There are several important points to note about the event at Lackland Air Force Base:
- This was not a presentation given by a religious representative to believers in the same faith. The presenter was proselytizing non-believers on behalf of his faith.
- Such proselytization on an Air Force base does not constitute a “reasonable accommodation” of service members’ religious beliefs.
- The event violated official regulations as well as the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
- The sect involved is not a mainstream Sunni or Shi’ite Muslim organization, but a splinter group that mainstream Muslims consider a heresy.
Promoting the Mahdi at Lackland Air Force Base?
by Timothy R. Furnish, PhD
August 16, 2011
On August 7, 2011, at an as-yet undisclosed location on Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas, the U.S. government officially became a sponsor of the Mahdi. No, not Barack Hussein Obama, but a much more serious and overt candidate: Adnan Oktar, a.k.a. “Harun Yahya,” the Turkish Creationist whose followers consider him the “rightly-guided one” of Islamic tradition, expected to come before the end of time to make the entire world Muslim. Mahdism was my original area of academic specialization within Islamic history (about which I wrote my doctoral dissertation, first book and numerous articles); I interviewed Oktar in Istanbul a few years ago; and, finally, I spent time in the military as both enlisted and commissioned, the latter training to be a chaplain. So I have some familiarity with all aspects of this troubling story, which came to my attention early on 14 August 2011 via photos posted to my Facebook page by contacts within Oktar’s organization:
Here an unidentified Oktar da’i (“missionary”) gives a class in what is obviously a mosque. The accompanying information says that this is on Lackland Air Force Base. And while it appears a bit threadbare for a military chapel, those are clearly (12) US Air Force female service members in this picture, apparently trainees.
In this next picture, showing the other side of the mosque/chapel, there are 23 airmen, and the screen says “The Collapse of Evolution and the Fact of Creation.” As aforementioned, Oktar’s organization is an Islamic Creationist one, very inimical to Darwinian evolution as well as a strong proponent of Islamic Mahdist da’wah (“propaganda” or “evangelism”). Note that the women and men are sitting on opposite sides of the room. Is that military protocol, or Islamic?
Here is Adnan Oktar himself, via the wonders of modern technology, probably explaining the vacuity of Darwinism and possibly the reliability of Islamic traditions about the coming of the Mahdi.
These photos, and the accompanying information, pose some very disturbing questions:
Why was Islamic instruction being given to non-Muslim Air Force personnel? For according to Harun Yayha members “American and non-Muslim soldiers [sic] listened to the lecture with admiration.” If this was not simply gloating hyperbole, does it not run afoul of official military strictures, echoing the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, forbidding any governmental authority from “mandating a religion” and ensuring that “participation in religious activities is voluntary?” (These mandates are taken from Army Regulation 165-1, “Army Chaplain Corps Activities,” 3 December 2009. No analogous Air Force manual can be found online, but there should be no difference between the two branches in this regard.)
Why is an outside group (based in Istanbul, no less) being brought in to teach a decidedly sectarian (and some would say heretical) view of Islamic issues? If the purpose was to instruct Air Force basic trainees in the rudiments of Islam, why were they being given classes on “The Collapse of Darwinism and the Fact of Creation,” as well as on “Miracles in the Qur’an?” Shouldn’t a simple cultural familiarity course deal with less politicized and controversial topics, and have been taught by a base chaplain (whose stated duties include serving as the unit religious expert) — especially considering that, as of six months ago, Lackland was home to one of the two Muslim chaplains in the entire Air Force
And, again, according to Oktar’s people themselves, this konferans was not just for basic trainees: “Attendants were high rank officials [sic]: sergeants, master sergeants and captains. The talks were very well received and appreciated and the attendants were gifted the Quran [sic]. The captain presented a special medal as the token of appreciation to Mr Adnan Oktar (Harun Yahya).” If this is true, Airmen (the Air Force equivalents of Privates) were not the only Air Force personnel involved — they were just the only ones unlucky enough to be caught on camera. Perhaps all the individuals involved were Muslims — but I seriously doubt it, and Oktar’s people have told me otherwise.
There are two images of military coins among the pictures, each of which could be the “special medal” referred to; one is a Lackland AFB training medal (with the Chaplain Corps logo in the center); the other is this one:
This “Global Ministry Center” (GMC) appears to be affiliated with the Defense Language Institute’s English Language Center at Lackland (DLI is the military’s language school in Monterey, California — where I learned Arabic in the 1980s — and its crest is the red and blue one above), the original mission of which was “teach[ing] English to Allied pilot candidates” but which, now, seems to have expanded into the religious realm. “Last year, more than 206,350 Muslims came through the Global Ministry Center here [at Lackland],” where the aforementioned Muslim chaplain, Captain Sharior Rahman, “conducts prayers five times a day and a Friday worship service.” The first Google link for the GMC also brings it up as an Islamic facility, with the Muslim prayers times listed — NOT as an ecumenical center. It’s one thing for a facility on a military installation to provide worship opportunities for the Afghanis, Iraqis, and other Allied nations’ personnel training at Lackland; it’s quite another for this same entity to be involved in indoctrinating non-Muslim American basic trainees — a virtual captive audience — in Islam and, even worse, Islamic Creationism and Mahdism.
As I said, I’ve interviewed Oktar and some of his supporters, read his writings and corresponded with members of his organization for several years. I think they are sincere, well-meaning and peaceful Muslims, whose view of the Mahdi as a pacific figure runs counter to that of him among the Sunni jihadists and the ruling clique in Iran — both of which see the Mahdi as a global warlord who will come to earth not to bring peace, but a sword. But the degree to which Oktar and his people hold moderate Muslim positions is not the issue. The seeming ease with which our military commanders allow Islamic indoctrination to non-Muslim service members, rather, is the point. The religious mix in the Air Force almost certainly closely tracks that of the Army — and data which I have been provided by the Army Demographics office shows that that branch is at least 66% Christian (probably higher, as the 32% “unknown/not specified” surely includes a number of Christians) — yet only 0.3% Muslim, fewer, even, than the 0.4% each for Buddhists and for Jews.
Despite the overwhelming numbers of Christians in the services, some in the military chain-of-command are infected with politically-correct paranoia about appearing overly sympathetic to Christianity — in no small measure because of the incessant anti-Christian fulminations of one Mikey Weinstein and his group, the Orwellian-named “Military Religious Freedom Foundation.” (This group just recently browbeat the command at Vandenberg Air Force base into dropping just war classes for officers because they included the Bible!). That may not be the case here, but this situation certainly looks like a de facto, if no de jure, pro-Muslim stance on Lackland AFB. Try to imagine a scenario in which a training unit commander would allow a Christian evangelist to send spokesmen onto a US military installation to teach co-religionists — much less to instruct non-Christian airmen or soldiers. Now take it a step further: picture members of John Hagee’s flock drilling Christian Creationist views into a captive audience of Muslim, Jewish or Buddhist military trainees. Any commander or chaplain who permitted that would be crucified — perhaps literally — and Mikey Weinstein would probably provide the rhetorical wood. Granted, basic trainee battalion and brigade commanders, and even the chaplains, have far more pressing duties than studying Islamic doctrines, history and sects. And this benign neglect, coupled with the ubiquitous, military-wide emphasis today on the counterinsurgency (COIN) imperative to “win hearts and minds” by sympathizing with the “moderate” Muslim masses — epitomized by the mosque-building obsession of our military and State Department — goes part way to explain why some commanders would not bat an eye at allowing a controversial Muslim eschatological creationist to instruct basic trainees.
But only part way. I have tried to give the command at Lackland the benefit of the doubt, but so far my questions to the Public Affairs Office have gone unanswered and the Wing Chaplain’s office simply punted back to the PAO, telling me “we cannot comment.” But whatever explanation is forthcoming, it will be hard pressed to justify the promotion of the Islamic Mahdi at the U.S. Air Force’s only basic training facility.