For Muslims, Military Service Sometimes Met With Hostility

There are still unanswered questions following the recent shooting spree at the Ft. Hood Army post in Texas, where Maj. Nidal Hasan allegedly opened fire. The tragedy left 12 dead and dozens injured. Hasan's Muslim faith and personal accounts from those who interacted with him place on a spotlight on Muslims serving in the U.S. Military — both their experiences and how they are perceived. Bashir Ahmad, a former a medic in the National Guard, and Haytham Faraj, a criminal defense attorney and former Marinek, discuss instances of openness and hostility for Muslims in Military. sometimes a retired senior defense counsel at Camp Pendelton in California and is currently a criminal defense attorney who focuses on military law.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, just in time for Monday night football, we'll meet the man who represents NFL players, DeMaurice Smith. He's the new executive director of the NFL Players Association. We'll have a newsmakers conversation with him later in the program.

But first, we return to last week's tragedy at Fort Hood. By now, we have a pretty clear picture of how the tragic events unfolded last Thursday. The alleged shooter, Army Major Nidal Hasan, opened fire killing 12 soldiers and one civilian. What investigators are now trying to figure out is why the 39-year-old psychiatrist executed what's believed to be the worst mass shooting ever on a U.S. military facility.

It seems clear that Hasan was a very troubled man. But some are also wondering if his troubles had anything to do with the stress of being Muslim in the U.S. military, which is currently engaged in fighting wars in two Muslim countries. It isn't exactly clear how many Muslims serve in the military. Official figures say under 4,000 out of 1.4 million service members. But some 80,000 service members choose not to claim or disclose a religious affiliation.

We decided to call two men who shared the experience of serving in the military while observing their Muslim faith. Bashir Ahmad is a former medic in the National Guard where he served until April 2008. Also joining us is Haytham Faraj. He's a former Marine, and he eventually retired as senior defense counsel at Camp Pendleton in California. He's currently a criminal defense attorney who focuses on military law. They're both here with me in our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome to you both, thank you for coming.

Mr. BASHIR AHMAD: Thank you.

Mr. HAYTHAM FARAJ (Criminal Defense Lawyer): Thank you.

MARTIN: I just wanted to start by asking each of you about your experience of being Muslim in the military. Was it ever commented upon, Bashir? Was it ever something that was issue for you?

Mr. AHMAD: It was definitely something that was commented on, and it was definitely my characterization of, you know, who I was. It definitely played a large part of me being Muslim as opposed to just being a soldier.

MARTIN: How did that play out and when did you join by the way?

Mr. AHMAD: I joined in 2002. And a lot of it was just through soldiers, just ignorance of the Islamic belief. And I think before September 11, and that was very, very common. You know, I think very few Americans really knew what Islam was about and what a Muslim was, et cetera. And so at that time, it was - a lot of it just who are you because it's still a large mystery. Now�

MARTIN: So you felt it more as curiosity. You didn't feel there was hostility or was there some hostility there?

Mr. AHMAD: I think there was some hostility. I would characterize it more as like mistrust. And as like more of a feeling out process, it's who are you? You know, what do you really think about what's going on right now, you know? Where do your loyalties, like, really lie? So, I don't know if it's a hostility, more as a suspicion. You know, I never had any sort of experience where anyone would directly harass me or make me feel that I was directly threatened, you know, in any sort of way.

MARTIN: Haytham, you joined well before the events of September 11th. As I recall, you joined in 1986.

Mr. FARAJ: That's right.

MARTIN: What was your experience then and did it change over time?

Mr. FARAJ: It only did change over time. I was one of those that decided not to disclose faith. My views on faith have changed over time. But certainly early on, there was a strong identification with the Muslim faith. However, unlike Bashir's experience, I did not face any outright hostility. There were some, some individualized hostility towards me but it wasn't institutional and it certainly wasn't widespread.

Over time, it became a thing of curiosity. So, people would seek me out to discuss things, especially after September 11. By that point, I was an officer, I was a commander, so I was sought out. That's in contrast to what some of the junior military members were going through. And I became someone that frequently was sought out to mentor kids that were coming in and were facing some hostility.

MARTIN: Can I just ask you about that? Because, forgive me, I've never served in the military, all of the men in my family have but I never have. So, I wonder is there a certain amount of hazing because of who you are common to everybody, I mean, because everybody go through that�

Mr. FARAJ: Yeah, of course.

MARTIN: �based on whatever you are.

Mr. FARAJ: I don't want to call it hazing. There's a certain amount of - there's a process that you go through to join this club of macho elite group, and they're going to pick on whatever you have that's different. It may be the way you dress, it may be the way you comb your hair. There are certain soldiers that come from the south or southwest that were kind of cowboy like may have been picked on because of the way they dress, it's just a common thing. There wasn't so much hostility as a process.

MARTIN: But did it change after September 11? Did you feel - and I take your point that you were an officer at that time, so a certain level of deference was due you anyway. But did you feel after September 11th that there was some questioning about your loyalty in a way that you had not experienced before?

Mr. FARAJ: I never experienced that. In fact, some of the senior commanders that knew me or knew of me made sure to call and let me know that they were available or to make sure that I was okay. I did have some Marines seek me out because they were facing hostility. But keep in mind that the more junior you are, the more ignorant you are perhaps about the world and diversity and so on and so. It's almost common at the more junior levels, and a lot less common the more senior you get.

MARTIN: If you are joining us, this is TEL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the experience of being Muslim in the U.S. Military. We're speaking with Haytham Faraj. He's a former Marine. He retired as senior defense counsel at Camp Pendleton in California. We're also with Bashir Ahmad. He is a former medic in the National Guard.

Is there anyway in which being A Muslim in an asset in the military?

Mr. AHMAD: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Bashir?

Mr. AHMAD: In my experience in Iraq and even before going in pre-deployment, the leadership would often ask me to maybe do like a talk to, you know, the rest of our battalion and about what it means to be a Muslim just to kind of give a personal point of view. You know, to have - to bridge that misunderstanding, bridge that gap. And in country - in Iraq, there are a lot of situations that because of my background, I was sort of the kind of bridge between, you know, the American forces and the Iraqi people who, they would see my name or I would speak a little bit Arabic and they could tell, you know, that I was a Muslim and they would immediately kind of like tone down the tensions that'd be going on, you know?

I would often, like, the leadership would always bring me up to the front whenever they're dealing with the Iraqi population just to, you know, cool down, you know, the initial tension that always, you know, happens when you're dealing with, you know, American leadership or American forces and the Iraqi public.

MARTIN: And this was appreciated.

Mr. AHMAD: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: It is understood that your role was appreciated.

Mr. AHMAD: Most definitely.

MARTIN: Did you ever have that experience?

Mr. FARAJ: I certainly think it is asset. It was an asset throughout my career, more being an Arab than an Arab speaking Marine. I want to distinguish, we're talking about hostility to Muslims. I think the hostility is, probably if it exists, is hostility to Arabs. And, of course, there are many Arabs that are Christian and serve in the military. And I'm aware of some Arabs that served in the Marine Corps that felt a little a bit of hostility because of their names.

There is a misconception that every Arab is Muslim, and that's not, of course, it's not true. But to the question you're asking, it's certainly an asset and the military has gone out of its way and going out of its way to recruit more Arab-Americans, more Muslim Arab-Americans, because they do become a bridge to the misunderstanding gap that exists between us and the people in the Middle East.

MARTIN: Do you worry that this terrible situation at Fort Hood will somehow reflect poorly on Muslims, on the whole, in the service? However, whether you wish you felt that way or not, and is there anything you think can be done about that?

Mr. FARAJ: I think commanders - I think the people in charge will not change. I think they will continue to seek out Muslims and Arabs to serve. I think they recognize that they're an asset and not a liability. And I don't believe Major Hasan's faith had anything to do with this, maybe that's a topic for another day. But my personal belief is that it had nothing to do with this. It may have been a final trigger to a lot of built-up anger for personal reasons, but I don't think his faith has anything to do with it.

MARTIN: Bashir?

Mr. AHMAD: Yeah, I agree. I don't think this is going to faze military leadership, because the assets that Muslim soldiers can play. But I do think it's going to have a negative impact amongst the enlisted soldiers, you know, the lower ranks. So�

MARTIN: Did anybody say that - something like that to you? Gee, I'm uncomfortable serving with you now.

Mr. AHMAD: No.

MARTIN: How would your react to that?

Mr. AHMAD: If someone said that to me�

MARTIN: Yeah.

Mr. AHMAD: I mean, just with me, with my personality, you know, all I can say is that I would feel hurt that, you know, that was the situation. And I really don't know what I could say to that, you know. I really don't know. You have all these images in the media. And what can I say when 95 percent of the information that, you know, soldiers are getting has, you know, you can say has negative connotations. And so, what can I say? I'm going to feel saddened about it and I can try to do the best that I can to be a good role model, to be a good soldier, serve as a good example, but what can I do?

MARTIN: President Obama in his weekly radio address, addressed this issue, well, I don't know if I want to say tangential. Let me just play it and get your reaction to it.

Mr. AHMAD: Okay.

President BARACK OBAMA: There are Americans of every race, faith and station. There are Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and nonbelievers. They are descendants of immigrants and immigrants themselves. They reflect the diversity that makes this America. What they share is a patriotism like no other. What they share is a commitment to a country that has been tested and proved worthy. What they share is the same unflinching courage, unblinking compassion and uncommon camaraderie that soldiers and civilians of Fort Hood showed America and showed the world.

MARTIN: So I want to ask each of you in the few minutes that we have left. Is this kind of statement helpful? And is there anything else that you think the civilian or military leadership should do going forward.

Mr. FARAJ: It is helpful. Look, the military is not a monolith. It is broken up into tiny little units called platoons and companies and battalions. And within those companies, tribes form and the tribe members know each other and they love each other. And sometimes, you get a tribe member that has a personality disorder or a problem that has nothing to do with their beliefs, because at essence, essentially, all these guys have one thing in common and that is love for one another. Soldiers go overseas to fight to protect their brothers.

Flag and country are great. Faith is great. But in the end, they share fighting holes and they protect each other for the love they feel for one another. So these members of the tribe - they're Muslims, they're Jews, they're Christians, whatever they are, are a part of it and will remain a part of it. And those soldiers know that. It's what you don't know that becomes problematic. You know, they see someone outside and we begin to believe that that person is different.

Well, military commanders are, I think, are going to handle this well. They're going to continue to make sure that there is unit cohesion, that they're dispelling the fears. And it's a process we're going to go through. It happens every time with every race.

MARTIN: Bashir, final thought?

Mr. AHMAD: I just have to agree. I know, with myself, I mean, being in the military is one of the proudest things that, you know, I've ever done. And going overseas and serving, it's really, like we were saying, you know, country is great. But in the end, it's like on the most basic level, it's about, you know, the guy next to you. And that's where things like religion and race don't matter at all.

MARTIN: Well, as Veterans' Day approaches, let me thank you both for your service.

Mr. FARAJ: Thank you.

MARTIN: Let me thank you both for coming in.

Mr. AHMAD: Thank you.

MARTIN: Bashir Ahmad is former National Guard medic who served in Iraq. He served in the military until April 2008. Haytham Faraj is a retired senior defense counsel at Camp Pendleton in California, a former Marine. Currently, he's a criminal defense attorney who focuses on military law. And as I mentioned, they were both here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Gentlemen, thank you.

Mr. FARAJ: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Just ahead, another perspective from James Yee. He's the former Muslim chaplain at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center.

Mr. JAMES YEE (Former Muslim Chaplain, U.S. Army): I never met a Muslim service member who didn't, at some time or another, experience some sort of harassment for being a Muslim-American.

MARTIN: That conversation is coming up next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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