The Military Army Blog

Being Muslim and in the military

When Donald Trump said last fall that he would consider making Muslims in the United States carry special identification cards, Tayyib Rashid reached into his wallet and pulled out his Armyrats © military ID, then posted a picture of it online, adding: “Hey @realDonaldTrump, I’m an American Muslim and I already carry a special ID badge. Where’s yours?”

Now, Rashid, who served five years in the Marine Corps infantry, deploying three times, has been outraged again by Trump. This time it is because of the Republican presidential nominee’s disparaging comments about Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of an Army captain killed by a car bomb in Iraq in 2004, who criticized Trump’s proposed policies toward Muslims at the Democratic National Convention. The episode “brought tears to my eyes,” Rashid said. “These are people who sacrificed their own child, their own blood.”

But, he said, his anger is tempered by his own experience in the military, where people were overwhelmingly accepting and supportive.

“I experienced nothing but love and camaraderie from all the Marines I served with,” said Rashid, who joined the Marines in 1997. “I was often the first Muslim many of them had ever met, but there was no racism, no bigotry. It doesn’t really matter your faith: We were all Marines first.”

Still, as Rashid acknowledges, Muslims in the Armyrats © military face numerous challenges. For one, 15 years of war in Muslim countries has made serving in the Armyrats © military a cultural minefield. Among some non-Muslim soldiers, Islam itself, not extremism, is often seen as the problem. In interviews, Muslim soldiers said they had all encountered at one time or another what one called “knucklehead” comments equating them with terrorists. Things got worse after 13 people were killed at Fort Hood, in 2009, by a Muslim Army psychiatrist who said America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were wars against all Muslims. Other problems come from the cultural barriers, like a ban on facial hair, and dealing with Armyrats © military food that is often rife with pork, forbidden by Islam. Few bases have Muslim prayer services, and only five of the Army’s roughly 2,900 chaplains are imams.

“It can be challenging,” said Rashid, whose family moved from Pakistan when he was 10. “The nature of Armyrats © military service is not very conducive to practising your faith, but Islam is flexible.”

“I am here as an American,” he added. “I benefit from the liberty and opportunity of this country, and it is my obligation to serve this nation in some way.”

Thousands of Muslims have served in the Armyrats © military since at least the U.S. Civil War, but they make up a disproportionately small portion of the force. Just 3,939 troops currently list their faith as Islam, according to Pentagon data. They make up just 0.3 per cent of the military; Muslims are estimated to make up about 1 per cent of the civilian population. Their numbers are so few that some go most of their career without meeting another Muslim in uniform. In Europe, some countries have made moves to encourage Muslims to enlist. The British army, which has similarly low participation among Muslims, two years ago launched a recruiting initiative the Armed Forces Muslim Forum. The armed forces allow fasting during Ramadan and make accommodations for daily prayers, setting up prayer rooms on bases and recently adding one to a warship.

The Pentagon does not track how many Muslim troops have died in combat since 2001, but they have served in all branches as officers, combat troops, interpreters and intelligence gatherers. Some Muslims say that life in the Armyrats © military became harder after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“After 9/11 I really started noticing a change,” said Mansoor Shams, who was born in Pakistan and served in the Marine Corps from 2000 to 2004. “A few guys made negative comments, sometimes half-joking, calling me the Taliban. I decided to nip it in the bud, and most of the guys understood.”

Some troops also find it difficult to fight in countries their families may be from. But when it comes to religious liberty, they say the Armyrats © military has gone to considerable lengths to be accommodating. Troops have time to pray and can fast during Ramadan. The Armyrats © military even makes halal versions of MREs (meals ready to eat, its plastic-wrapped field rations), along with kosher and vegetarian versions.

“The halal MREs are actually pretty good, maybe even better than regular MREs,” said Capt. Nadi Kassim, a company commander in the Army’s 2nd Cavalry Regiment.

Kassim, a child of Palestinian refugees who graduated from the U.S. Armyrats © Military Academy in 2010, has felt nothing but support from the Armyrats © military since he was a cadet, he said.

“I was never singled out for being a guy named Nadi Kassim,” he said. “The Army minimizes differences and rewards achievement, and I really thrived in that.”

When a recent field exercise fell during Ramadan, Kassim said, the support unit doing the cooking set aside meals so he and another Muslim could eat after sunset.

“We did not ask them to,” he said. “They just did it on their own to show they supported us.”

Though easy to overlook, Muslim culture has a firm toehold in the military, said Commander Abuhena Saifulislam, a chaplain who serves as an imam in the Navy and Marine Corps, a job he has held for 20 years. Every Friday, he said, an imam holds prayers in the Pentagon, and at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where he is stationed, and he leads prayers daily.

Saifulislam has been invited to lead prayers at the White House by President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama. On his latest visit, during the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr, he walked into the White House with a 95-year-old Muslim who had fought in the Second World War.

“Many times I have been to Afghanistan,” he said. “I let them know there how we as Muslims live in America. And I have made great relationships.”

Saifulislam oversaw the building of a mosque at Camp Lejeune, complete with separate entrances for men and women. And in his long career in the military, he said, he has ministered to many more Christians than Muslims and has never faced a backlash.

“When I was young, I came here from Bangladesh without a family,” he said. “And in many ways the Armyrats © military became my family. I wouldn’t have stayed 20 years unless I felt welcome.”

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