For Muslims, Military Service Sometimes Met With Hostility - Part II

As the days go by, investigators are forming a clearer picture of Army Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, the 39-year-old psychiatrist stationed at Ft. Hood in Texas, who allegedly went on shooting spree last Thursday, killing 12 and injury dozens. Reports so far tell of an alienated man who, according to at least one source, was mocked by some associates for his religious devotion to Islam. James Yee, a former Army captain and former Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo Bay prison, shares his observations on Muslim-Americans in the U.S. Military.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

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

Later in the program, we'll hear about those murders in Cleveland. We'll ask whether the man accused of killing all those women got away with it all that time in part because of who his targets were. We'll have that conversation in a few minutes.

But first, another perspective on serving as a Muslim in the military from a man with a unique perspective. James Yee is a former Army captain who served as the Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo Bay prison where he was a spiritual advisor to the detainees. He's been vocal about what he says was religious persecution directed against Muslim detainees. He was jailed for 76 days on charges of espionage and allegedly conspiring with the detainees at Guantanamo.

Those charges were thrown out. He received an honorable discharge and a commendation medal. He joins us by phone today from Mumbai, India, where he's participating in an Islamic conference entitled Peace: The Solution for Humanity. Captain Yee, thank you so much for joining us once again.

Mr. JAMES YEE (Former Muslim Chaplain, U.S. Army): Oh, it's my pleasure, always.

MARTIN: And I wanted to ask, sir, your younger brother is a U.S. Army captain. He's a doctor at the Medical Center at Fort Hood. His wife is a doctor employed on the base. I think the first thing we all want to know is are they okay?

Mr. YEE: By the grace of God, yes, they're okay.

MARTIN: What was your reaction when you heard about the shooting?

Mr. YEE: My immediate reaction was there would be immediate backlash again against the American-Muslim community here in the United States.

MARTIN: Why do you think that?

Mr. YEE: Well, it seems that every time there's an incident where a Muslim or a Muslim-American is involved, the rhetoric somehow blames Islam or blames my faith for some type of criminal action.

MARTIN: Do you believe this is a general problem in the U.S. or do you think it's a particular problem in the military?

Mr. YEE: Oh, I think it's widespread throughout the United States. In general, there's still, in my view a, what we call Islamophobia, the fear of Islam and the fear of Muslims and of suspicion that Muslims are somehow inclined to violence or criminal action. But I would say, this is more significant in the military when you're patriotically serving the United States as a member of the U.S. Armed Forces.

MARTIN: I wanted to play a clip from a conversation we had back in January when we talked to you. At that time, we were talking about the president's plan to close Guantanamo Bay. And I was asking you about the circumstances around your prosecution. And you described that you felt that there was this sort of a visceral reaction to the practice of your faith. I just want to play a short clip of what you said.

(Soundbite of archived interview)

Mr. YEE: No doubt my religion played a role among other factors. I certainly believe that when people saw me pray, bowing and prostrating in the form of the Islamic prayer, when they saw me read the Quran in the classical Arabic language, they recognize that this is how the prisoners pray and read the holy Quran. And since we were all told that these were alleged terrorists, people made that connection saying, well, if I'm praying and reading the Quran in the same way, I must be one of them also.

MARTIN: I have to ask, did you always feel that way or did you only start to feel that way after you began serving as chaplain at Guantanamo?

Mr. YEE: I did sometimes feel that when people saw me pray or read the Quran in the Arabic language, it might seem something different or strange to someone. But to the extent that I would be automatically considered a terrorist or someone associated with terrorists, no, I didn't experience that. And I think one of the reasons is because I'm someone who's rather confident in my ability to communicate who I am, the type of person I am, and a person who's confident in actually representing my faith.

MARTIN: The Washington Post - of course, as many news organizations are reporting aggressively on what happened at Fort Hood - and they quote anonymously a neighbor of the alleged shooter, and the neighbor reports, regretfully now, that everybody would tease or ridicule Major Hasan when he was wearing his traditional attire, which he would wear obviously off duty. And I wonder, did you ever have an experience like that?

Mr. YEE: Not directly, but I met many soldiers who did experience that. And actually from serving in the military, as particularly a Muslim chaplain, I never met a Muslim service member who didn't at some time or other face some sort of harassment or being made fun of for being a Muslim American.

MARTIN: What do you think would improve conditions or understanding of practices, faith practices and a sense of acceptance for other people and their beliefs?

Mr. YEE: One thing is to look at religion or spirituality as something positive. And surely, in this situation, we see Major Hasan's Islamic faith as being characterized as something negative. I've read reports that, you know, former supervisors of this individual had a, you know, would say that he had a strong work ethic, that he was an asset to that particular department. You know, I read a report about another neighbor who actually characterized him as being forgiving when someone came and tore up his I Love Allah bumper sticker and vandalized his car. I would say that those types of characteristics came from his religion - came from being a Muslim.

MARTIN: In fairness, though, it has to be said that there are mixed reviews of his performance. There are some people who thought he was proselytizing unduly in the course of his work, that he had a very prickly personality. There are a number of varied reports about his performance. I just feel the need, in the interest of fairness, I need to point that out.

Finally, sir, I have to mention that there are a number of conservative commentators in the wake of the incident last week that suggest that there might need to be a special screening process for Muslims entering the military, because they are suggesting that perhaps some other soldiers and service members might feel uncomfortable in the wake of this incident, worrying that people of a different faith perspective might have views at odds with their service. What would be your response to that?

Mr. YEE: To me this would be a blatant case of religious profiling and discrimination, characterizing a certain group based on someone's particular faith. I think that goes beyond what our nation stands for, transgressing, you know, a fundamental value of diversity which, you know, I'm proud the United States upholds.

MARTIN: James Yee is a former Army captain. He served as the Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo Bay prison where he was a spiritual advisor to the detainees. We reached him in Mumbai, India where he's participating in a conference entitled �Peace: The Solution for Humanity.� I thank you again for speaking with us and I'm very glad that your family members are well.

Mr. YEE: It's been a pleasure.

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