Patrick Sookhdeo’s Links to UK Military Noted

Ben White draws attention to associations between Patrick Sookhdeo and the British military:

He is a visiting fellow at Cranfield University, “the academic provider and partner to the Defence Academy,” and, at conferences organized by the latter, Sookhdeo has spoken on topics like “theological and psychological drivers of contemporary terrorist violence” (“Countering Insurgency and Terrorism,” Global Defence Forum, March 2008 [PDF]).

In a 2006 Defense Select Committee meeting in the British Parliament, it was revealed that “pre-deployment training” for the purpose of “familiarizing UK soldiers with the culture and conditions” in Afghanistan included “a presentation from Dr. Sookhdeo” as part of “additional higher level training … for commanders” (“Third memorandum from the Ministry of Defense,” Select Committee on Defence).

Sookhdeo’s book Global Jihad features on a 2011 recommended reading list for the Ministry of Defence’s higher command and staff course, and was endorsed by the retired Major General Tim Cross — who had been a commander of British troops in Iraq from 2004 to 2007 — as providing “stunning in-depth analysis” (Higher command and staff course 2011 – reading list,” Ministry of Defence).

The blurb for a book to which Sookhdeo contributed (Toward a Grand Strategy Against Terrorism), describes him as having been a “cultural advisor to British and/or international coalition forces in Iraq and regions of Afghanistan: Basra, Kabul, and Kandahar” between 2007 and 2010. In [a] Family Research Council talk, Sookhdeo himself has claimed that he helped “write the religious engagement strategy” while “out in Kandahar.”*

White draws attention to Sookhdeo’s conspiratorial views about Islam in the west, and his association with the likes of Robert Spencer and ACT! For America.

Sookhdeo runs the Barnabas Fund, which has done much to publicise the plight of persecuted Christians. However, I have seen a troubling disregard for accuracy or fairness in his some of Sookhdeo’s statements: in 2007 I noted how he had seriously misrepresented the content of a 1980 book of essays by Muslim writers in order to whip up fear about Muslims in the UK , and his response to a critical review by White in 2009 of his Global Jihad book was hysterical and unworthy: he claimed that White’s criticisms had somehow put his life at risk (Melanie Phillips also joined the fray).

Sookhdeo and the Barnabas Fund have also produced a booklet, entitled Slippery Slope: The Islamisation of the UK, which has been distributed to churches – last summer, I came across a copy in a small village church in the depths of the English countryside. Unsurprisingly, Sookhdeo works closely with the UK Christian Right group Christian Concern, which promotes his view that the increasing availability of halal meat is a sign of “Islamisation”.

However, it seems to me that this does not therefore mean that Sookhdeo should be excluded from serious discussion: he has a relevant PhD from SOAS, and his writings have received academic recognition (Global Jihad comes with a foreword from the late military historian Richard Holmes). The Global Defence Forum conference included a range of voices, and Sookhdeo’s presentation was soon afterwards followed by a paper from Tariq Ramadan; the reading list discussed above also has a diversity of perspectives.

On the other hand, though, the idea of Sookhdeo receiving an implicit endorsement through an advisory role with decision-makers in the military is not something that I find encouraging. It is interesting to read, however, that despite his own involvement, he disapproves of “the Western military involvement in Muslim countries” as “a form of neo-colonialism and imperialism”.

White also spoke with Sookhdeo about his theological views regarding the place of Islam in God’s purposes (square brackets in original):

He said that the idea of Islam as the “rod of God’s anger” was “developed by the leadership of the Syrian Orthodox Church about 75 years after the death of [the prophet] Muhammad. Faced with the fact that most of the lands that had constituted Christian territory had been lost in the Arab invasions, the church leadership posed the question why this had occurred. Instead of laying the blame on the Muslims and the Arab invasions, they concluded that it was their own fault because they had sinned and gone away from their faith in God by neglecting to be truly Christian in terms of love and compassion, to be humble and not to be motivated by money and power… This is not a negative comment of Islam, but a negative comment on the Church with her intrinsic weaknesses and failures.”

This is somewhat disingenuous: the notion of Islam as the “rod of God’s anger” clearly fits into a long tradition in which disasters are explained as being expressions of God’s chastisement; being placed into a category of calamities is hardly a positive comment. Further, the expression itself is derived from Isaiah 10, where it is applied to Assyria; the Biblical author suggests that being the “rod of God’s anger” has its downside:

“Woe to the Assyrian, the rod of my anger, in whose hand is the club of my wrath!”… When the Lord has finished all his work against Mount Zion and Jerusalem, he will say, “I will punish the king of Assyria for the willful pride of his heart and the haughty look in his eyes… Does the ax raise itself above the person who swings it, or the saw boast against the one who uses it?… Therefore, the Lord, the Lord Almighty, will send a wasting disease upon his sturdy warriors;… The Light of Israel will become a fire… The splendor of his forests and fertile fields it will completely destroy…”

Further discussion of how Christians used the “rod of God’s anger” concept in the context of early Islam can be found in a couple essays in the book Redefining Christian Identity: Cultural Interaction in the Middle East Since the Rise of Islam, edited by J.J. van Ginkel, H.L. Murre-van den Berg, and T.M. van Lint (Leuven: Peeters, 2005).

Vulgarized versions of the general concept can also been seen in contemporary American conservative evangelicalism: post-9/11, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell notoriously suggested that God had allowed the attack to occur (which is quite not the same thing as causing it) because of liberalism in American society; a current American bestseller called The Harbinger claims that American failure to return to religion following the attack means that further disasters will occur. Last year, an anti-gay evangelist named Bradlee Dean suggested that God would “raise up” Muslims to execute gay people because of the USA’s unwillingness to implement less severe anti-gay measures.

UPDATE: Sookhdeo has published his full response to White:

Dear Mr White,

Further to your questions in your email of 10 July:

1. I am no longer an advisor to the Permanent Joint Headquarters, nor do I teach there any more. Currently I am a Visiting Professor at the Defence Academy of the UK and also teach there on the subject of culture and other related issues. I am thankful that in some of the courses I teach I now work closely with a number of Muslim sheikhs and we teach the courses together. Also I have been involved in introducing to the Defence Academy a number of key Muslim leaders, Muslim lecturers and Muslim academics who are now actively involved in teaching. The objective of this has been to get the military establishment to engage directly with the full spectrum of Muslim leadership.

2. Yes, I continue to be a Cultural Advisor to the UK Armed Forces. However, since I am now 65 I do not expect to continue in this much longer and certainly not to be deployed again. (For the same reason, I do not expect to continue as a Visiting Professor at the Defence Academy for much longer.)

The role of a Cultural Advisor is often not understood. What I have to impart to senior officers in the field of culture relates firstly to issues of race. Because almost all our deployments are in non-Western contexts, the issue of race is a very relevant one. As a coloured person I have to help white people to understand the sensitivities around race and culture. In relation to this, I would mention that my first book, published in 1970 and banned in South Africa, was on race. Also during more 25 years of living and working in East London, I was involved in providing training on race awareness to theological students, to those involved in social work, and to the police.

The second aspect of a Cultural Advisor is to ensure that the military understand the environment of the context in which they are working, in particular, the local people, and to enable them to be sensitive to cultural differences. The military realise that during the Iraq invasion of 2003 and the subsequent deployment of forces from the UK, US and other Western countries grave mistakes were made. The key area is how to get senior officers to engage positively with culture to ensure that a population-centric approach is adopted and that the local culture and institutions are taken on board. In order to understand my role here, perhaps it is necessary to understand my views of the past eleven years. Initially I supported the Iraq invasion. As I was one of relatively few in the West who had visited Saddam’s Iraq in the 1990s and seen personally the effects of the human rights abuses directed toward the Kurds and Shias (although not towards the Christian community), I believed strongly he should be removed and replaced with a democratic regime. Like many others, I was also lulled into believing the evidence presented by the US and UK governments relating to weapons of mass destruction, which, as we now know, did not exist. Having discovered this at an early stage, I then argued that the Iraq war was illegal. The effects of that war on the population were horrendous, with anything between 100,000 and 1,000,000 dead or injured (the figure which is often quoted is around 600,000). This can be directly attributed to the failure of those who invaded Iraq to take responsibility for the population. Major mistakes were made. Furthermore, I profoundly believe that some kind of enquiry should be held to establish who is accountable for this illegal war. My other chief concern is that those who benefitted from this war were the neo-cons who had argued for it to take place and who grew rich from it. Some 20 billion dollars is still missing; effectively it has been stolen from the Iraqi people.

Regarding the Afghan war, although I supported the initial invasion of 2001 as having legitimacy in terms of UN sanctions, I severely question ISAF’s involvement to date. It has ill-defined aims and a constantly changing strategy. I was Cultural Advisor in the time of General McChrystal, who very rightly moved ISAF towards a population-centric strategy. He stopped the night raids, minimised the use of drones and thus saw a major diminution of civilian casualties. Under President Obama and General Petraeus there has been a radical reversal of this. I believe that the drone policy both in Pakistan (where some 800 civilians have been killed) and in other countries has questionable legal legitimacy and should be subject to international scrutiny. I believe incursions into other people’s territory must only be done with the sanction of the UN and not pursued to further an individual nation’s will or objectives. I believe that policies that see whole societies wracked with pain and grief, with innocent women and children paying the price and suffering intensely, are morally wrong.

With regard to Libya, whilst it was right to have a no-fly zone in order to stop Gaddafi killing his people, I believe that the UN Security Council guidelines were breached. There was no massacre in Benghazi. It is questionable whether NATO forces should have been used in an attack formation, and certainly NATO, together with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, should not have been involved in arming, training and funding the Libyan rebels. I believe that it is likely that NATO went beyond its brief, and questions need to be raised.

As Cultural Advisor I believe it is my role to flag up these issues, including potential human rights abuses, to get commanders to think about what they are doing and the implications of it, so that they consider not just effects by which they judge success or failure, but also the consequences of their attacks when these have such potentially catastrophic repercussions for innocent civilians. The use by the Israelis of white phosphorus on the Palestinian population is a case in point; I believe that this should be investigated by the international community to see if it was a war crime. Yet in all the instances I have listed, little is being done, either by the media, or by politicians or by anyone else. Therefore no one is being held responsible and brought to book, and it is all too likely that the mistakes of the past will be repeated again. As a non-Westerner it is my job to challenge opinions and to raise issues, although I have no power other than the weight of argument.

The presence of British and Western forces, coupled with their foreign policy decisions, have, I believe, contributed substantially to the growing terrorism emanating from Islamic contexts. I have long argued that the Western military involvement in Muslim countries constitutes a form of neo-colonialism and imperialism and is simply creating new hatreds for the future. It is time that British and American forces left Muslim countries to manage their own affairs in whatever fashion they choose.

I am happy to say that there are now an increasing number of Cultural Advisors who are Muslims, and I can only hope that they will continue to raise these issues as I gradually fade out of these areas.

3. Your third question was about the religious engagement strategy in Kandahar. In order to understand culture, one must recognise the role of religion. In Kandahar, for example, it is difficult, indeed well nigh impossible, to separate the Pushtun from his religion. The first aim of the religious engagement strategy was to bring the religious leaders, i.e. the ulema, the mullahs and others, into the tent so that they could relate directly to the military commanders and the commanders could know their mind, their thinking and their wishes. Secondly, it was to ensure that the military delivered in areas of need. For example, when there were huge power shortages during Ramadan, the strategy was to ensure that power was on at the key periods of the day (early morning and evening) so that people could have a hot meal and be in compliance with the Islamic faith. Likewise commanders were to ensure that dates were available for the breaking of the fast each evening, and we were able to engage the UAE to provide the dates. Meat is essential for the Ramadan evening meal, and the animal has to be alive, so these were sourced from other countries. Moving from Ramadan to the Haj, the strategy advised that it should be ensured that the normal ballot to select Muslim individuals to go on haj can happen, and that those who gained a place through the ballot should have their visas facilitated, should be given safe conduct to the airports and then facilitated again on their return. Other areas of the religious engagement strategy were the building of mosques and madrassas as well as training institutions for the next generation of mullahs and ulemas. These are but a few of the practical areas that were involved in developing a religious engagement strategy. Thankfully the strategy continues to be in place, as the person who replaced me was a Muslim and who has now built on the foundation that I laid.

Developing a religious engagement strategy essentially is to get the military leaders to recognise the existence of the religious leaders so that they will relate to them, to get the religious leaders to outline what they want, and then to get the military leaders to supply wherever it is at all possible. For me this has been immensely rewarding as I have been able to work with some of the most senior Muslim leaders in the south of Afghanistan. I think that another plus has been the linkage made between the Muslim leaders in Afghanistan and the leaders of the British Muslim community; this has led to the Muslim leaders in the UK getting actively involved in Afghanistan and visiting and working with the communities there.

4. Your fourth point concerned the idea of Islam as the rod of God’s anger. This concept did not originate with me but was developed by the leadership of the Syrian Orthodox Church about 75 years after the death of Muhammad. Faced with the fact that most of the lands that had constituted Christian territory had been lost in the Arab invasions, the church leadership posed the question why this had occurred. Instead of laying the blame on the Muslims and the Arab invasions, they concluded that it was their own fault because they had sinned and gone away from their faith in God by neglecting to be truly Christian in terms of love and compassion, to be humble and not to be motivated by money and power. They believed that they were therefore experiencing God’s judgement upon them, that God had chosen to use Islam and the Arabs as his instruments of judgement, and that therefore they had to accept this as being the divine will. The phrase that they used – “the rod of God’s anger” – was taken from the book of Isaiah where in chapter 10, verse 5, it is used with reference to the sins of Israel and how God has taken up another nation to inflict massive judgement and punishment on the nation of Israel. Looking at the situation today, rather than blame Islam for the woes of the Church in the West, the question I have raised is whether, like Israel of old or like the leadership of the Syrian Orthodox Church at the turn of the eighth century, the Church today, because of her divisions, her lack of faithfulness to God, her lack of humility and her obsessions, is now experiencing judgement, a judgement that may see the end of Christianity in Europe. In this respect, could it be that Islam, which is now seen to be the dominant religion that may well replace Christianity in the future, can be seen as God’s instrument? This is not a negative comment of Islam, but a negative comment on the Church with her intrinsic weaknesses and failures.

In conclusion, I profoundly believe in a liberal democratic society that practises full human rights and religious liberty for all. In the early 1990s I worked closely with the late Dr Zaki Badawi in opposing the Serbs’ slaughter of Muslims. Today I equally must work for those minorities who find themselves at the receiving end of extremist ideologies. In seeking to do this, currently work with senior sheikhs from Al-Azhar and elsewhere to bring an end to religious violence Consistency and universal values must prevail in all situations.

I have written at considerable length because, while your questions may be short, some detailed answers are necessary, in particular to convey what it is that I try to impart to the military.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Patrick Sookhdeo

*In this quote, I have corrected Americanised “Defense” spellings in proper names.