“The challenge Islam presents is not going to go away, and our ignorance can only cause us to lose a monumental battle of ideas,” accountant Hugh Iwanicki writes in the 2012 book Shock & Alarm: What It was Really Like at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. Thus along with his coauthor Dave Bailey, Iwanicki’s eye-opening account of his 2008-2009 tour in the American Baghdad embassy seeks to “understand the cultural ocean in which Islamic terrorism swims.”
Saying that the “very essence of Islam is peace,” a presenter screened the film Rumi Returning at Iwanicki’s Presbyterian Church, inciting his interest in Islam. Iwanicki felt a “complete non-sequitur” between the “movie’s utopian message and the realities I read about every day.” However, “no one in the audience was impolite enough to ask.”
Curiosity aroused, Iwanicki embraced in October 2008 an accountant position with the American government in Iraq. Preparation involved a week-long “Crash and Bang” course at a former West Virginia racetrack. Iwanicki received weapons and evasive driving training amidst instructors “shooting at us withvery realistic blanks.” A Special Forces veteran medic instructor was a “genuinely fun guy” until Iwanicki made the “mistake of asking whether he had lost any friends” in Iraq. The “laughter stopped instantly and the instructor stared at me silently for a long time” before replying “in a slow measured voice” with “I have lost many friends over there.”
Iwanicki’s first contact with Muslim society came during an Amman stopover where the majority of women wore veils, a “surprise because my travel book said that Jordan was a secular country.” An Amman restaurant also struck Iwanicki with a “TV bolted to the wall…blaring a program where an imam chanted the Quran in hypnotic tones.” A knowledgeable companion meanwhile told Iwanicki of a friend who “had looked too long at a fully-covered woman in an elevator” whereupon her sheik husband responded with yelling and fist threats.
Leaving the Amman airport for Iraq, Jordanian questioning of a Jewish-American contractor resulted in her racing with luggage toward an American C-17 transport just before takeoff. An Israeli passport stamp from a vacation exposed her to systematic mistreatment. Consequently, most diplomats illegally carry two passports, one with and one without Israeli stamps.
While working in Baghdad’s well-guarded Green Zone with its international staff, Iwanicki discussed an Iraqi-made DVD “training guide on healthy home-life” with an American army officer working on women’s issues. After a period of distribution by the American army, the officer viewed the DVD, finding a “scene where the husband slapped his wife over some perceived offense.” Iraqis in the women’s program argued that “such behavior was a part of their culture” when the shocked Americans withdrew the DVD from distribution. Visiting “the ‘temporary marriage honeymoon hotel in Iraq'” also gave Iwanicki insight into this Shiite Muslim practice.
Middle Eastern “Muslim-Background Believers” or “MBBs,” meanwhile, showed Iwanicki dangers faced by Muslim converts to Christianity in light of Islam’s death penalty against apostasy. “Islamic society allows non-Muslims to exist,” Iwanicki analyzed, “as long as the non-Muslims accept a second-class dhimmi status.” An Iraqi Christian, for example, discussed Christian job market discrimination as an “old boys network with major religious backing.” Previously under Saddam Hussein’s relatively secular dictatorship, though, “everyone was the same. It didn’t matter if you were Christian.”
For Iwanicki “probably the best example of a moderate secular Muslim” was a Turkish woman detailed to Baghdad from America’s Turkish embassy. “[A]ppearing Westernized in all aspects,” this friendly woman did not reject alcohol consumption. Yet references to Christian missionary work in Turkey angered her.
Meanwhile in Baghdad, “terrorists had a distinct pattern of attacks: they launched most of their rockets a few minutes after their prayers.” “Of course none of this implies that any of us associated these attacks with Islam,” Iwanicki scoffed. “If the various sects of Islam can’t even get along with each other,” Iwanicki elaborated, “how can we expect them to get along with us?”
To understand a book “woven deeply into the fabric of life in the Middle East,” Iwanicki purchased a Quran English-translation during Christmas leave in America. “The Quran reads like a collection of scraps pasted together almost at random,” Iwanicki reviewed, “because that’s exactly what it is,” given an ordering according to verse length, not chronology. Iwanicki’s Quran studies reveal a “manual for conquest and control…concealed within its jumbled structure” containing “peaceful-but abrogated-verses that Islamic scholars can repeat to infidels but ignore themselves.”
“Muhammad,” Iwanicki learned likewise, “was a shrewd negotiator and politician.” He “had a knack for deceiving his opponents and maneuvering them into corners where they could only submit or die.” Only these studies could “decode this enigma” of Islam’s “hostile house of mirrors where nothing was what it seemed.”
President Thomas “Jefferson’s motivation for buying a Quran was obvious” to Iwanicki in retrospect. Jefferson “was trying to understand the warlike ideology of an enemy of the United States” while fighting Muslim Barbary Pirates. “Using a Jefferson’s Quran to swear in a U.S. Representative would probably have been regarded by Jefferson as the greatest insult to his legacy that anyone could imagine.” Yet the Muslim Keith Ellison did precisely this.
Islam’s veil of strictures sometimes dropped to reveal to Iwanicki ordinary human beings. A jersey-dressed Saudi girls’ soccer team’s “friendly and normal” appearance surprised Iwanicki on leave with his wife in Jordan. Back in Saudi Arabia the girls would have presented “alien beings swathed in black and accompanied by male guardians.” Muslim women also wore skimpy bikinis at a Jordanian Marriot Hotel pool.
Iwanicki’s travelogue provides a sobering glimpse of Islamic reality surrounding the Green Zone’s culture clashing social scene of sexual promiscuity and free beer, surplus resulting from an army procurement mistake. Readers should take to heart Iwanicki’s close encounters with an Islamic faith whose dangers for adherents and the wider world only continue in Iraq and elsewhere. Having “seen through deceptive happy-talk” about Islam previously unquestioned, Iwanicki offers lessons learned through personal experience.
A version of this piece previously appeared on http://www.religiousfreedomcoalition.org/