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God Forbid
What did Gen. Boykin say that was so offensive?


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Clifford D. May

Religious intolerance is flatly un-American. So let’s everybody just get off the back of Army Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin.

Boykin, of course, is the decorated veteran of special operations who is now in charge of the search for uber-terrorists such as Osama bin Laden. A practicing Christian, he recently spoke to some church groups about the work he does. Not surprisingly, he stressed religious themes.

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His remarks were secretly recorded by a columnist who for some unfathomable reason has only been willing to release excerpts. Those excerpts have been characterized as shocking and offensive to Muslims–akin to the kind of anti-Semitism spouted by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad at the Islamic Summit Conference the other day. Quite a few usually level-headed types are up in arms. Sen. John Warner (R., Va.) has called for an investigation. Pundit Fareed Zakaria has called for Boykin to be fired.

But did Boykin actually say anything that should offend Muslims? Was he even talking about Islam–or was he speaking of terrorists who claim to act in the name of Islam? And can we not yet perceive that there is a huge difference between the two?

Start with the remark that has drawn the most ire: Boykin’s reference to a “spiritual enemy…called Satan.” The Washington Post suggested that reference was “inflammatory, if not illegal.”

How do they figure? Boykin was clearly speaking here about mass murderers such as bin Laden. If they are not evil, then there is no such thing as evil. But if they are evil, it can hardly be outrageous to describe a war against such evil as a struggle against a “spiritual enemy.” Isn’t that what evil is?

As for Satan, he is the personification of evil. What’s the charge, here, officer? Reckless anthropomorphism?

In fact, can’t we agree that suicide terrorists who kill in the name of a jihad against infidels are–by their own definition–spiritual enemies not just of Christians and Jews but equally of moderate Muslims?

A column in the Washington Post says that Boykin “likened Islam to idol worship.” That is indeed a serious charge–but what’s the evidence for it? Describing a 1993 battle with a terrorist leader in Somalia, Boykin said: “I knew my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God, and his was an idol.”

Why shouldn’t Boykin believe that a man who murders innocents and uses religion to justify his slaughter worships a false god? If an FBI agent chasing down Ku Klux Klan members who had lynched blacks in Mississippi were to refer to such barbarians as idol worshippers, should that be taken as a slur of Presbyterians and other moderate Christians?

The charge that Boykin’s remarks are an insult to Islam recalls the early days of the U.S. war to topple the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Critics then argued that it would offend Muslims for the U.S. to attack Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar during the holy days of Ramadan. Have we learned nothing since then?

Have we not at least learned that those who commit suicide terrorism in the name of Islam pervert and damage a great faith? And do we not yet understand that those who regard the likes of bin Laden as the voice of authentic Islam make a grievous error?

Again, we have only excerpts to go on, not the full context and full text, but I think it’s only reasonable to infer that in all his remarks, Boykin–a professional terrorist hunter, not a theologian–was speaking about militant Islamist terrorists who murder in the name of God and religion. I don’t think it’s fair to infer that he was speaking of Turkish Sufis, Sunni Arab Americans in Detroit, or America’s loyal Kurdish allies, the ones who waved flags and cheered when American troops parachuted into Kurdistan last April.

For the record, another source of complaint is that Boykin said that President Bush “is in the White House because God put him there.” That may offend atheists, but Muslims–who frequently use the phrase Inshallah (God willing)–could hardly find this idea objectionable. I don’t know for sure, but I’d bet Boykin thinks that many people are where they are by the grace of God. Not a Deist belief, perhaps, but surely nothing that should result in the issuing of subpoenas.

Boykin has apologized for his remarks. He has said he regrets them and wishes he had chosen his words more carefully. He has stated plainly that he harbors no animosity toward Islam or those who practice it.

If the general has failed to understand that Islam is not synonymous with the extremist totalitarian ideologies preached by bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and similar types, he should be fired. If he does grasp this vital distinction, he should say so clearly–and his critics should shut up.

And if he speaks on anything again, perhaps he should not prepare his own text. That’s why God invented speechwriters. I’m sorry if saying that offends anyone.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.



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