Not to convince someone to change, but to convince them to think more about what they care about. These are the paving stones of peace and a civil society. Sharing it with us folks is really great, as it gives folks at home a window into areas of culture that we are not used to and do not understand well without this sort of exposure to what you encounter daily. Thank you.

You guys really struck a cord with me. The last conversation brought out a point that I wish Hamid would get. It's one thing to think that your religion is the best one of all. It's quite something else to think that because someone else is telling you it is. Maybe you planted a seed that will germinate some day.

I will miss reading about these conversations. They highlight the huge gulf between cultures which I think far too few of us appreciate, yet at the same time the fact that Hamid is even prepared to discuss these issues with you brings hope of greater understanding. Good luck on your return home.

If he has faith you won't change him, and his reality won't change yours because you can't see through his eyes. Even when other countries become allies and fast friends their culture remains and only adapts to rubbing with ours, Germany and Japan are not like America, and that doesn't make our country correct - just different. Good to keep talking works so much better than shooting in the long term.

I understand your intent, in trying to get Hamid to think "outside the cultural box". However, you also fail to understand just how deeply Islam is woven into the life of these people. To speak out against the law, and to question the Qu'ran, is also to invite death for this man. He is polite, and listens to your arguments. Would you, for instance, embrace a political doctrine that goes against the laws of your land? You can, but your face ostracism and worse, at the hands of vigil antes in your locale, or by the government, if your nation has restrictions on political affiliations (as has happened in the US, within the last 60 years, just a reminder).

Islamic law, culture and Arab and Persian society are locked into a co-evolved and relatively rigid relationship, that is straining to adapt under the influence of globalization. What you heard from Hamid is the voice of Imams who are attempting to thwart modernization that may well dissolve the fragile stability of tribes short of resources, used to poverty and the fight for survival.

Difficult and stressful life - this is maker of the big religions. They are coping mechanisms for the common man. Do you understand this?

If you remove them, think on what will replace it, if you cause these people to question this faith that is law, local justice and for many, the only balm and strength of an otherwise exceptionally difficult existence.


Pax makes some valid points, and we are all too well aware of how deeply woven Islam is into all aspects of life. I comment many times on this in my blog. But I will say this, no matter what good comes from Islam, far more evil comes from it, especially if you are a woman. No matter how Muslims protest that Islam treats women well, it does not. I have seen this first hand for a year. Our interpreters won't even show us a photo of their wives, lest we lust after them. Women have virtually no rights, and young girls are often forced to marry old men. The teachings of Islam are ignored when it is convenient. Thievery and corruption are rampant, as are rape, bestiality, and spousal abuse. Frankly, it's hard to imagine anything worse than what we saw for a year. Society over here is not held together by Islam, it is held together by warlords, or the Taliban, or the Army. Most people in Afghanistan have not read the Qur'an, and simply do what they are told, lest they be killed. Change will come very slowly, if at all, but I certainly hope it does.

You say yourself 'The teachings of Islam are ignored when it is convenient' and yet you are blaming Islam for Afghanistan's problems. From your own description as well as what else I have read, it is far more a cultural and social issue. Consider a place like Oman, which though conservative is tolerant and quietly progressing towards greater democracy. Any religion can be twisted for the purposes of bad people, and you have seen some of the worst of that. But don't blame Islam per se. Christianity has been abused in some terrible ways too in the last 2000 years.

I too have thoroughly enjoyed all of your posts. I am glad that you and Bear, Mike, and Drew have also been able to return home safely. I will miss your posts and learning about the reality of Afghan from your eyes. I’m sure you and Hamid have taught many of us how to open our eyes and minds to new thoughts and ideas.

Sometimes I wonder if the free exchange of thoughts and ideas shouldn’t be the goal of all that is happening there in the Middle East. It seems that too many people both here in the U. S. and overthere are so set in their patterns of what is ‘right’ or ’good’ or ‘bad’, that they are unwilling to open their minds and look, see, and think for themselves what really is happening around them. Every person has the responsibility to “Question Authority”, whether that comes from the Pope or an Imam, the White House or the Taliban, the Bible or the Qur’an.

Thanks again for your posts and your service.

Be safe.

Human lifespan is short, and history is long. During the middle ages, Islam was the religion that protected education and tolerance. Girl children as young as six were executed for witchcraft in Stockholm during the Reformation. The colonies were settled by religious bigots that couldn't fit into English society. The Spanish Inquisition was pretty scary. The current situation for women and chidren in many places is unbelievable. Africa doesn't look too good... What will our culture be like in five hundred years? We lead surprisingly sheltered lives here in the U.S., and assume it is our due. It is rare for someone like Capt. Traversa to point out the obvious ills in a crashed society. NGO's have a marginalized voice in our (profit-driven) society, and foreign policy is shaped by narrow, short-term interest. Nonetheless, the world is now smaller, and if we don't pull together, we will assuredly bake seperately.

I will miss you guys and especially Hamid. He will carry, if only subconsciously, the respect you have shown him by honestly discussing religion. Prodding him to read the Qur'an is a good idea and beneficial in the long run. In the early centuries of Islam there was a strong push for everyone to be literate so they could read God's word directly. Clearly much has changed in some areas since then. Local cultural traditions have played an important role too. Afghanistan is not an Arab country, nor is it part of the centralized Persian culture to the west (though they share related languages). The region has never been highly literate and this general bias still plays a role in modern times. Hamid would have to find a good Dari (or Pashtun?) translation to read unless he has a command of classical Arabic.

This is the single most inspiring and awesome story I've heard out of Afghanistan or Iraq. My hat is off.

I love readng your conversations with Hamid. Your writing of him makes him seem so sincere and so naive; and yet it seems that he was willing to have a conversation with you, even if his logic could be, uh, circular. I think that you must be one of the most interesting people he has ever met.

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