Fanning the flames of ignorance [Commentary]

Recently, I helped found Millennial Maryland, a group that advocates a different vision for both Maryland and the Republican Party. That vision includes an understanding of the wider world, the embrace of civility and the constant pursuit of intellectual knowledge. Allow me to take this moment to underscore why these things matter.

On his blog Monday, Allen West, retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and former Florida GOP congressman, posted a video of Bob Bergdahl, the father of recovered POW and potential deserter Bowe Bergdahl. Responding to the news of his son's release, Mr. Bergdahl stood in the White House Rose Garden and said to the cameras, "I'd like to say to Bowe right now, who's having trouble speaking English, 'bismi-ll¿hi r-ra¿m¿ni r-ra¿¿m.' I am your father, Bowe."


In Arabic, this phrase means, "In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful." In the Muslim world, you will hear it said in many contexts, from ritual prayers to general invocations of blessing to the preparation of halal meat. Though this particular formula is Islamic in derivation, Arabic Christians use variations of the bismillah and refer to God as Allah. For the uninitiated, referring to God as Allah in Arabic is no different than referring to him as God in English or Yahweh in Hebrew. In all three instances, the speaker is referring to the God of Abraham, the common ancestor of Christianity Judaism and Islam.

Knowing this, any reasonable person would have concluded that the elder Mr. Bergdahl, relieved at having his son back, used a phrase of thanksgiving that he knew his son had heard countless times over the past five years. This is, of course, exactly the opposite of Allen West's conclusion. Mr. West claimed that a supposed ex-CIA friend of his had informed him that, "…by uttering these words on the grounds of the [White House], Bergdahl (the father) sanctified the WH and claimed it for Islam. There is no question but POTUS knows this." To this, Mr. West added: "This is not a conspiracy theory, it is truth based on Arabic and Islamic doctrine."


How does this sound any different than a Muslim inciting misunderstanding against a Jew? Does it sound any different than what a Hutu would might against a Tutsi? Mr. West, as a former military officer and congressman, commands a certain amount of respect. So when he makes comments so blatantly false and ignorant, he does the same work as people across the world who cause racial, sectarian and ethnic strife on a daily basis. Allen West has been overseas. He knows that this phrase is thrown around in many different contexts. If he believes it is used to somehow claim buildings by spiritual force, he is sorely mistaken. I expect more out of him as a leader.

Make no mistake. I am no apologist for Bowe Bergdahl. There is potentially credible evidence that he was a troubled young soldier who deserted his unit. In doing so, he may have cost some of my brothers their lives and disrupted operations in a large part of Afghanistan. If an official investigation finds this to be true, he should be tried for desertion and, if found guilty, punished appropriately.

Nor am I an apologist for radical or oppressive Islam. The "culture" that one comes from is not an acceptable excuse for murdering or oppressing women. Nor do I think it is acceptable for modern religions to contribute to anti-Semitism, homophobia, or the embrace of backward modes of criminal punishment. I will fight these things whether in the forum of ideas or on the battlefield, where I previously served as a field artillery officer in the 82nd Airborne Division of the United States Army.

But ignorance and misinformation from U.S. leaders is inexcusable. Allen West's posts are frequently incendiary and irresponsible. I believe in limited government and personal responsibility. I don't believe in creating or inflaming religious tension through inaccuracies. If you are Republican and you support such diatribes, you're not only supporting ignorance, but you're directly contributing to our continuing decline as a political party. Instead, I would encourage you to learn more about Islam, maybe meet a few Muslims (they are everyday folks like you and me), and see how we can make our great country even better — not how we can spread lies and tear it apart.

Joseph Swartz is a founder of Millennial Maryland. His email is

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