Promoting Islam at Lackland Air Force Base
by TIMOTHY R FURNISH, PHD
August 19, 2011
On August 7, 2011, in a chapel converted to a mosque on Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas, the U.S. government officially became a sponsor of the Mahdi. No, not Barack Husein Obama, but a much more serious and overt candidate: Adnan Oktar, a.k.a. “Harun Yahya,” the Turkish Creationist whose followers consider him the “rightly-guided one” of Islamic tradition, expected to come before the end of time to make the entire world Muslim.
Mahdism was my original area of academic specialization within Islamic history (about which I wrote my doctoral dissertation, first book and numerous articles, and which I track via this website); I interviewed Oktar in Istanbul a few years ago; and, finally, I spent time in the military, both enlisted and commissioned, the latter training to be a chaplain. So I have some familiarity with all aspects of this troubling story, which came to my attention early on 14 August 2011 via photos posted to my Facebook page by contacts within Oktar’s organization. I contacted the Public Affairs Officer (PAO) at Lackland and, in summary, was told the following: that such “religious education” classes are provided every weekend from “other” faith perspectives (Latter Day Saints, Buddhists, Pentecostals) besides the main ones (Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Eastern Orthodox); that these are entirely voluntary; that the “program chaplain …was aware of and approved of the speaker.”
The speaker in question was from Oktar’s organization , an Islamic Creationist one, which is very inimical to Darwinian evolution as well as a strong proponent of Islamic Mahdist da`wah (“propaganda” or “evangelism”). From Istanbul Oktar presides over a publishing and Internet franchise dealing in a double-sided coin of Islamic anti-Darwinism and belief in the imminent arrival, if not presence already, of the Islamic deliverer—most likely in the guise of Oktar himself. The Harun Yahya movement resembles that of fellow Turk Fethullah Gülen, insofar as both spring from a neo-Ottoman Sufism with Mahdist overtones. But the latter, with his global chain of Islamic charter schools, is taken more seriously and viewed by many in the U.S. as an ideological threat. The fact that Gülen lives in exile in the U.S. has so far provided him a higher profile here. But Oktar and his people, while heretofore playing Avis to Gülen’s Hertz, are definitely trying harder—and succeeding even where Gülen’s people have so far feared to tread: onto the U.S. Air Force’s only basic training installation.
According to both my sources--Oktar’s organization and the Public Affairs Office (PAO) at Lackland—on the first Sunday in August a representative of Harun Yahya was allowed, following an invitation from the Muslim chaplain at Lackland, Captain Sharior Rahman, to present two classes: a morning one on “The Collapse of Darwinism and the Fact of Creation” and an evening one covering “Miracles in the Qur’an.” It would appear that the morning class was attended solely by basic trainees, as the photo above shows (note the screen, which says “The Collapse of Evolution and the Fact of Creation”).
The Turkish Muslim group further claims about the evening class (of which I have no pictures) that “attendants were high rank officials [sic]: sergeants, master sergeants and captains. The talks were very well received and appreciated and the attendants were gifted the Quran [sic] (emphasis added). The captain presented a special medal as the token of appreciation to Mr Adnan Oktar (Harun Yahya).” “The captain” would be, presumably, Chaplain Rahman—which brings up its own troubling issues, as I shall examine below.
Another picture shows a dozen female trainees, sitting separately from the males—whether out of military, or Islamic, mandate is unclear:
A wider shot of the Mahdist group’s Islamic Creationism class is this one:
And at the top of this article, we see Adnan Oktar himself on screen, providing instruction.
As I said, I’ve interviewed Oktar and some of his supporters, read his writings and corresponded with members of his organization for several years. I think they are sincere, well-meaning and peaceful Muslims, whose view of the Mahdi as a pacific figure runs counter to that of him among the Sunni jihadists, as well as the ruling clerical clique in Iran—both of which see the Mahdi as a global warlord who will come to earth not to bring peace, but a bloody sword. But the degree to which Oktar and his people hold moderate Muslim positions is not the issue. Rather, the issues are as follows:
1) The whole question of something being “voluntary” in basic training is debatable. As one online basic training survival site says, “In the military, there will ALWAYS be someone telling you what to do, when to do it, and how to do it -- and you've got to do it…. Military boot camp is like nothing you've ever experienced. However, the rigid routine and absolute control over every aspect of your life is several times worse than normal military duty -- on purpose. It's the job of the Training Instructors (T.I.'s) and Drill Instructors (D.I.'s) to…adjust your attitude to a military way of thinking (self-discipline, sacrifice, loyalty, obedience)….” All it would take for these “voluntary” Sunday morning classes to become rather more compulsory would be for a T.I. to suggest that anyone not attending Christian chapel services find something productive to do—or spend extra time shining brass or doing KP (kitchen patrol) duty while their mates are at church. Given such a choice, agnostic trainees might very well opt for the Islam classes.
2) And these were not simply general classes on Islam provided by a mainstream Sunni group; rather, they were sect- or cult-specific classes on highly charged topics. Oktar’s book “Miracles of the Qur’an,” no doubt used as the basis for that lecture, is a long proselytizing work purporting to explain how the Qur’an is the word of God. His works “The Collapse of Evolution” and “The Fact of Creation” are stridently anti-Darwinian evolution. But both these salients are simply gateways, for Harun Yahya, no doubt leavened with references to the group’s most important teaching: the centrality of the Mahdi to human history. Mahdism is a controversial topic within Islam, and many Muslims consider Oktar to be a charismatic cult leader—even heretic. Even allowing such a contentious Islamic group to teach other Muslims on a US military installation would be problematic, analogous to bringing followers of a heterodox Christian like Perry Stone, or a very controversial one like John Hagee, to lecture on to Christian trainees. Permitting them to teach non-Muslims—in effect, to proselytize—is simply beyond the pale.
3) This is the crux of the issue: According to the Lackland PAO, not only are such classes as this important to upholding First Amendment rights of military personnel, they are necessary: “if we did not allow trainees to attend the services or religious classes of their choice,” their religious rights would be violated. But this is absurd. When I attended Army chaplain’s school at Ft. Jackson, we were taught that providing First Amendment rights for troops meant that, for example, if you had three Buddhist soldiers and no Buddhist chaplain, you could scour the local village for a Buddhist priest and ask him to come minister to them weekly—it did NOT mean that a Buddhist monk could be invited onto base and allowed to, in effect, recruit among non-Buddhist personnel. The Air Force, at least at Lackland, is thus allowing Islamic proselytizing among non-Muslim Air Force trainees (and possibly higher ranking permanent party).
4) The Lackland basic training command seems to have deferred to the Muslim Chaplain, Rahman, on this issue—and the PAO told me as much. I have no desire to cast aspersions on Chaplain Rahman, for I have never met him and know little about him. But if a non-mainstream group like Oktar’s can gain entrée so easily to a major US military installation simply on the Muslim chaplain’s advice, what’s to prevent another Muslim military chaplain in this, or another, branch of service from signing off on Hizb al-Tahrir’s preaching their plans for peacefully resurrecting the caliphate or Tablighi Jama’at from inculcating trainees with ideal Islamic piety and the need for shari`ah? Both HT and TJ are non-jihadist and operate (at least in this country) via Islamic da`wah (“missionary work”), not terrorism. But should the U.S. military really have such a coarse vetting net—based on this episode—that it could very readily allow these, or similar, groups to slip through and disseminate their ideas to some of the most impressionable members of our military?
5) Where is the inimitable Mikey Weinstein on this issue? The anti-Christian fulminations of him and his group, the Orwellian-named “Military Religious Freedom Foundation,” just recently intimidated the command at Vandenberg Air Force base into dropping just war classes for officers because they dared include the Bible. One would think this case would set him salivating. But Mr. Weinstein seems to view Christianity as the only First Amendment threat to our military, alas. What would be his response if a Christian group were to give out Bibles to non-Christians, as Oktar’s Muslim representative gave Qur’ans to non-Muslims? Mikey would be calling for the unit commander and probably the entire chain-of-command to be crucified.
I first learned Arabic in the mid-1980s at the Defense Language Institute, and I have been studying Middle Eastern and African Islamic history for two decades. I have no problems with Muslims attempting to spread their faith peacefully in this country, nor even with our military service members learning about Islam as an important adjunct to the global struggle in which we are engaged. What I do have a problem with—as an American, a veteran, a Christian and an Islamic expert—is Islamic groups being given access to young, impressionable basic trainees under the spurious guise of the First Amendment.
As it is, Lackland Air Force base is in the business of promoting Islam in general, and the Mahdi in particular, over the faith of the vast majority of military personnel (73% of Air Force enlisted are Christian; 0.2% are Muslim). And that should be unacceptable to all Americans.
Family Security Matters Contributing Editor Timothy R. Furnish is a conservative Christian with a PhD in Islamic history, a US Army veteran, and a published author of one book and numerous articles in venues such as The Weekly Standard, The Washington Times, The Lutheran Witness and History News Network (HNN). His website is www.mahdiwatch.org and he also blogs on HNN as Occidental Jihadist.