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For Iraqis, Religion Trumps Nationality

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UC Irvine welcomed writer and lecturer Jack Miles on Jan. 12 to speak about the current clash between Christianity and Islam at the Humanities Instructional Building.
Miles, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for his book ‘GOD: A Biography,’ is a MacArthur Fellow and is the senior advisor to the president at the J. Paul Getty Trust.
Miles explored U.S.-Iraq relations in his work ‘A Clash of Proselytizations,’ which deals with the current war in Iraq and attempts by the U.S. government to convert, or ‘proselytize,’ the Iraqi people from a highly religious nation into a nation of secular patriots.
Miles asserted that there is a fundamental problem in how the United States and Iraq view each other.
‘We refer to them as Iraqi and ourselves as American, using national designators,’ Miles said. They refer to themselves as Mujahidin, and us as Crusaders and Jews using religious designations.’
In addition, Miles noted that the ”citizenship card’ [in Iraq] … may not function’ since many Iraqis do not desire to affiliate with political labels. When Jordanians were asked how they identify themselves, 63 percent replied that they were Muslim first and Jordanians second. It is this religious affiliation that causes much of the misunderstanding and lack of enthusiasm for the new Iraqi form of government.
Furthermore, because of the high importance of religion over nationalism for Muslims, many Iraqis see the U.S. government as trying to establish both a foreign form of government and of religion, namely Christianity, according to Miles. Miles pointed out many instances over the past few years in which public figures have asserted that the United States is a Christian country.
‘Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin attracted a storm of criticism for preaching sermons in Christian churches while wearing his uniform, and saying things like, ‘America is a Christian nation with a calling under the hand of God,’ Miles said.
This assertion does not sit well with many Islamic countries, all of which are watching the United States with trepidation. Miles said that in the past, Muslims likely felt besieged by increasingly secularized countries in Asia, Europe and America. This feeling is not alleviated when Iraq is invaded by American troops led by ‘an American president [who] takes well-publicized counsel from Christian leaders as he aggressively promotes America’s international agenda.’ Consequently, an increasing number of individuals feel that America is fighting against Islam, not Iraq.
Miles divided the history of relations between the West and Islamic countries into two parts. The first began when Islam launched its global expansion in the 600s, and continued to expand with increasing rapidity for several hundred years. This expansion persisted until British imperialism surrounded the Muslim nations and the Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683 failed. As a result, Islamic expansion came to a halt.
The second part of Miles’ history began with the Treaty of Tripoli in 1797. This treaty was the beginning of relations between Muslim countries and the United States. Miles is most interested by Article 11 in the Treaty of Tripoli. The article was written in English and indicates that the United States will never enter into war with any Muslim nation based on religious discrepancies. It did not come to light until 1930 that Article 11 stated something completely different in Arabic. Miles believes that the translated article differs because the idea of secular government is inconceivable from the viewpoint of the Islamic tradition, which puts religion above all else.
Miles said that in the past 200 years, most Islamic nations have come to understand, if not agree with, the secular status of the United States. However, due to inconsistent statements from various influential figures in the United States concerning a ‘national religion,’ or lack thereof, confusion between what is being said and what is actually meant when the United States and its leaders claim secularism causes doubts in Muslim nations.
Miles, on the other hand, believes that it is imperative to help Iraq develop as a more tolerant Muslim nation based on what is taught in the Quran, rather than to simply force the political organization of a secular Western nation.
Miles also called for Christians to remain firm in their beliefs, but to also remain true to what he describes as the ‘religiously neutral federal state’ that the founding fathers created.
Jack Miles’ paper will be posted at in the near future.