March 17, 2008

Name: CAPT Doug Traversa
Posting date: 3/17/08
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog url: Afghanistan Without A Clue

Once more into the archives for one of my discussions with Hamid. This one was precipitated by my hut mate, Mike, who was venting during lunch about the corruption of the Afghan officials he had to deal with. After he finished eating and left, Hamid and I continued the discussion.

It would be very easy to start bashing the Afghan leaders for the way things are run over here, but the only difference between corruption in Afghanistan and corruption back home is that most folks back home are far more careful and discreet. I have no way of knowing what the actual statistics are, but humans in general are a pretty corrupt lot. The ability to use power and position for personal gain is too strong a temptation for most. I suspect many seek power and position just so they can benefit personally. I assured Hamid that I did not believe Afghanistan was any different from most other countries in this respect.

It is very frustrating for Hamid, as he hates to see people ignoring the teachings of the Qur’an. In fact, it was at this point Hamid paid me one of the nicest compliments anyone has ever given me.

“Sir. I wish you were a Muslim. You would be a great example of how a Muslim should live. You never lie. You never steal. You never murder. You never cheat on your wife. You act like a Muslim should. I wish Muslims could live like you.”

What do you say to that?  Few words have ever done me such honor as these. I will remember them as long as I live. But enough of that. We moved on to the meaning of Life, The Universe, and Everything.


Hamid leaned forward as he does when he wants to launch into a Deep Discussion.

"Sir, what is life?”

Yes, gentle readers, if you imagine my mind seizing up, you’ve grasped it nicely. Hamid is getting pretty good at playing Stump the Dummy.

“Come on Hamid, you can’t ask me that. You have to be more specific. What are you looking for here?”

“But, Sir, I am serious. What is life?”

Sigh. I gave it a shot. Hamid would tell me where this was going soon enough. “Life is the sum total of all your experiences, everything you see, hear, touch, taste, and so on. Am I warm?”

“To me, this life is a test from God. My real life starts after I die.”

“That’s not much different from many other religions,” I commented.

Here we entered into a long discussion of the beliefs of major religions. Try explaining the Trinity or the atonement to a Muslim who has never heard of these concepts. You might as well try explaining quantum physics. It was, however, a very enjoyable discussion.

Hamid concluded by saying, “I wish I knew the Qur’an better. Maybe then you would become a Muslim.”

“Hamid, I will never become a Muslim. Do you know why? I believe everyone should have the right to believe whatever they want, to worship any way they please. The Qur’an teaches that infidels like me must either convert to Islam, or submit to Muslims, or be executed.”

Hamid shook his head. “The Qur’an does not teach that.”

“Hamid, how would you know? You’ve never read the Qur’an. You only know what your mullah teaches you. In this country, if a Muslim wanted to convert to another religion, the government would throw them in jail and execute them, right?”

“Yes,” he acknowledged.

“Do you have any idea how angry this makes Americans? The freedom to worship any way you wish is the most important principle in the founding of our country. Remember last year when you had that man here who stated that he had converted to Christianity, and many wanted to execute him?”

“You mean the man who ended up going to Italy?” asked Hamid.

“Yes. That story was everywhere in America. People wanted to know why we were supporting a country that acted this way.” I paused and looked him in the eye.  “Most Muslim countries are the same. They force people to believe a certain way. I want no part of that. So don’t blame yourself; I will never become a Muslim. It doesn’t mean I hate Muslims, since clearly we are friends. But I will never believe this is God’s will.”

Hamid really seemed to be pondering this one. I doubt anyone had ever made him think about things this way.

“So you don’t believe what the Prophet has said?” he asked.

“I haven’t met the Prophet, and neither have you. You and I don’t know what he said. You only know what men have told you the Prophet said. I don’t care what men say to me in the name of God. You are talking about believing something based on faith. Most religions require their people to have faith.”

“But it is not faith for us. The Qur’an wrote itself, and is God’s Word.”

“How do you know?  Were you there?” I countered.

“But this is what the Prophet said,” protested Hamid.

“How do you know that either?  Did he speak to you? All you know is what men say he said.”

Yes, I really am this annoying. I still marvel that Hamid wants to talk to me.

“See, you have faith that the Qur’an is the eternal word of God, but you have no proof. Most other religions also require this kind of faith. They all like to say it’s based on evidence, but if you start asking the hard questions, ultimately you have to take it on faith. In this sense Islam is much like all other beliefs.”

To his credit, Hamid did not change the subject. We kept plowing on, and so we came to the topic of Hell.

“Hamid, does it bother you that according to Islam, all infidels go to Hell for eternity?

He looked puzzled. “What is an infidel?”

“You’re kidding. You don’t know what an infidel is?”

“No, Sir, I don’t know.”

This surprised me. “An unbeliever, a non-Muslim. We all go to hell for eternity. Does that bother you?”

“Oh, it’s not for eternity. You are punished for your evil, then you go to Paradise.”

“Wali (another of our interpreters) says it’s for eternity. If I don’t become a Muslim, I’ll spend eternity in Hell.”

“Well, that would be true for people who aren’t Muslims,” he acknowledged. Sometimes we have these strange miscommunications.

“Hamid, I’m not a Muslim. I’ll be in Hell for eternity if you are right. Does that bother you?”

He looked uncomfortable.

“And there are many branches of Christianity that believe in Hell too, and if they are correct, you and all your fellow Muslims will be in Hell forever. I used to believe that too, but I don’t anymore. I can’t believe God will send all of you to Hell. It doesn’t make sense to me. You certainly don’t deserve to be tortured for eternity.”

Once again Hamid was thinking hard. I added, “You have to understand, there are many Christians who don’t believe in Hell, and don’t believe you are all going there. There are many different types of Christians. I’m just telling you about the beliefs of some.”

When we headed out, Hamid was in good spirits. “You ask very hard questions. I have never heard questions like this before. This idea that people should not be forced to believe something, I have never heard this. And proof and faith, this is good too. I must talk to my mullah about this.”

So ended another joint effort to understand the world. To all my readers, be they Christians, Muslims, atheists, or anything else; my goal is not to convert Hamid to any way of thinking. We talk because we are friends trying to understand each other’s world. I am not mocking his beliefs, nor would I mock yours.

Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Thought, Freedom from Coercion, these are the foundations of our great country. If I don’t believe the way you do, hopefully that doesn’t upset you. As long as your faith doesn’t want to deny me my freedoms, I don’t care what you believe or don’t believe.

Hamid and I are exact opposites on many issues, yet we are good friends. There may be a lesson in there somewhere.


It is these 'little' conversations, honestly put, sincerely held, openly spoken, which change the world.

I have an old Kennedy speech on the wall. It goes, in part, "These men moved the world, and so can we all. Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small pportion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written of this generation . . ."

I, the cynical devil's advocate half of me anyway, wonder: Are you and Hamid friends because he is willing to let his God make the determination of your fate? What if his Mullah were to teach that it is Hamid's duty to make that determination? Is this the only difference between a trusted interpreter and a Taliban? Anyway, my fingers are crossed that you and the rest of you are succesful and make it home safe and sound and Hamid has a society that lets him keep asking those questions.

What a wonderful give-and-take conversation. Would that all the disagreeing (and sometimes disagreeable) believers in the world could have such exchanges. Thanks for posting this. I'm going to post a link to it in my blog tonight.

I love the conversations you guys had! I wish you could keep having them. I'd love to hear you guys! Also, Dave's questions are fascinating. It seems to me that if you build tolerance, compassion, and respect for individuals into any religion, there's nothing left to argue about...I hope Hamid stays safe. There is an expression about the hammer striking the nail that stands out.


You and Hamid model very well how the "clash of civilizations" should proceed - with honest debate and each learning something from the other. May God grant that this become more prevalent.

Capt. Traversa,
I look forward to your "Conversations with Hamid." In a way they recall the movie, "My Dinner with Andre." At least the Qur'an recognizes Jesus as a prophet which Judaism does not do. Makes you wonder about all 3 religions or religion in general. I am thankful you are a such a thoughtful spokesman for what we are all about. I hope we here live up to the ideals of our forefathers that you so eloquently express and follow. Hamid may be a simple man, but people with uncluttered minds, have better radar for honesty and honor. Take care of yourself and come back, we need people like you here more than ever.
Soldier's mom

A Civil debate? wow it is refreshing to see that that can actually happen!

Hmmmmm; "At least the Qur'an recognizes Jesus as a prophet which Judaism does not do" is very interesting. I mean, one was before and one was after and neither Judaism nor Christianity recognize Mohammed. I don't understand the context of the comment but at least we both like the Capt's postings...

As an atheist, I commend both the reasonableness and thoughtfulness of your conversation with Hamid regarding religion. By simply being able to reply to probing questions without direct threat of death is indeed a positive step. That Hamid "has never heard questions like this before" might also be a thing of the past, I very much hope for and very much believe your questioning helps facilitate.

Thank you for that and so much more that you all risk.

I am also an athiest, and i also had many conversations like this with a couple of my interpretors in A-stan. Im very critical of all religions, and pulled no punches when critiquing Islam to my afghan friends. Having said that, i thought it was important to say that the most judgemental, fundamentalist and dare i say arrogant and ignorant espousers of religion were not the muslims, but some so-called Christians I dealt with over there. In this era of muslim-paranoia, i thought it was important to reflect on this fact, and that even though many Afghans have a clumsy and uneducated exposure to religion, they never had the mean spirited words for me, a non-beleiver....


I really enjoyed reading of your discussions with Hamid. I have been out of the Army for a good 20 years now, but I still consider myself an old soldier.
I have a neighbor who is an Arab Muslim. We have been having similar discussions. It is good to see two men from drastically different cultures taking such pains to try to understand each other. I salute you, Sir. Tell Hamid he hasmy respect as well.

You make me proud to be an American. Thankyou!

First, thanks everyone for the kind words. second, to answer Dave's question: I believe Hamid and I were true friends. He would not betray or harm me, even if his mullah said to. Hamid had made it clear that he would ignore certain rules because of our friendship. For instance, he would allow me to speak freely with his wife (if he ever got married), as well as see her in normal clothing, as opposed to a burka. Friendships have a way of breaking down barriers, even strong religious ones.

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