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In Old Army Guide, New Lessons in Religious Tolerance

By Nick Danforth

The latest round of obscure anti-Islamic propaganda and subsequent anti-American rioting has given us all another chance to discuss America's often-fraught relationship with the Muslim world. Since no one has much new to say this time around—free speech is good; bigotry is bad, and bigotry coupled with violence is worse—why not take a look at something old? Specifically, a 1943 introduction to the Moslem religion written by the U.S. Army for American soldiers in Turkey.

This passage was part of a larger guide to Turkey, later distributed to American diplomats serving in the country. It contains a range of information on history (“Ataturk was a strong, hard man at a time when only such a man could succeed”), cuisine (“Yogurt is a kind of thickened milk. … If you don't care for it at first, a little sugar helps the taste”), and some do’s and don’t’s for the visiting American (“Remember your precautions against malaria and venereal disease. They are easy to pick up anti hard to get rid of”). Anyone interested in what else the 20-plus page guide has to say about Turkey can check it out here. There are, of course, a few points that are specific to Turkey, with its unique forms of secularism and religious observance. As the Cold War progressed, Americans would at times comment that the mixture of genuine piety and fondness for a drink among Turks reminded them more of Midwestern businessmen back home than the fanaticism of the Arabs.

Yet, in many ways, this document shows America at its best, approaching cultural and religious differences in a candid and direct way. It was written at a time when Americans had the self-confidence to think that treating others with respect was a matter of basic decency rather than a sign of weakness. In short, the army that brought us our big victory over fascism was not busy worrying about Islamofascism. The author's fundamental instinct is to look for points of similarity: “Muslims sacrifice sheep in thanks to God, we eat turkey. They are disgusted by eating pigs, we're disgusted by eating dogs.” Even if the writer seems a orientalist or naive at times, the author is operating on the basic assumption that a Turkish villager and a newly enlisted farm boy from Iowa can get along just fine if they treat each other as coming from more or less the same place. 

So what lessons does this hold for us today? It would, admittedly, be hard to recapture the confidence and innocence of 70 years ago, if only because this confidence largely rested on the certainty that others would naturally grow to like us if we just put our best foot forward. The fallout from a half-century of meddling in the Middle East, during which time we often led with the wrong foot, has shaken this certainty. No longer sure that we can make ourselves liked, we have at times abandoned the effort in an attempt to be respected or feared instead. Likewise, decades of mutual suspicion have promoted the idea that our similarities are increasingly superficial and our differences more profound. If nothing else, reflecting on our earlier attitude shows how much of this suspicion is learned, not ingrained, and that it could perhaps be unlearned as well.

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Nick Danforth is a doctoral student in history at Georgetown University.

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