SHAFAQNA – As per recent reports, there are an estimated 5,900 U.S. service members in the military today who self-identify as Muslims, making up 0.27 percent of both the reserve and active components of the military. Therefore, in most cases, Muslim servicemen find themselves being single digit representatives of their religion in their various platoons, left alone to answer basic queries regarding Islam.
Marine reservist 1st Sgt. Jamal Baadani, 45, explains that before 9/11, being Muslim in the military was not an issue at all. However, since the attack, Islamophobia in the military and the wider U.S. spiked, creating a major divide. This has only been made worse over the years and particularly this year after the Islamic State attacks in San Bernardino and Paris. The experiences of Muslim soldiers who joined after 9/11 have however been pretty different. For Ahmed Shama, he experienced quite a notable amount of discrimination and alienation. At some point, he reports that a drill instructor referred to him as ‘al-Qaida terrorist’, and the instructor was later issued a warning.
These levels of Islamophobia have been seen even in other areas, a great example being Guantanamo Bay. A while back, there were reports of soldiers at the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba shredding the Quran. This has further been fueled by rhetoric from Lt. Gen. William Boykin, who was reported to have said radical Islamists hated the U.S. since, “we’re a Christian nation and the enemy is a guy named Satan.” For loyal soldiers like Shama, such statements leave him speechless. In a video published last week by Cut, “On Being Muslim in the US Military,” Muslim veterans are interviewed about their experiences in the military. When asked if he had ever been asked to do something that goes against his faith, one man responded, “Yeah, um, killing. That’s in conflict with my faith. Going against people of my same religion is conflict in my faith.” When asked if Islam is under attack in America, a woman responded “I try not to let people’s negativity absorb into my heart. I try everyday to make sure I go to bed with a clean heart, purified of all negative energy, all negative talk, thoughts, all that.” Another man said “I do not think that Islam is really directly under attack. The more I learn about America, even now, and the more I learn about Americans, the more respect I have for America and Americans. And more respect I have for my even [sic] own religion.”
According to Shadi Hamid, who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, the increased hate was recently confirmed when in the just concluded presidential elections, GOP presidential front-runner and current president-elect Donald Trump called for the barring Muslims from entering the United States, a stance which surprisingly received a lot of support. Hamid thinks that this hardline response from Republican politicians was as a result of President Obama’s stance on how the Islamic State “had nothing to do with the religion of Islam.” Baadani who is also the president and founder of the Association of Patriotic Arab Americans in Military says that there have however been great strides by Pentagon over time to be inclusive of the Muslim military community. These range from the introduction of Muslim prayer rooms at the military academies followed by invitations for imams to serve in the academies to observation of Islamic holidays like Ramadan Iftar which saw 140 people in attendance at the Pentagon.
These efforts by military leaders have been very deliberate in a bid to attract and keep Muslims and Arab-Americans, a very practical and strategic move particularly due to the ongoing wars in the Middle East. For many non-Muslims, separating extremism from Islam has been a hard concept. If not addressed, this is bound to cause an even greater problem in the years to come.
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