This week will recognize the sixth year of Operation Iraqi Freedom. In the coming months, the United States will draw down forces from Iraq and increase our presence in Afghanistan. This operational shift in strategy is significant, though not the only means to win the war against extremist fundamentalism. In addition to this shift, we should consider developing a liberal, monitored and fully funded immigration policy for Iraqi immigrants. Such a broad policy will help us win the war against extremist fundamentalism.
In November 2006, I witnessed an amazing thing. As an Infantry company commander, I visited our company’s Military Transition Team and their counterparts in An Numaniyah, Iraq. This joint force was in the final stages of validating an Iraqi Motorized Transportation Regiment to conduct independent operations. At the same time, one of our company’s platoon leaders had been working diligently to get the proper immigration papers together for 13 Iraqi translators who had been working for us. At the time the U.S. offered few special immigration visas for translators. We thought denial was imminent.
We were with the first translator when he received an e-mail from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The e-mail succinctly stated that our Iraqi friends’ applications had been received. That’s all the note said. We watched as each excited man read his e-mail and was overcome with joy. Tears rolled from their eyes and jubilant smiles erupted from their faces. In a culture where men save face at all costs this rare show of emotion was dramatic.
When the Maine Army National Guard’s B Company 3/172nd Infantry (Mountain) returned from Iraq in spring 2007, we never expected our interpreters would get the chance to come to the United States. Later that year, the Bush administration changed its immigration policy and the number of visas had been dramatically increased. Our interpreters began calling from Iraq to make arrangements to immigrate to Maine.
In the end, 13 Iraqis and their families came to Maine. Since that time, my family, friends and I have learned a lot about Arab culture and Islam. Over the past year through many conversations with my new Iraqi friends, I have become convinced that more should be done to help Iraqis come to the United States.
The Iraqi people are our newest ally in this global campaign to fight extremist fundamentalism. They hate terrorism and what it has done to their country, their culture and their religion. Since coming to the United States, our translators have continued to fight against terrorism in direct and meaningful ways. Several of our interpreters have gone back to Iraq to translate for our government, one is working at a major think tank researching and writing about the minds behind Al-Qaeda, and one enlisted in the United States Army and is translating for the Special Forces. Their commitment to fight for freedom is inspiring.
While some may argue otherwise, religion is at the root of our misunderstanding. Islam is a religion that preaches peace, family values and hard work, not just violence used by extremists to justify crimes. It is one of the fastest-growing religions in the world and we know very little about it. What we do know is negative as extremist fundamentalists have hijacked the world’s opinion of the religion and scarred it. I have come to appreciate the tenets of their religion and respect them. I suspect if the average American met and talked to the average Muslim, they would come to the same conclusions.
My wife and I have learned a lot about our Arab friends including the not-so-astonishing fact that they love their children too. We have formed friendships with two of the families and have learned how much in common we really do have. As parents they worry about their children’s education, their safety, their health and their future. They are pious parents who believe in their religion and want their children to be Muslim, too. They worry that their children are being cheated out of an education because they speak English as a second language and worry that ignorance about who they are will lead to violence.
They talk to their friends and family in Iraq every day. They share stories of the wonders of our great country. They tell of the Americans’ amazing generosity and kindness. These families are our greatest ambassadors to Iraq and no one is doing more to formulate the opinion of the United States then those Iraqis who already live here.
How we handle the immigrant population will serve as a keystone to having solid, normal, mutually supportive relations with Iraq.
A liberal, monitored and fully funded immigration policy toward Iraqi immigrants will help us win the war against extremists. For the past six years, the Iraqis have proved their willingness to die for freedom. By understanding their religion and their culture, we can overcome stereotypes that fog our impressions and prevent us from engaging the Muslim and Arab countries in meaningful ways. In November 2006, I witnessed an amazing thing. I hope to witness it again.
Maj. Darryl W. Lyon is an assistant professor of military science at the University of Maine.