In a quiet suburb of Istanbul, between streets lined with trees and tidy residential compounds, sits a sectarian institution of higher education. Notae’hw is small by American standards, but academically well regarded to the point of being called an “Islamic Harvard.” The school fuses conservative Islam with higher learning in fields ranging from liberal arts to the social and hard sciences. Students, both male and female, wear mostly modern fashions, though often supplemented with symbols of modesty and faith. Their influence on the town itself is also modest, save perhaps a greater than average presence of mosques, whose minarets grace many corners, and an abundance of religious paraphernalia in local shops.
Private religious schools like this one are common across the region, but Turkey’s secular constitution prevents public funds from supporting madrassas or other sectarian education. So investigators, following up on a complaint from within the military, were dismayed to learn this week that a publically-funded campus-based officer recruitment program is unabashedly training jihadis and has been doing so for years, using seasoned officers in uniform to lead the effort.
“For Allah and his Caliphate!” proclaim written materials that enthusiastically describe how the program turns out military leaders in the style of past saints and martyrs. The phrase is the motto of a young “battalion” of student jihadis, centered at Notaehw but drawing from seven Islamic seminaries or colleges in the area. The 140 recruits in the training program hear from Islamist leaders, one of whom gave a 2012 speech to Turkish officers in which he enumerated his “first principles as a Muslim combat leader.” These included, “Understand who we are serving: (The Almighty Warrior Shahryar [king]!)” He added that “Your soldiers are spiritual beings –They want to know that their leader is a Muslim . . . That is why Allah selected you to be their leader.”
Nonsectarian watchdogs seeking to safeguard Turkey’s secular democracy have raised the alarm, claiming that the program violates the constitution.
I wrote that name backwards. The institution is actually Wheaton, my old alma mater in fact, and it sits in a suburb not of Istanbul but Chicago. The devout young officers in training are being groomed to serve in the army not of Allah but of Christ. The visiting motivational speaker was Steve Banach, whose first principles as a Christian combat leader were delivered at a 2010 Officers’ Christian Fellowship Discipleship Training Breakfast on the topic of, “Christ-Like Leadership in Combat.” (Officers’ Christian Fellowship has been described as “a fundamentalist Christian parachurch ministry whose goal is ‘a spiritually transformed military with ambassadors for Christ in uniform.’”) It has branches associated with most ROTC programs and military academies in the United States, and is particularly integrated with the Wheaton College program.
Chris Rodda, author of Liars for Jesus, has published a detailed expose of the Wheaton College ROTC program, documenting how it boldly and clearly breaches the wall of separation of church and state, including the constitutional edict, “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” (Article VI).
Wheaton proudly advertises the only Christian ROTC program in the country: “There’s Army ROTC. Then There’s Wheaton Army ROTC.” So it would seem.
Rodda first learned of Wheaton’s unique blend of Evangelical fundamentalism and officer training when an officer in the armed forces sent a complaint to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF). He enclosed an internal list of military job openings that included a ROTC assignment stipulating, “must be of the Christian faith.”
For officers returning from combat, placement as an ROTC educator can offer a return to normalcy. But the listing (one of only four similar positions across the country), excluded religious minorities. MRFF President and attorney Mikey Weinstein, who received the complaint, was—to put it politely—outraged:
Wheaton College and its ROTC program seem to earnestly believe that the acronym “ROTC” stands for “Religious Officer Training for Christ.” Wheaton and its fundamentalist Christian ROTC unit are to the United States Constitution what a dog with a full bladder is to a curbside fire hydrant. In MRFF’s nearly 10 years of fighting this precise, illicit version of Christian extremism in the U.S. military, this Wheaton College/ROTC travesty is one of the most disgustingly blatant, appallingly bold, and mercilessly atrocious attacks on the foundational principles of our U.S. Constitution that we have EVER witnessed!
It comes as no surprise to anyone that sectarian institutions across the United States fuse religion with the arts and sciences, seeking to churn out a generation of devout leaders and followers who will ensure a privileged position for Christianity in society. And it comes as no surprise that Evangelical flagship, Wheaton College, is at the forefront of the effort. Back when I attended in the days of my Evangelical youth, the Wheaton sports teams were known as the Crusaders, and the motto adopted by the ROTC battalion, For Allah and his Caliphate, For Christ and his Kingdom, applied to the whole school.
But both mission and motto become more alarming when one realizes that young men and women are being trained to lead our military while believing that their highest obligation in uniform is to serve as emissaries for Christ. And small wonder that once in positions of power they become outraged when accused of church-state boundary violations. Based on the model of their mentors, there’s no such thing.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.
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