Two decades later, this violent world has yet to be repaired


I have already said in my new book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety, what I want to say about this weekend's 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

2-10-16-rose (1)I hope you will read it to get a better understanding of all the trauma that terrorism brings to the world as well as to learn something about how people get sucked into extremism and what, if anything, we can do to stop such radicalism and its almost-inevitable product, violence.

But for this weekend, I don't want to repeat all that's in the book. You can read there about my nephew Karleton Fyfe's life and his death at age 31 as a passenger on the first plane to smash into the World Trade Center on 9/11. (And if you want to know what the U.S. got wrong in the "War on Terror," I recommend this piece from The Atlantic. Or for another take on that question, this David Corn piece is worth reading.)

Rather, I just want to honor Karleton and all the others whose lives have been viciously cut short by people who think they have all the answers to all the world's mysteries and are willing to kill to prove it.

KDBF-saluteSo I will just show you a few photos from and about his too-brief life.

At the top is a shot of the small stone that marks the North Carolina burial place of the only remains of Karleton that were recovered, a piece of thigh bone.

Next down is a picture of his name on the 9/11 memorial at ground zero in New York City.

To the right is one of the last photos I have of him, taken at the wedding of his one of his sisters in June 2001.

And I will ask you this weekend to think not just about the young man we called KDBF but, rather, about all the people whose lives have been ended or in some other way wounded by violent extremism.

Cover-lle-hi-resMay their memories be a blessing to us as we find ways to bring to the world more peaceful tomorrows.

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One small light of hope that emerged from the 9/11 attacks, as this RNS story notes, is "the evolution and advancement of interfaith cooperation in the United States." That wasn't a new, post-9/11 development in Kansas City, where the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council had long been working. But even here there have been more efforts to bridge the divide between and among various religious traditions. If you're not part of that effort, why not?

A New Testament for people who understand Native American spirituality

The original manuscripts that eventually, over centuries, became the Bible -- the Tanakh (or Hebrew scriptures), the New Testament and, for some, the Apocrypha -- were written in Hebrew and Greek with a bit of Aramaic here and there.

Native-BibleThose versions have been translated, according to this article from Wikipedia (which sometimes doesn't get things exactly right), into hundreds of languages. Specifically: "As of September 2020 the full Bible has been translated into 704 languages, the New Testament has been translated into an additional 1,551 languages and Bible portions or stories into 1,160 other languages. Thus at least some portions of the Bible have been translated into 3,415 languages."

वाह वाह. (That's Hindi for "wow.")

But that's as of a year ago. Now we have yet another New Testament translation. This one is done in English but it draws on Native American language and thought to make it more understandable to Indigenous readers.

As the RNS story to which I've just linked you reports, Terry Wildman, lead translator and project manager, "hopes the new translation published Tuesday (Aug. 31) by InterVarsity Press, First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament, will help Christians and all Indigenous peoples read it in a fresh way. (Wildman is shown in this photo along with a photo of the cover of the new translation.)

The relationship between Native Americans and Christianity is, shall we say, complicated, given that many of the early Christian invaders had little use for the Indians (as they called them), who needed to be cleared from the land by hook or by crook to make way for the "manifest destiny" of white people.

So you can understand if some Indigenous people remain skeptical of the religion that led those invaders to commit various forms of genocide on their ancestors. And yet Christianity has taken root among many American Indians, and this new translation almost certainly will make it easier for them to understand the concepts contained in the New Testament's 27 books, or chapters.

For instance, the story notes this about the famous verse John 3:16: "In the First Nations Version, 'eternal life,' a concept unfamiliar in Native American cultures, becomes 'the life of the world to come that never fades away, full of beauty and harmony.' The Greek word 'cosmos,' usually translated in English as 'the world,' had to be reconsidered, too: It doesn’t mean the planet Earth but how the world works and how creation lives and functions together, said Wildman. . ."

Every single translation from the original Greek and Hebrew into English or any other language is an act of interpretation. So the First Nations Version is following in the footsteps of hundreds of translators over long centuries. The goal is to open up meaning to readers in ways they can grasp for themselves today and in ways that can connect to how the writers meant their words and how the original readers or hearers of those words would have understood them.

I suppose the surprise is that it has taken this long for this special First Nations version to appear. I look forward to reading it.

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Cover-lle-hi-resAs we prepare to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks this week, the case of the 9/11 organizers continues in a military court at Guantanamo. In fact, the self-confessed 9/11 chief plotter, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, appeared in that court yesterday for the first time since February 2020. The slowness of this military justice amounts to one painful stab at the hearts of 9/11 families after another. Beyond the five 9/11 planners on trial, other uncharged people are imprisoned at Gitmo, a clear violation of the Geneva Accords. President Joe Biden has promised to close Gitmo, and there's some evidence that his administration is moving in that direction, but every day Gitmo is open is another stain on the U.S. and on American values. As I note in my new book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety, the 9/11 terrorists caused my family and thousands of other families whose members were murdered that day trauma after trauma. It's way past time to end that.

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P.S.: As some of you may know, there will be a performance in KC this Saturday of "The Great Divorce," by the great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis. As good timing would have it, the new issue of Christian History Magazine focuses on Lewis. And you can read the whole issue for free in this pdf.

Learning from our costly errors in fighting terrorism


Now that we're past the deadline for U.S. troops to get out of Afghanistan, we would do well not to put that country and the badly named "War on Terror" out of our minds.

Indeed, there are several matters related to this 20-year debacle that we should study with the goal of learning lessons that will prevent us from repeating the errors the American government made there in our name.

One of the first lessons is that military might cannot and will not convince violent extremists that they are wrong. That's exactly the point made in this New Yorker piece. As Robin Wright says in that article, ". . .the central flaw in U.S. strategy is the belief that military force can eradicate extremist groups or radical ideologies."

It's also been one of the founding beliefs of the organization September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. As one of the members, documentary maker Terry Rockefeller, has written recently, any war on terror that relies on violence will not be successful. To read her full statement, download this file: Download 29 August UFPJ Time to Declare.

Something else we need to remember is that we are searching for trouble when we do what radical Islamist terrorists do, which is to try to justify their actions by rooting them in scripture.

President Joe Biden did something akin to that the other day when he dragged a phrase from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah into his remarks after ISIS-K had murdered 13 American troops and many others at the Kabul airport.

This RNS commentary by Ed Stetzer rightly points out that "It was. . .deeply jarring for me and other Christians to hear Isaiah 6:8 used by President Biden in his recent address

“Those who have served through the ages and have drawn inspiration from the Book of Isaiah, when the Lord says: ‘Whom shall I send? Who shall go for us?’ The American military has been answering for a long time. ‘Here I am, Lord. Send me. Here I am, send me.’ Each one of these women and men of our armed forces are the heirs of that tradition of sacrifice, of volunteering to go into harm’s way to risk everything, not for glory, not for profit, but to defend what we love and the people we love.”

As Stetzer writes, "I understand the desire to turn to Scripture to make sense of this tragedy, and this is a good thing. However, while men and women were sent on a mission, it was certainly not the mission we read about in Isaiah. Conflating these two is deeply problematic and harmful in the long run. . ."

Politicians have long sought to use scripture to justify their thinking and make them look more pious. But it's the rare politician who is theologically astute enough to do that carefully and effectively. Usually it's a mistake and often a disaster. Ronald Reagan was especially awful at it. He apparently thought he'd been elected our political pope.

Stetzer puts it this way: "It is never appropriate to take the mission of God in Scripture and apply it to the American military, the American dream or the American way of life. They are not interchangeable. The kingdom of God and earthly kingdoms are not one and the same, nor does the kingdom of God depend on the success of earthly governments, movements, campaigns or wars."

Cover-lle-hi-resAs important as that point is, however, it's secondary to the first lesson I mentioned above. Military force is not the way to change the minds of religious radicals. The last chapter of my new 9/11-related book, Love, Loss and Endurance, offers better strategies for trying to unplug extremism. I hope you'll use them instead of hoping for more bombs and bullets against the radicals.

The-rise-and-fall-of-osama-bin-ladenAnd while we're thinking about the failures of the Afghanistan War, may I suggest that you read Peter Bergen's new book, The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden. It's a terrific read.

Toward the end of the book, Bergen notes this: "On a global level, bin Laden's 9/11 attacks set the course for U.S. foreign policy for the first two decades of the twenty-first century and reshaped the Muslim world in ways that bin Laden certainly didn't intend and that few could have predicted. . .

"The Authorization for Use of Military Force, which Congress passed days after 9/11. . .sanctioned 'forever wars' that lasted for two decades after 9/11. Three presidents as different from each other as Bush, Obama and Trump used this same authorization to carry out hundreds of drone strikes against groups such as ISIS, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Shabaab and the Pakistani Taliban. Few of the strikes had any connection to the perpetrators of 9/11. . .

"Bin Laden's 9/11 attacks also had unpredictable, long-term effects on the politics of the United States. Real estate impresario Donald Trump launched his political career with the lie that President Barack Obama wasn't an American and was secretly a Muslim. This lie was especially potent in the context of 9/11."

The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan to clear out al-Qaida training camps to prevent further attacks on our country was justifiable self-defense. But to have allowed that task, which didn't take forever to complete, to morph into nation building and to drift into other wars, especially in Iraq, should drive Americans to study this history in depth and commit to making sure that something like it never happens again.

(The photo here today of dead U.S. troops returning to the air base at Dover, Del., came from here.)

Oh, and here's a piece from The Atlantic about what ISIS in Afghanistan wants now. Worth a read.)

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As usual, the latest culture-wars story (about Texas' new draconian abortion law) has a backstory about which few people are aware. This piece from The Conversation fills in some of that, pointing to the centuries of debate and discussion in Christianity over not just abortion but also marriage itself. And as scholar and blogger Heather Cox Richardson noted Friday in her blog post, "the modern-day opposition to abortion had its roots not in a moral defense of life but rather in the need for President Richard Nixon to win votes before the 1972 election. Pushing the idea that abortion was a central issue of American life was about rejecting the equal protection of the laws embraced by the Democrats far more than it was ever about using the government to protect fetuses." Pat Buchanan -- and later Newt Gingrich -- have a lot to answer for when it comes to our polarized politics and especially to the culture wars.

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P.S.: The other night I attended a good American Public Square panel discussion on antisemitism. APS created a fact sheet that all panelists (who disagreed with each other about several matters) agreed was an excellent document all could buy into. I thought it might be helpful to many of you, so you can find it here.

What St. Augustine teaches us about religious know-it-alls

Something that often distresses people who are trying to figure out whether religion makes sense to them is the idea that others know God's will and intentions in such a deep way that they can tell you who is destined for paradise and who is a sure bet for hell. (Such people of certitude also have no doubts about whether either heaven or hell exists.)

ConfessionsThis problem of theological arrogance is not new. I recently found proof of that when I finally, finally sat down and read St. Augustine's famous book Confessions. (I'd have read it earlier but I first had to get through all of John Calvin's long and impenetrable books, which I'll no doubt finish in my next life.)

Late in Confessions, Augustine speaks about people he somewhat dismissively refers to as "free spirits in your church," in Garry Wills' translation of the work.

These free spirits come in for some criticism for putting to the test certain matters that are beyond their comprehension, including "separating the saved from the damned." Augustine then adds this: "No matter how spiritual a man may be, he is no judge of people still caught in the riptides of time. How can he judge from the outside which man will reach by grace the final sweetness, which will welter on in the lasting brine of impiety?"

Those matters, Augustine concludes, belong to God, not to humanity. But doesn't "the lasting brine of impiety" sound at least a little bit tempting? Well, maybe not.

Let's remember that Augustine of Hippo lived in the late fourth and early fifth centuries (354-430). And, under the strong influence of his mother, eventually embraced Christianity with gusto.

And yet his writing shows him to have some room for theological flexibility. In the last few pages of his book he writes this to God: "I understand that you give us range and opportunity to express in different ways what we understand to be a single truth, and to understand in different ways what we read in a single obscure expression."

Augustine clearly understands the trouble with people who are absolutely convinced that they have it right and that no one else can challenge them. The old saint must have read my book The Value of Doubt. Good for him. He must have received a really, really early review copy.

So Augustine would offer no encouragement to fundamentalists of any stripe these days, whether biblical literalists or the most austere members of the Taliban (see below), ISIS, al-Qaida, the Ku Klux Klan and other such forbidding monochromatic religious minds.

I'm positive of that. Sort of.

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One more result of turning Afghanistan back over to the Taliban is that religious minorities there now will come under enormous pressure. Islam, after all, may be an insistently monotheistic religion but, like many world religions, it is far from being undivided. And the Taliban -- not unlike similar radicals -- is convinced it knows exactly the kind of Muslim everyone should be. Religious persecution almost certainly now will be experienced in even more harmful ways by many living in Afghanistan.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about a quiet place where you can ponder the eternal questions -- now is online here.

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ANOTHER P.S.: The Conversation, a great resource to which scholars and others contribute, is offering six pieces for people who want to understand more about Islam. Not to convert people, just to educate them. You can read the first one here and sign up to receive the others as they're published.

Why is the Middle East such a mess? Here's an answer.

If you think problems in what today we call the Middle East (Do you know how it got named that?*) are so deeply embedded in history that they form a Gordian knot impossible to undo, you're not alone and you may not be wrong. But if a solution of some sort is to be found, knowing the history of the region is vital. (Just as U.S. leaders should have known more about the history of Afghanistan before spending 20 years and huge amounts of blood and treasure there.)

Politics-of-persecutionA new source for Middle East history is about to be published (this coming Wednesday): The Politics of Persecution: Middle Eastern Christians in an Age of Empire, by Mitri Raheb. (*There's an intriguing answer in this new book.)

In the end, you may or may not agree with some of his conclusions about why things happened and what to do about it now, but at a minimum there is revelatory history here that can give us the kind of perspective we need to get a better understanding of everything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the Iraq war to the Ottoman Empire to colonialism and on and on.

And here's a summary from the book about why this matters:

"In the past two centuries, the Middle East experienced twenty-six wars, meaning an average of one war every eight years. Several countries were devastated by colonial wars or torn apart by civil war. The Middle East houses 5 percent of the world's population and yet is home to 25 percent of the world's conflicts, 57.5 percent of the world's refugees and 47 percent of the world's internally displaced people."

The intentional focus of the book is on the fate of Christians in the area, and the news there isn't good.

"Without peace," Raheb writes, "it will be difficult to keep Christianity alive in the lands of its origin."

The reality, of course, is that Christians have been both the persecuted and the persecutors, as this book makes clear.

It has become a standard complaint among American Christians who identify themselves as evangelical or conservative that Christians are often victims of persecution, both at home and abroad. But the story is considerably more complicated than those who say that often are willing to acknowledge. Consider, for instance, Iraq. As Raheb writes:

"The largest wave of Christian emigration from Iraq was triggered by the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Under the false pretext of nuclear weapons and smoking guns, the United States invaded Iraq and dismantled the Baath party of Iraq and the Iraqi military. This brought chaos to the country and paved the way for ISIS to take over. Over a million more Christians felt defenseless and fled Iraq to neighboring countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, while many migrated to North America and Australia. . .The United States, which is now eager to defend persecuted Christians in the Middle East, actually brought about the biggest blow to one of the ancient Christian communities in the region through its sanctions and invasion."

To look at this history of persecution of people of faith -- especially Christians -- Raheb goes all the way back to the early days of the faith and especially to the way in which the Roman empire persecuted followers of Christ.

Then he focuses on the research that's been done at Dar al-Kalima University of Arts and Culture since 2006.

The various ways in which foreign Christian missionaries, especially from the U.S., influenced life, economics, politics, religion and more is a subject to which Raheb pays considerable attention. This still plays a role in Middle Eastern life today. That's especially true in light of people who identify as conservative Christians believe that the Second Coming of Christ can't happen until Jews, represented by the modern state of Israel, control the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which Muslims now control.

Early Christian missionaries to the Middle East, Raheb says, "thought of themselves as superior in religion, race and culture to the other monotheistic religions as well as to the local churches."

If that surprises you, you've missed a fair amount of world history.

And if you've heard about but don't know much about the 1860 massacre of Christians by the Druze on Mount Lebanon, that history is recounted here in considerable detail.

Colonialism, too, plays a major role in this story, for as Raheb notes, "by the end of World War I, the entire Middle East and North Africa were fully under European control."

Well, there is a lot more packed into a 207-page book, and I won't take more time and space to get into it all. But this is important reading even, as I say, if you disagree with some of the author's conclusions, including his implied and direct criticisms of modern Israel.

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Cover-lle-hi-resWe may now add to the list of violent extremists getting lots of press in the U.S. and around the world the name of ISIS-K. Who is that? This RNS story describes its origins and its differences with the Taliban. And here is an explanation of the group from The Conversation. Across human history such radicals have plagued the world. We can't just give up and accept that they'll be here forever. We simply must find ways to stand against faith-based extremism. I devote the last two chapters of my new book to explaining some of the roots of extremism and what we can do to unplug it. I hope you'll join the effort to do just that.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about a quiet place where you can ponder the eternal questions -- now is online here.

Expect Shari'a-based Taliban rule to be harsh, unbending

If you've been paying attention to Afghanistan, you know that the now-in-charge-again Taliban is committed to governing on the basis of Islamic law, called Shari'a.

ShariaA lot of American imagine that Shari'a amounts to heartless brutality, including cutting off the hands of convicted thieves and keeping women barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.

That's why some efforts have been made in the U.S. to prevent courts and other legal authorities from ever considering Shari'a in their rulings. I wrote about that foolishness several years ago here.

But if you are serious about wanting to know about Shari'a in depth, I point you toward a book by my friend Raj Bhala, who teaches law at the University of Kansas. His weighty 2011 book, Understanding Islamic Law (Shari'a), is the definitive look at this subject.

As Bhala notes in the book, calling Shari'a just "Islamic law" "is not wrong. But from an American legal mindset, it is incomplete in two respects." First, Shari'a really means a path, a way and spirit of living to which Muslims are called. And Shari'a isn't limited to just legal matters. As Bhala writes, "Shari'a is to govern all of life."

In some ways, thus, Shari'a is for Muslims what the Torah is for Jews and the teachings of Jesus are for Christians -- a description of how to live in harmony with God's purposes.

All of that said, there are ways to live by Shari'a and then there are ways to live by Shari'a. The Taliban has shown that it is a theologically fundamentalist-extremist group that inevitably picks the most radical and harsh interpretation of Shari'a. So the last thing we can expect from the Taliban is approval of female imams.

Media outlets are starting to offer interpretations of what we can expect from Taliban rule now. Some of it has been misleading, to say the least, as this commentary from Yahoo News indicates. The money line from that piece: "Islam is not a monolith, Muslims represent a sixth of humanity and any simplistic reduction of Islamic law to savage brutality is woefully ignorant and unhelpful." But this USA Today piece, by contrast, tries to help readers understand what Shari'a is and how the Taliban might rule in light of it.

As the story notes, "Shari'a is the set of laws and precepts that govern the daily lives of Muslim people. It is based on a combination of the Quran, the holy book of Islam, and teachings from the prophet Muhammad.

"Professor Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and a former Pakistan high commissioner to the U.K. and Ireland, explained to USA TODAY that 'Shari'a law, or the word Shari'a, has, in the context of contemporary culture, become highly controversial and distorted in its understanding." Ahmed, whom I've met and heard speak, is right, and he has spent considerable time and effort trying to educate people about Shari'a.

Again, Ahmed to USA TODAY: “Shari'a means literally ‘the path’. . .All systems and religions have a way to a better, happier, more prosperous and a more pious life.”

Ahmed also told that newspaper that Shari'a “is defined very clearly by the Qur'an,” but interpretation of the text from scholars, governments and cultures have drastically differed.

Afghanistan-leeExactly. And it's important to remember that even though Muslims believe that the Qur'an was dictated to the Prophet Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel over more than two decades, it needs to be interpreted for several reasons, including the fact that every translation of the book from its original Arabic is itself an interpretive act.

It's also important to understand the history of religious practice and interpretation in Afghanistan. As Jonathan L. Lee writes in his 2018 book Afghanistan: A History from 1260 to the Present, ". . .since the 1920s Afghanistan's legal code has been strongly influenced by Hanafi jurisprudence, one of the four Sunni legal schools, or muzhabs. Most Afghans are deeply religious and adhere to the beliefs and practices of Islam, though many urban Afghans are not particularly regular when it comes to observing the five daily prayers. Islam, while it is rigorously monotheistic, is far from being monolithic and there are many strands of religious belief and interpretation, ranging from deistic rationalism to the puritanical exclusivism of movements such as the Taliban."

That's just more confirmation that if there is a rigid, humorless, punitive, oppressive way to interpret the Qur'an and Shari'a, you can count on the Taliban to choose that method -- despite recent Taliban leadership claims to the contrary.

Another important point that Lee makes in his book is that "Islamic law is often blamed for (the) restrictive culture, but customary law, known as 'adat or rasm wa rawaj, is equally important when it comes to determining gender roles in Afghanistan and often denies women rights that are accorded them by the Shari'a." Indeed, scholars who study Islam often say that when the Prophet Muhammad introduced Islam to Arabic culture, it was quite liberating for women, giving them, for example, the right to own and inherit property and to maintain control over whatever wealth women brought to a marriage.

Indeed, as Islam in its early years expanded into areas beyond the Arabian peninsula, it often encountered harshly patriarchal societies that simply ignored or defeated the ways in which Muhammad's teachings were supposed to free women from such strictures. The culture, in other words, won out over the religion.

I would love to be proved wrong about what to expect from the Taliban, but anything less than extremist interpretations of Shari'a and the Qur'an will shock me. I hope to be shocked but won't hold my breath.

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The kicky and fascinating Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, whom I heard speak at my Kansas City church a couple of years ago, has been installed as the "pastor of public witness" for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Her many fans, including those on her email newsletter and prayer list, will cheer. In some ways, this new designation is simply her denomination's acknowledgement that the work she does anyway is ministry. You can sign up for her newsletter here. But if a few common swear words that she regularly employs offend you, perhaps you should avoid doing that.

What can we learn from a U.S. loss in yet another war?


The world's great religions consistently promote peace over war. And yet there is almost never a moment in human history when there isn't at least one war -- and often many more -- going on somewhere on the globe.

That reality, of course, doesn't mean that people of faith should quit trying to work for peace. But as they do that, perhaps the war in Afghanistan, now bleeding toward a close, can provide another reason to think about why humanity should avoid war.

Losing wars is costly. Losing is devastating to one's image. Losing means a future that's even more unknowable than the future that comes after winning. And yet losing teaches us more than winning. Despite that, Americans think of themselves as almost always winners even though the historical record fails to sustain that image.

What we know -- or at least what we should know -- about American history is that losing wars is part of our history. Think, for instance, of the Civil War. A big section of our nation, the South, lost. And that's why historian C. Vann Woodward called his book The Burden of Southern History. Losing, indeed, is burdensome, but it's also, as I say, a teacher. Here's what Woodward wrote: “America has a history. It is only that the tragic aspects and the ironic implications of that history have been obscured by the national legend of success and victory and by the perpetuation of infant illusions of innocence and virtue.”

Our experience in Afghanistan gives us another chance to understand in more nuanced ways that "national legend of success and victory." And Afghanistan stands in a pretty long line of other military losses, stalemates and disasters.

You can read about nine different military losses the U.S. has suffered since its formation at this site. Afghanistan now will be added to the list, which includes wars in Vietnam and Korea, along with the Bay of Pigs and other examples all the way back to the War of 1812.

Perhaps the best example of winning is World War II, partly because the U.S. figured out a way to help rebuild Europe and to turn its primary enemies, Japan and Germany, into eventual friends and allies.

Winning -- whether we're talking about wars, sports games or other competitions in life -- usually teaches us, as I say, less than losing does. So now we're faced with figuring out how we lost in Afghanistan and what we did wrong. And part of the answer almost certainly will be that we knew damn little about that country and its history and culture when we invaded in 2001.

That was a huge mistake and we've paid dearly for it. Beyond that, we tried to engage in nation building in Afghanistan but, as the report to which I've just linked you in the previous paragraph reveals, we did it so ineptly as to be almost criminal. It's likely that we never should have tried nation building there -- that wasn't our first goal. Rather, clearing out the al-Qaida training camps was our goal to protect ourselves from further terrorist attacks. But if we need to do nation building, we can't do it the way we botched it up in Afghanistan -- despite some good things that happened for the citizens of the country, especially women.

Defeats sometimes can be illuminating and crucial to defining what's best about people. Perhaps the best example from the world of faith is the crucifixion of Jesus. What happened on that horrific Friday turned out not to be the end of the story. And now the defeated U.S. military, along with the rest of the nation, must figure out what can be redeemed from the loss in Afghanistan. A hint: The answer won't be better and bigger weapons.

(The photo here today came from this site.)

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Why do authoritarian political leaders so often seem scared to death of the religious commitments of people they rule? That's a good question for Chinese leaders who, as I noted in this recent post, are afraid of Tibetan Buddhism. Now a top Chinese leader is promising to China-ize (I just made that word up) Tibet even more. How sad.

Why are the extremists winning in Afghanistan?


U.S. military forces, along with some allies, have been fighting a war in Afghanistan for nearly 20 years, starting soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

The initial invasion was justified as an act of self-defense. Its alleged purpose was to destroy the training camps in which al-Qaida members were taught how to commit acts of violent extremism. At the time, I thought that task might take a year or two. Then somehow the mission became ill defined and slowly turned into nation building, an almost-impossible job if you invade a country about which you know almost none of its history or its culture. And then, under President George W. Bush, we lost focus completely and, as a result, in 2003 invaded Iraq on phony charges that that country, ruled by the thug Saddam Hussein, was producing but hiding weapons of mass destruction.

Now, all these years later, after some 241,000 people, including some 71,000 civilians and nearly 2,500 American military troops, have died in the Afghan-Pakistani war zone, U.S. troops have largely left and the Taliban, which in some ways is the Islamist equivalent of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., is taking control of the country, as this fascinating BBC news story reports.

The story indicates that, at times, the Taliban seeks to make itself seem moderate and flexible as it wrests power from the current Afghan government. In reality, however, it is committed to an extremely harsh interpretation of Islamic law, called Shari'a. Whenever fundamentalists of any religious tradition are in charge anywhere, there's precious little room for argument or discussion of anything those fundamentalists think is God's truth.

(Apparently they haven't read my book The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. What's wrong with them?)

And as the BBC story notes, "What many associate most closely with the Taliban's previous stint in power is the brutal punishments meted out under their interpretation of Sharia law.

"Last month in the southern province of Helmand, the group hanged two men accused of child kidnapping from a bridge, justifying it by saying the men had been convicted."

The situation in Afghanistan is dire, as we all have seen in horrific footage of people trying to flee the Kabul airport by hanging on to departing airplanes. As the BBC reports, the Taliban has been "capturing new territory on what seems like a daily basis as international troops have all but withdrawn. Caught in the middle is a terrified population. Tens of thousands of ordinary Afghans have had to flee their homes -- hundreds have been killed or injured in recent weeks." And since that was written things have gotten only more chaotic and worse.

It's hard to imagine why the U.S. thought it could do better at creating a peaceful, modern Afghanistan when other invaders have failed again and again. But that's the problem. We shouldn't have been there to make Afghanistan a Western democracy. Rather, we should have been there only to protect ourselves and our allies from additional attacks by terrorists.

Now there is growing upheaval across Afghanistan in light of President Joe Biden's decision to stick with former President Donald Trump's agreement with the Taliban to get U.S. troops out. Biden has said he believes that the war in Afghanistan is not worth the life of even one more American military member. But his planning, if any, for a controlled exit clearly failed. Now we'll have to see what can be salvaged from this embarrassing operational mess.

Once again, one of the clear lessons here is to avoid or stand against religious, racial or any other kind of extremism. Radicalism led to 9/11, to the murder of nine Black people at prayer in a cathedral in South Carolina, to multiple lynchings of Black people in U.S. history, to the murder of the son and father of my friend Mindy Corporon and the wife of my friend Jim LaManno at Jewish sites in Kansas City and to countless other catastrophes, including the Holocaust itself.

Often such extremism is rooted in fear, which in turn is rooted in ignorance. And when we have political leaders promoting both fear and ignorance, the problem gets only worse.

P.S.: My friend Markandey Katju, a former justice on India's Supreme Court, has written this interesting piece about why a Taliban victory in Afghanistan is actually a victory for the U.S. See if you agree.

(The BBC map here today, which was no doubt out of date an hour after it was published Aug. 11, is found at the BBC story site to which I've linked you.)

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There is so much to know about what's happening in Afghanistan and about that region's long and at-times bizarre history. This article from The Conversation offers readers five different takes to help fill in our knowledge and understanding gaps. And I recommend it. The errors made there by the U.S. and its allies (and, before them, by the British and the Soviets) are legion. I'd like to think that we finally can learn something about interfering in other countries and trying to turn them into something they're not. But so far there's little evidence for such optimism. As a friend of mine said the other day, it has taken 20 years to replace the Taliban -- with the Taliban.

How China crushes Tibet and other followers of faith


There are many reasons to be appalled by the people who run China via the CPC, Chinese Community Party, including their seeming inability to find any value in religion except when it might benefit them politically.

Eat-the-buddhaThere is recent evidence, for instance, of China's leaders loosening restrictions on various religious practices and institutions there, as this article from The Conversation reports. But even so, the piece notes this: "Adopting attitudes and methods with long-established precedents in the dynastic history of imperial China, the communist government positions itself as the ultimate arbiter of orthodoxy and heterodoxy, or proper and improper religious practices. Religious leaders must support the party and follow its directives.

"Authorities keep firm administrative control over all forms of religious expressions and organizations, by whatever means they deem prudent or necessary." And this:

"China tends to treat religions perceived as potentially threatening to the established order harshly, especially if suspected of foreign ties or secessionist tendencies. For instance, for decades China has strictly regulated Buddhism in Tibet, as it has pursued policies aimed at suppressing the cultural and national identities of the Tibetans."

Which brings me to recommend to you a 2020 book I just finished that was loaned to me by a friend. It's Eat the Buddha: Life, Death and Resistance in a Tibetan Town, by journalist Barbara Demick. I found it riveting, and not because I spent part of a year of my childhood at a boarding school in northern India from which, on clear days, I could see the snows of Tibet.

Rather, the books contains remarkable reporting about the ways in which China's myopic leaders are willing to crush an entire culture, including its religion, to maintain what I've come to call the national security state.

A key player in all of this, of course, is the Dalai Lama, now pushing 90 years of age, Tibet's Buddhist spiritual leader who fled the country in the late 1950s and set up a government in exile in northern India.

What becomes astonishingly clear in the book is how little China's kleptocracy values human life. Under Mao Zedong, for instance, China went through wave after wave of government-sanctioned efforts to uproot the lives and customs of its own people and keep the country's communist leaders in power. Many of us are familiar with the brutal "Cultural Revolution" that Mao launched in 1966. And then there was the earlier "Great Leap Forward." As Demick reports in her book, "Between 1958 and 1962, during the Great Leap Forward, an estimated 36 million Chinese are believed to have perished, a death toll that rivals the greatest calamities of a brutal century."

Life? China's leaders spit at it.

Demick tells the story of a Tibetan man named Norbu, born in 1952. His father was a former Buddhist monk. Norbu sought to become a business entrepreneur, but ran up against this: "We can't compete with the Chinese. They don't have to do things ethically because they don't have any religion. They don't care about anything but money."

As for the current slackening of tight control over religion in China, as reported above, don't get your hopes up. Demick puts it this way: "Modern China has a bipolar personality with bursts of openness almost invariably followed by relapses of oppression."

Some of the protesting young students who died in Tiananmen Square in June of 1989 could testify to that -- if they hadn't been murdered by authorities. Buddhists in Tibet know exactly what that is about, having experienced it for themselves time after time.

Demick writes of a Tibetan woman who sold goods from a small stall in a Tibetan town in competition with Chinese women who had come to that town: "She was a devout Buddhist, who took seriously not just the ritual but the obligation to behave with compassion toward all beings, including Chinese migrants. Many of them ran their own stalls at the market, and she could appreciate that they were hardworking women, some of them widows who like herself were struggling to survive. But they had no religion for their comfort, no belief in an afterlife. They would die, thinking that was the end and that they would merely turn into dust. She felt more pity than hostility toward these Chinese."

In an interview with Demick, the Dalai Lama spoke about this very subject: "I don't consider China powerful at all. They may be powerful in their economics and weapons, but in terms of moral principles, they are very weak. The whole society is full of suspicion and full of distrust."

In the end, Demick concludes this about China: "China is becoming what political scientist Stein Ringen has termed the 'perfect dictatorship.' The government's control already is so complete, their surveillance of online communications so thorough, the closed-circuit cameras so ubiquitous, the biometric tracking of the population so advanced, that they maintain order almost seamlessly. China's new approach is less barbaric than the methods used by other regimes to control dissent -- for example, the gassing of civilian populations by Syrian's Bashar Assad -- but it is no less stifling. . .China may not yet be the technological dystopia that critics fear, but that is the direction in which it is headed. . .Uighurs have it even worse than Tibetans; as of this writing, up to one million Uighurs are being held against their will in 'patriotic education' camps where they do menial work for little to no pay and undergo Communist Party indoctrination." (Speaking of those Uighur Muslims, China just appointed a new military commander to crack down even more on the region where most of them live.)

Knowing all of that makes me all the more eager to preserve and protect our democratic republic here in the U.S. and to work against the kind of people who sought to destroy it on Jan. 6.

(By the way, the Soviet Communist Party has made the same anti-religion error as China's rulers. When I was in Poland in 2007 working on the the book They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, I wrote a piece for The Kansas City Star about a built-from-scratch town the Soviets constructed -- with no room for religion. It backfired. That column is included in this previous blog entry.)

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A movement to #TaxTheChurches has gained momentum recently, as this article from The Conversation reports. The power to tax, of course, is the power to destroy, so American citizens need to think through this one carefully. But I think there are some taxation rules having to do with religious institutions that should be examined. For instance, why can clergy declare the part of their salary spent on housing to be exempt from taxation? That one has never made much sense to me. But can we have this broader conversation without screaming at each other about religious liberty and church-state separation? Probably not. So I don't expect much to come of this, but am willing to be proved wrong.

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P.S.: There's an upcoming fund-raising gala for the Miracle of Innocence project that some of you might want to be part of. It will be Friday, October 15, at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in suburban Leawood, Kan. What is this organization all about? A few years ago I wrote this Flatland column explaining how Darryl Burton, wrongfully convicted of capital murder, spent 24 years in Missouri prisons. Now that he's been freed, he works to help other exonerees through this organization. If you click on the first link I've given you in this P.S., you can arrange to get tickets and help out in other ways.

The shape of Islam in the U.S. continues to change

The Muslim community in the U.S., almost 20 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is older, wiser and different in several ways.

Shaq-1For instance, as this RNS story reports, mosques in the U.S. are becoming more "American," according to a report done for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding based on a new survey of American mosques.

For instance, the story says that findings in the report suggest the "American mosque is reviving certain leadership positions for women in the mosque that, while common in the earliest days of Islam, have fallen out of practice." It then quotes the report itself this way:

“American mosque leaders lean toward an understanding of Islam that adheres to the foundational, textual sources of Islam (Qur’an and Sunnah) but are open to interpretations that look to the purposes of Islamic law (i.e., looking to the spirit and wisdom of the law) and modern circumstances.”

This new report got a round of applause from the Council on American Islamic Relations, which issued a press release that said, in part, "'As the American Muslim community grows more diverse, we are delighted to see more women are serving on mosque boards and mosque leaders encouraging civic engagement among Muslims,' said CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad. “'We are pleased to be a co-sponsor of this important report that examines the diversity of mosques and activities in the United States.'”

As the Pew Research Center reported, "The share of mosques in which adult women account for more than a quarter of all attendees at the Friday Jumah prayer service grew between 2011 and 2020, according to the new study."

The report itself says that "The purpose of the US Mosque Survey is to conduct a scientific study that will generate accurate information about most aspects of the American mosque. The goal is to provide a detailed portrait of the American mosque to dispel misconceptions and to help mosque leaders and participants better understand their mosque, hopefully leading to improvements."

It took some time for researchers doing the report to get what they consider as accurate a count of American mosques as possible, but in the end they came up with 2,769, which is a 31 percent increase from the 2010 count.

As the report said, "Mosques are becoming more suburban as major declines occurred in the number of mosques located in towns/small cities and in downtown areas of large cities. Mosques in towns/small cities decreased from 20% in 2010 to 6% in 2020. The apparent cause is the dwindling population of Muslims in these towns/small cities due to the drying up of jobs in these areas and the moves of young adults, children of mosque founders and activists to large cities for education and jobs. In 2010, 17% of mosques were found in downtown areas, but in 2020 that figure is down to 6%. This decrease is most probably tied to the decrease of African American mosques and the general move of mosques to suburban locations."

I recall attending a conference in the Washington, D.C., area 15 or more years ago in which speakers were trying to give journalists an accurate picture of what American Islam looked like. At the time, Muslims were continuing to struggle with the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which was carried out by people claiming to follow Islam. The anti-Islam backlash was harsh and difficult to overcome.

Since then, American Muslims have continued to negotiate their way into American society in various ways, though their total number (somewhere in the 3 to 4 million range, meaning 0.9 percent of the population) makes them a only a small part of the total American religious landscape.

Yes, they still face Islamophobia. Yes, they are internally divided -- not just Sunni, Shi'a and Sufi but also immigrant-native born. But they are finding how to be both genuinely Muslim and genuinely American. Let's hope the upcoming commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks doesn't stir up additional hatred of American Muslims.

(By the way, if you haven't obtained a copy of my new 9/11-related book, Love, Loss and Endurance, I've just given you the Amazon link. If you want an autographed copy, email me at and we can work that out.)

(The photo here today is one I took at the wedding of Muslim friends, Eyyup, center, and Merve, left, with one of their friends on the right, in January 2019 in a Kansas City area mosque.)

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Facebook is introducing a prayer tool, this RNS story reports. As is to be expected, the reaction to that news has been mixed. As for me, I'm going to continue refusing to start prayers this way: "Gracious and loving Mark. . ." I recommend you also refuse to do that.