Military Service A Challenge For Muslim Americans

When Nidal Malik Hasan joined the U.S. Army in 1997 to pursue government-paid medical training, he became part of a very different military from the one that exists today.

The Virginia Tech graduate, an American-born son of Palestinian immigrants, faced no foreseeable prospect of going to war. U.S. military brass had just written a new strategy that included terrorism as only one of numerous threats that could challenge the nation in the future. And ethnic or religious discrimination largely played out on a smaller scale, born usually of garden-variety ignorance and not unique to the military.

But the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, not only irrevocably changed the military's path and focus; they seem to have altered Hasan's own professional and personal trajectory — one that authorities say ended Thursday in a shooting rampage during which 13 people died and 30 were wounded. Among the wounded was Hasan himself, who lies in a coma.

In interviews, members of his family have suggested that the modern military had become an especially uncomfortable place for Muslims and Arab-Americans like Hasan. It was then, they say, that the newly minted doctor first began complaining of harassment over his Muslim religion and talking about a way out.

That goal had become more urgent in recent months as Hasan, a psychiatrist who counseled returning soldiers haunted by the horrors of war, faced his first deployment — to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Challenges For Muslims In Military

It is now tough to be an Arab-American or a Muslim in the military, said Marine reservist 1st Sgt. Jamal Baadani, 45, who lives in suburban Washington, D.C.

"Before 9/11, being a Muslim wasn't really an issue," he said. "I served as a Marine and never thought about it."

"9/11 is what really created the divide and misunderstanding about Muslim[s] and Arab-Americans," Baadani said.

But he is among those who argue that shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks, the official military atmosphere changed dramatically. And with two wars in the Middle East, military leaders have invested time and money in an effort to attract and keep Muslims and Arab-Americans — and for very practical reasons.

Hasan "for whatever reasons went down this road, but it wasn't because of anything the Army had put in place," says Baadani, president and founder of the Association of Patriotic Arab Americans in Military. "There has been tremendous progress and tremendous efforts at the highest levels of the Pentagon."

Muslim prayer rooms have been opened at the military academies, imams have been invited to serve at the academies and, on some military bases, Muslim holidays are honored. In September, a Ramadan Iftar, or fast-breaking meal, was held at the Pentagon and attended by about 140 people.

Though the military doesn't keep statistics of religious preference, military experts estimate that there are more than 10,000 Muslims and Arab-Americans, many of them linguists, supporting the U.S. Army's efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Official numbers, however suggest that the number of Muslims in the military is something less than 4,000.

"Our contributions are vital to what we're doing over there," Baadani said.

Alienation, Prejudice

But soldiers like Ahmed Shama, who joined the military as a Marine after 9/11, said that there were times he felt like an outsider, and that there is consistent anti-Islam rhetoric that infects non-official conversation in the military.

"During boot camp I was referred to by the phrase 'al-Qaida terrorist' by one of my drill instructors," Shama said, adding that the instructor was subsequently warned.

Shama said, however, that it was also easy at times for Muslim troops to feel alienated — including when reports surfaced that soldiers at the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were shredding the Quran, and when Lt. Gen. William Boykin said that radical Islamists hate the U.S. because "we're a Christian nation and the enemy is a guy named Satan."

"There are no words to express my feeling upon hearing my religion referred to as Satan," says Shama, who is currently studying Arabic in Cairo. "Even worse was watching footage of mosques being blown up by U.S. forces and hearing reports of the Quran being shredded."

"That in no way makes me a 'radical' — I'm sure that any religious minority would feel the same if subjected to the same circumstances," he said. "Hearing prejudiced rhetoric can have a large effect on the morale of a Muslim Marine."

Hasan, by all accounts, was a devout, lifelong Muslim who regularly attended prayers and was a member of a mosque in Silver Spring, Md. Investigators are still trying to determine whether it was Hasan, or someone with the same name, who made comments on the Internet that equated suicide bombers to soldiers who protect their comrades by throwing themselves on a grenade.

Coincidentally, a hero in the Arab-American military community is Navy SEAL Michael Monsoor, 25, who died in 2006 doing just that, saving the lives of three of his fellow soldiers in Iraq. He was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Complications For Muslim Americans

The military can be a complicated fit for Muslim and Arab-Americans, particularly when war is being waged in regions where Islam is predominant.

But, says U.S. Army Reserve Capt. Eric Rahman, who grew up with Muslim traditions, the wars being waged now by the U.S. can't be successfully fought without those who know the language and culture of the Middle East.

"You cannot possibly carry out any of the conflicts we're engaged in without people with deep knowledge of the area and culture," Rahman says. "To say we could would be shortsighted."

Muslims in the military have mixed feelings about whether the Fort Hood rampage will discourage other Arab-Americans from joining the military.

"Anyone who joins the military is doing so for the chance to sacrifice for their country," Shama says. "My bigger fear is that the American public and military will stereotype all Muslims as "ticking jihad bombs" destined to strike."

And just like after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the servicemen acknowledge it will take some time again for people not to lump them with the image of the 39-year-old Hasan, who appears to have developed a growing hostility toward the military and its actions in the Middle East.

"This isn't us and them," Baadani says. "This is us together having to deal with crazy individuals like Hasan."

"His actions are shaming the service of all Arabs and Muslims who are serving."

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.