Jason Criss Howk
Veterans Day 2021
Authors note: This article is 6 years in the making at this point. In it I highlight my journey from an Infantry paratrooper who had never really known a Muslim before (that I knew of) to an interfaith leader who specializes in helping American non-Muslims to understand Islamic cultures. Along the way I have tried to publish a story like this with over 20 main-stream news outlets…they all came up with creative excuses for not sharing these observations. I have traveled across the US and spoken to nearly 300 audiences about how important it is to be tolerant of other religious views. My methods were so successful that Muslim groups asked me to explain how I do it. My advice to Americans and others grappling to increase tolerance among faiths, look to your soldiers and police and firefighters. You will find that most of the people who put their lives in the hands of their team-mates everyday are very tolerant of others. Those who think the press, Hollywood, single-minded civic groups, or bomb-throwing politicians (from the extreme left or right) are going to bring tolerance to our communities—you are betting on the wrong horse.
Below is a recent rejected article submission from a news outlet that took over 11 months to prepare to run this piece. Highlighted in red are the parts of the story they wanted to cut out at the last minute.
I find that most in the press say they want to help bring more tolerance towards Muslims in America, until they are faced with a chance to talk about it in a meaningful way…then all the excuses start, along with a rejection notice.
The Soldier Who Explains Islam
By Jason Criss Howk
1996 United Arab Emirates (UAE)
We got all the paratroopers seated and the plane was taxiing to take off when the UAE special operator handed me a parachute. I was a jumpmaster safety for this airborne operation between the 82nd Airborne Division and the UAE Special Forces. It was our first of 4 scheduled jumps during our two weeks training together outside Abu Dhabi.
I inspected the non-US parachute and realized it was basically a civilian free-fall parachute, not the typical Air Force model we get issued in the US. I asked the Arab NCO how it worked. He said “you just pull here and the chute will deploy. But its not much use at this low altitude…so don’t fall out.” From my time with the UAE Army, I learned that Muslims are funny and enjoyed food, sport, and even dancing. It was my first of many encounters with the so-called Muslim world. My journey to be an interreligious leader began in the deserts of Abu Dhabi when I picked up a Quran and some other books about Arab and Muslim culture.
2002 Pul e Charki, Afghanistan
The four fathers were already seated when we entered the small room. We took off our shoes and sat down beside the walls in our dress uniforms. We had only worn the uniforms once in Kabul so far, it was only something you pack if you are assigned to an embassy in a combat zone. The religious leaders talked. My boss the 2-star general spoke. The fathers who had lost their sons in a training accident spoke last. Then all the men in this small room cried openly. The fathers hugged us and said they forgave the military for the horrible accident that took their loved ones. I learned from those men that Muslims truly believe in forgiveness and were not as stoic as they are often portrayed.
2003 Kabul Airport
Our interpreter was being held up at a security checkpoint; that’s what his text said. Our plane was ready to take off and the general needed his translator to be effective. I ran around the departure building to the front of the airport to get him through the NATO checkpoint. Then I saw him outside the NATO perimeter at an Afghan militia checkpoint and the man arguing with him was pointing his AK-47 at him.
As I approached, I did not pull out my pistol, as I thought I could de-escalate the situation with words. Then the man, who I now realized was maybe 14, pointed the rifle at me and his finger was on the trigger and the weapon was not on safe. We were in trouble. The NATO guards were 200 feet behind us and couldn’t tell what was happening. Our trusted interpreter took charge of the situation quickly and talked the kid into lowering his weapon and letting us go into the airport. That day I learned that Muslims valued life, and took care of their friends. I am still in touch with our interpreter who I first met in 2002. I have met his children and shared meals in his home.
2006 The Sultanate of Oman
We walked into the pit-weaver’s large thatched hut. Three men sat down in a hole up to their chest and wove items from the thread in front of them on the loom. I moved towards the eldest man and knelt next to him. I pulled out my Arabic translation card and tried to say a sentence in Arabic, but I was tongue tied. He stopped weaving and motioned me to sit on the ground. He then pulled the laminated paper towards him and looked for a moment. Then he stuck his weathered finger on a word in Arabic. He looked at me and said, “peace. Salam.” I repeated with a smile, “Salam, peace.” He smiled and turned back to his work. I stood and took a picture of him and then bought an item from their small shop. From Omanis I learned the Muslim rules of hospitality, I saw their arts, and repeatedly felt their kindness.
2009 Monterey California
I was studying Arabic at the Defense Language Institute but my teachers were reluctant to talk about Islamic phrases and prayers with me so I reached out to my Islamic studies professor. He took me on a Friday visit to his Mosque near his home. He translated the entire sermon for me and explained all the motions and activities of the service. We left afterward to have some of the best Iraqi chicken wraps in the city. He talked me into trying tomatoes for the first time to get the proper flavor. I made him promise not to tell my wife I ate tomatoes for him.
We spoke about Islam and politics and current events. He joked that next week he would have to explain to his congregation that I was not an FBI agent spying on them. From Abbas I realized that and Shi’a Islamic prayer service is pretty close in structure to a Baptist one. He taught me how to put friendship above political and religious ideas.
2010 Kabul, Murad Khane neighborhood
Rory Stewart was preparing to give Prince Charles a tour of the Turquoise Mountain rehabilitation project and asked my boss to go on a practice run the day before. We saw the arts and crafts being taught to the young and old Afghans in the area. Pottery, carpentry, masonry, and detailed painting and wood carving traditions were being preserved as the old neighborhood was brought back to life, after decades of neglect. We met an old Olympian level wrestler with cauliflower ears and met his granddaughters and their friends as they told us about the neighborhood. Children played with a soccer ball in the courtyard as we looked down from the roof-top retreats of the buildings.
We were leaving this Shi’a district of Old Kabul; as we passed the Abu Fazal shrine and then a hamburger and fries stand the group spread out. I stopped to look at some religious items for sale in a small shop. I saw a clay disk used by Shi’a Muslims for prayer. I handed the clerk a five-dollar bill and picked up 2 disks that I wanted to bring back to Abbas. The man looked me in the eyes and pushed the money back at me and took the disks from my hand. He paced the two disks in a small plastic bag and tied it tightly. Then he smiled and handed me the bag and politely waved me to join my friends. I tried again to hand him cash and he bowed his head and shook it no.
A little over a year later I walked into the Pentagon and saw the newspaper with a bomb blast on the front cover. I bought a copy when I saw where. A suicide bomber had walked into the crowd of worshipers in the narrow alley outside the Abu Fazal Shrine and detonated himself during Ashura services. Over a hundred children, women, and men were injured and an estimated 70 were killed. From that neighborhood Muslims taught me that life is precious, arts and traditions should be passed on, and that kindness is the root of humanity.
2015 Pinehurst North Carolina
It was my first time speaking at our public library. I was joining a series of speakers that usually discuss golf, WWII history, or travel in our quiet resort-like town. My topic was the status of the War in Afghanistan in 2015. I had just retired from a career that kept me focused on Afghanistan for nearly 14 years. My presentation was polished and loaded with pictures so our community could see the diverse nation and people. I was ready for 30 minutes of engaging questions about the war effort, and I got none. Every question was about Islam and Muslim cultures. It was a hot topic in the already begun 2016 presidential race.
I spoke a month later to a standing-room-only crowd of 60. I explained the differences between Islam the religion, Islamism the political ideology, and the twisted views of Islam, and humanity, that many modern terrorist groups fighting America held. I answered every question and told them that nothing was out of bounds, but demanded that we respect each other’s views.
This could have been a disaster, if what you see on the news is correct about American manners. On the contrary it was a success. People were civil, we avoided getting nasty about politics, we had honest discussions about religion and stereotypes, and we all learned from each other. I was surprised and I think others were too. We had been conditioned to believe that the art of civil conversation was dead. Far from dead, I was about to prove over the next 5 years that we can all talk to and learn from each other, even on one of the most divisive topics in our country—religion.
I knew based on the questions I was asked the confusion that existed about Islam and Muslims that I could help to spread facts based on my experiences. More than once my life was protected by a Muslim in Afghanistan, I felt I could return the favor by spreading some thoughts on tolerance.
Most Americans have an opinion about Islam and Muslims. Often it is very strong. But only a few times in over 250 discussions across America did anyone follow me to my car to rant, slander, or question my patriotism. Online that ratio shifts a bit as more people feel free to attack others anonymously.
What I discovered about America helps me to better explain Islam to audiences. Most Americans are not bigots when it comes to religion, most Americans just don’t know anything about any religion other than their own. Most people don’t hate Muslims, they have just never met one, or didn’t know that they did.
I found a nation willing to ask honest questions, if they heard me give honest answers. I took all their questions along the way and turned my little 25-minute brief on Islam into the answers for the 40 most common questions I received. By the time I hit my 100th audience I was answering 50-60 questions in an hour-long session. I briefed them for half the time and asked them questions, and then they pinned me down for the other half of the talk.
As my tour extended out of North Carolina up to New Jersey, then down to Florida, and from Michigan to New Mexico, I started to get Muslims attendees at my talks that wanted to hear my summary of their religion. I could spot them in the audience easily from their body language. At first their arms were crossed and they unsmilingly watched me from their front-row seats. As I unspooled my yarn, they started to nod their head in agreement with my main points and by the end they were looking around the audience to see who else was getting the point when I gave examples and comparisons to Christianity and Judaism.
Muslims always came up to me privately afterwards to say thank you. Often, they would explain that they were very happy I was cutting through the many myths about Muslims, because they could not do it themselves. They told me they didn’t feel safe convening an auditorium of 250 people or being recorded for YouTube, because their own community might be angry for how they describe Islam. Muslim women were especially thankful because they also felt they would be attacked by other Muslims for being as straightforward as I was about Islam. Some Muslims also worried that non-Muslims might target them for hate or violence if they led a talk like I did. All those fears are very real, and they stifle constructive dialogue about religions.
After a couple years of talks I felt mentally tired but motivated to keep going. I had a few people in their 80s tell me that after I explained Islam, they had changed their minds about befriending Muslims. Along the way I even translated the Qur’an (the holy text of Islam) into modern English to help non-Muslims to more easily grasp the tenets of Islam. I knew I had to keep talking. The invitations to speak kept coming, so I kept going. I was now getting invited to speak to Muslim audiences and interfaith groups to explain how I rapidly explain Islam in the most un-biased way I possibly could.
This led me to have a 3-hour lunch meeting with the President of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and his wife. We spent that time talking about the similarities between people of faith and the ways that we could bridge the gaps that had been created between us by those who don’t want peace. The man who set up the lunch was a Muslim medical doctor of Pakistani ancestry who dedicates his spare time in Louisville to bringing his community together so they can better weather crisis. We have become dear friends, my Kentucky MD.
I don’t think this path unfolded before me in retirement by accident. For over 20 years I worked closely with Muslim colleagues in the U.S. government, lived in and study Muslim-majority nations, and wrote a master’s thesis that touched on a small Islamic sect. That thesis was published as a book in Arabic in Oman. I would also study Arabic and Persian, earn a master’s degree in Middle East Studies, and become a Malone Fellow in Arabic and Islamic studies.
The President of ISNA mentioned as we walked to lunch in Virginia, “Jason, you are a Baptist and a decorated military officer who deeply understands Islam and has Muslim friends, if anyone in America can get up and explain the stereotypes about Muslims, and be believed—it is you.” He also suggested that God had sent me on this mission. While I don’t believe I am on “a mission from God,” I do believe that I have gained the credentials to stand on a platform of anti-bigotry and to help people work through some very long-held misperceptions of their fellow humans.
It has been over six years since I stood up for the first time to help Americans decipher a religion most know nothing about. I am still leading dialogues, and teaching courses at college level about Islam. Covid19 has slowed my in-person appearances, but this can still be done in the virtual world. The important lessons I have learned about inter-religious dialogue have been helpful to those in the political world of DC seeking more bipartisan activities, so I am sharing what I have discovered. The lessons I’ve learned have been helpful to our local community leaders as they have faced divisive discussions about race relations in America this year. I am glad my accidental journey has been of use.
This is not the non-profit calling I planned to start as I left the Army after 23 years in uniform. This is however a rewarding mission, and one I am humbled to have stumbled into. The first step to honest dialogue is getting people with differing opinions in the same room. The second step is having an honest broker leader the discussion. My motto after all this time is the short phrase, I inscribe in all my autographed books, “education and tolerance.” I can think of no other two concepts that can help our nation become more united.
Jason Criss Howk is an interfaith leader, writer, and Islamic studies professor. During his 23-year military career he was an infantry and sapper paratrooper and a South Asia Foreign Area Officer (FAO). He conducted defense, diplomacy, intelligence and education missions across four continents. Jason is an award-winning writer, photographer, and painter—he plays guitar poorly and lives with his wife Michelle.
#Islam #Muslim #education and #tolerance #wjta #avftn