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Jihadist Web site Uses Mass Baptism of Marines As Proof of 'Christian Crusade' in Afghanistan

Pentagon policy prohibits military officers from endorsing particular religious beliefs. Why do so many in the military ignore this directive?

Several days ago the L.A. Times blog reported on a Pacific Ocean baptism of 29 Marines from Camp Pendleton, near San Diego -- a story far too enticing and useful for the propagandists of militant Islam to pass up.

Titled "Marines headed for Afghanistan baptized in ocean off Camp Pendleton," the story described a mass baptism of marines from Lt. Col. Lawrence Kaifesh’s 3rd Battalion unit as “part of Operation Sword of the Spirit, a program meant to prepare the battalion for duty in the Taliban stronghold of Helmand province." The piece was republished by the leading Jihadist Web site Ansar Al-Mujahideen, under the heading “Crusaders Baptized Before Leaving For Afghanistan.”

As Military Religious Freedom Foundation founder Michael Weinstein quipped,

Surely the Taliban and Al Qaeda will be sending bountiful fruit baskets to Lt. Col. Kaifesh, and his entire culpable USMC/DoD chain of command, for so magnificently advancing the cause of their "U.S. as Crusaders" propaganda machine.

MRFF works to protect the rights of U.S. armed forces personnel to be free from unconstitutional religious proselytizing. Only a few days after MRFF’s research network picked up the L.A. Times baptism story, the MRFF has, according to Weinstein, picked up over new 30 clients, some at Camp Pendleton but also in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, who have turned to the foundation as a desperate last resort in reaction to what they feel is a dangerous climate of religious coercion. Weinstein says they’re all Christian Protestants, and he stresses that 96 percent of MRFF clients are Christians persecuted for not holding the “correct” sort of sectarian beliefs.

What’s really at stake is this: Pentagon policy prohibits military officers from endorsing particular religious beliefs, especially sectarian religious beliefs. Lt. Col Kaifesh’s prominent presence and high-profile participation at the mass baptism seems to indicate endorsement not just of Christianity but also of claims that Christian indoctrination, and building something called “spiritual fitness,” are valid and even indispensable to training American troops for combat.

There are in fact many atheists in foxholes in the U.S. armed forces, proportionally more than in the general American population, and there’s no evidence to indicate that lack of belief in a deity hinders combat readiness. But over the last several years, Christian “fitness” programs have sprouted up through the major armed forces branches, and high level officers in the Army Reserves have even asserted that “the application of the principles of [Christian] Scripture” can help returning vets to overcome post-traumatic stress disorder.

So, if Christian beliefs are intrinsic and necessary to the U.S. military’s fighting capability, how would American military campaigns differ from crusades?

Editors of the internationally popular English-language Jihadist web forum Ansar Al-Mujahideen, which a February 2010 article published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point suggests is in the forefront of militant Islamic propaganda efforts worldwide, seem to have considered the implicit message of Lt. Colonel Lawrence Kaifesh’s baptism ceremony to be so obvious that, beyond the title change, they ran the L.A. Times report with no editorial comment whatsoever.

But chances are, that for most Muslim readers, no comment was necessary. On September 16, 2001 President George W. Bush set the stage by calling for a global “crusade” against global terrorism. Ever since, Pentagon realists, aware that the term “crusade” carries negative historical connotations, especially in the Mideast, have worked to undo the damage and persuade Afghans and Iraqis that the United States invasion and occupation of their countries does not amount to a religious war.

That’s official Department of Defense policy, at least. But a powerful renegade faction in the U.S. military seems bent on sending a radically contradictory message, as illustrated by examples in a book on diversity in the military, Attitudes Aren’t Free: Thinking Deeply about Diversity in the US Armed Forces, published in May 2010 by the USAF Air University Press.

In the chapter "Against All Enemies, Foreign and Domestic," MRFF’s senior research director Chris Rodda details the most egregious incidents that have helped undermine Pentagon policy. Here is Rodda’s list, titled, "Top 10 Ways to Convince the Muslims We’re on a Crusade”:

10. Have US Military Officers, Defense Department Officials, and Politicians Say We’re in a Religious War.
9. Have Top US Military Officers Appear in a Video Showing Just How Christian the Pentagon Is.
8. Plant Crosses in Muslim Lands and Make Sure They’re Big Enough to Be Visible from Really Far Away.
7. Paint Crosses and Christian Messages on Military Vehicles and Drive Them through Iraq.
6. Make Sure That Our Christian Soldiers and Chaplains See the War As a Way to Fulfill the Great Commission.
5. Post Photos on the Internet of US Soldiers with Their Rifles and Bibles.
4. Invite Virulently Anti-Muslim Speakers to Lecture at Our Military Colleges and Service Academies.
3. Have a Christian TV Network Broadcast to the World That the Military Is Helping Missionaries Convert Muslims.
2. Make Sure Bibles and Evangelizing Materials Sent to Muslim Lands Have Official US Military Emblems on Them.
1. Send Lots of Arabic, Dari, and Pashtu Language Bibles to Convert the Muslims.

As Rodda writes, “USCENTCOM’s General Order 1A (now GO-1B) prohibits any and all proselytizing in its area of responsibility (AOR) and applies to civilians accompanying US troops as well as military personnel.” Despite the directive, missionaries have been directly embedded with U.S. troops in Afghanistan, as described in Rodda’s reason #3.

It gets worse.

Reason #7 was the launching point for a 2009 Harper’s magazine story by journalist Jeff Sharlet, titled “Jesus Killed Mohammed: The Crusade for a Christian Military.” The story begins with a description of an incident in Iraq, in which U.S. troops drove through Samarra in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle emblazoned with the words “Jesus killed Mohammed" in large red Arabic lettering.

Lt. Colonel Lawrence Kaifesh’s Pacific baptism ceremony could have been example #11, especially because of Kaifesh’s combat history. As described in a 2004 Washington Post story, Major Kaifesh, then a civil affairs officer, was involved in some of the heaviest fighting of the Iraq war, during the first U.S. attack on Fallujah, where Kaifesh warned members of his unit to “Expect snipers on all minarets. They will do it to draw fire and cause collateral damage in the hour of prayer.” During the assault, Kaifesh was quoted by the AP as saying that “it is hard to differentiate between people who are insurgents or civilians. It is hard to get an honest picture. You just have to go with your gut feeling.”

The high civilian deaths from the first attack on Fallujah led a group of Iraqi Sunni clerics to call for a jihad, according to an April 11, 2004 Boston Globe story by Anne Barnard, who quoted a Fallujah tribal leader’s call from a mosque following the attack:

"We don't need your food and clothing. We need you. We need your support. Attack the supply convoys coming to Fallujah," he told the crowd, who shouted, "Jihad! Jihad! Jihad!"

By the second, and much heavier, assault on the city, some on the American side already seemed to hold that perspective, according to an Agency France-Presse story that described the baptism of marines massing for the November 2004 attack:

With US forces massing outside Fallujah, 35 marines swayed to Christian rock music and asked Jesus Christ to protect them in what could be the biggest battle since American troops invaded Iraq last year.

Men with buzzcuts and clad in their camouflage waved their hands in the air, M-16 assault rifles beside them, and chanted heavy metal-flavored lyrics in praise of Christ late on Friday in a yellow-brick chapel.

Based on that history Lt. Colonel Kaifesh should be well aware of the power of religion to inflame military conflicts.

A photo from the ceremony near Camp Pendleton.

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