Marines learn basics of Middle East culture
Stars and Stripes June 17, 2003
CAMP COURTNEY, Okinawa — Lt. Muhiyyaldin Ibn Noel sat at the back of the military chapel, listening intently to a non-Muslim lecture on Islam.
One of three Muslim chaplains in the U.S. Navy, he was among roughly 35 people at Courtney last Tuesday attending a “cultural judo” training seminar about Middle Eastern cultures.
Between lectures, the chaplain acknowledged initial misgivings. “Whenever anyone speaks about Islam, it is a major concern of mine,” said Ibn Noel, who serves as an imam, or religious leader, for the Islamic faithful on Okinawa.
Having a Muslim speak would have been preferable, the chaplain said, but he was “impressed with the passion” and sincerity of the seminar speakers.
Two representatives from the Florida-based Interlink Consulting Services spoke at three Marine Corps installations on Okinawa last week, discussing how the Arab world, and Islamic cultures, differ from those in America.
The voluntary half-day sessions were condensed versions of the five-day programs the company has given various U.S. special operations forces, an Interlink officer said.
With U.S. troops operating in many parts of the Muslim world, it’s imperative they know that region’s cultural mores and norms, said Interlink Vice President Thomas Connell.
Interlink publications refer to the training as “cultural judo,” which teaches using another culture’s “dynamics and energy” to one’s own advantage. The firm’s Web site, www.interlinkconsulting.com, states it specializes in cross-cultural communications, regional orientation, terrorism awareness and personal and travel safety.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the firm has trained many more regular units within the Defense Department, Connell said.
Last year, Interlink trained several thousand Navy members at Pensacola, Fla. Earlier this year, a session with Marines at Camp Pendleton, Calif., was canceled because the Marines were ordered to deploy. Connell said he regretted being unable to deliver the Interlink training to them because it would have been a “real help” in intelligence gathering and in connecting culturally with Iraqis.
“Can you culturally stop a guy loaded with explosives from driving to a check point? No … you can’t reason with an insane person,” he said. But the training, he contended, would have helped troops minimize the number of incidents that had potential to escalate into conflict.
He noted, for example, that U.S. troops might misread the intentions of Iraqi men who invade their “comfort zone” by moving in very close when they want to have a “man-to-man conversation.”
“The less you know of a specific culture, the more dependent you are on the erroneous information and stereotypes” that some media may propagate, Connell added.
“It’s not true” that the entire Muslim world hates America, he stressed. “Millions of Muslims come to the United States each year.” Many also believe Muslims are bent on killing Christians, he added — but the region’s history, political and social structures, religion and economics indicate otherwise. “Saudi Arabia and Egypt have large Christian populations,” Connell said.
Americans must realize that many of the “radical components” of the Muslim world don’t represent the true tenets of Islam, said Interlink speaker Mark Long. Also director of Middle East Studies at Baylor University, Texas, the professor said he feels it’s his “obligation” to tell people many Muslims consider that those espousing violence have “hijacked the faith.”
Col. Jim Kessler, logistics officer at Courtney’s 3rd Marine Division, said the training gave a “balanced view of Islam” and let him gain a much better understanding and appreciation of the faith.
Gunnery Sgt. Herb Minor, an information systems chief at Courtney, said the seminar lectures opened his eyes to how big a difference exists between American and Islamic cultures.
“It’s not something you really think about. We just tend to think our culture is the only way,” said Minor, adding that the training helped him understand why Middle Eastern people “are the way they are. Still I’m biased. … If I had the choice, I’d choose the western culture.”
Ibn Noel said he appreciated the seminar’s “non-clinical” approach. He noted that Long’s many stories of his personal interactions with people through out the Middle East showed he “embraced those of the Muslim faith as human beings.”
With conditions today, Ibn Noel said, that Americans get accurate information about the faith is critically important.
In closing the seminar, Long showed a recent snapshot of a Palestinian Muslim on his knees at an Israeli checkpoint. The man, he explained, had been waiting for hours, as he did every day, to cross the checkpoint and reach his job. He was on his knees not to protest the wait, the trainer said, but to thank God he had a job.
The man’s humble spirit, not that of radical militants, exemplifies the spirit of most Muslims, Long said.