SHAFAQNA – Private Aaron Robinson has a problem. The Cedar Rapids, Iowa, native joined the army reserves in 2002 and then converted to Islam while he was stationed at Ft. Riley in Kansas. Robinson was sent to Iraq for eight months and he’s seeking a discharge before he’s called back.
“Had I been a Muslim first, I probably wouldn’t have joined the military,” Robinson, 25, says. “If I’m going to die for something it better be just. As a Muslim and a soldier I have to do what is right, I’m going to be judged for whatever I do.”
According to the latest statistics from the Pentagon, Robinson is one of approximately 4,700 active duty and reserve soldiers who identify themselves as Muslim. All four branches of the military have had Muslim soldiers — male and female — serving in their ranks since the Second World War. Over the years a number of these Muslim soldiers have come from Iowa.
Military service is important to the Islamic community of Cedar Rapids. The Muslim community in Eastern Iowa began in the late 1800s when Lebanese immigrants, fleeing conflict in the Middle East, settled here and prospered. In 1934 they built the first mosque in North America, sent their children to school and into the military.
During World War II 16 Muslim men from Iowa — fathers, sons, and brothers — left to defend their country. Only 14 returned. In the current military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, 20 soldiers from this community have been sent to the Middle East to fight with and against other Muslims.
Aaron Robinson is one of these Muslim soldiers. Growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he was raised as a Methodist. He went to church with his family every Sunday but never found a home in traditional Christianity. He found that place in Islam and his conversion came quickly.
“When Allah wants to make anything easy for you, it will happen no matter what,” Robinson says.
He joined the military to provide support for a child his then nineteen-year-old girlfriend was carrying. The relationship soon ended and Robinson was sent to Iraq before the birth of the child. He says the difficult circumstances surrounding the birth of the child and the strained relations with his girlfriend and her parents, led to him becoming a Muslim. Robinson has never seen his child and he believes this is the will of Allah.
“Sometimes Allah keeps you from the thing you desire the most,” he says.
In Iraq he was the only Muslim in his unit and he found that his new belief system was troubling for some of his fellow soldiers. He remembers talking with a soldier named Hatcher whose firm belief in Catholicism matched his own in Islam.
“He actually started crying one time because he literally thought I was going to hell,” says Robinson.
American Muslim soldiers, like Private Robinson, have experienced increased scrutiny and suspicion following some high-profile arrests of radicalized military personnel in recent years.
In 2003 Sergeant Asan Akbar rolled a grenade into the tents of senior officers in Kuwait. Akbar then shot the soldiers as they tried to escape. 14 soldiers were injured and a major and a captain died. Another incident involved a Muslim cleric and Navy Reserves mechanic named Semi Osman who was arrested as part of an investigation into a terrorist training camp in Oregon.
But Robinson, like the majority of Muslims in the military, has never contemplated violence against his fellow soldiers.
“I love my unit,” he says. “There’s no way I’d go back to Iraq without them.”
Devotion to his unit aside, Private Robinson says he won’t return to Iraq and participate in combat against fellow Muslims. Even if it means time spent in jail.
“Being a Muslim you have to evaluate what it is you’re doing something for and if it’s not for Allah, you shouldn’t be doing it,” he said, pausing for emphasis.
Robinson’s struggle as a Muslim in the military is not new. 60 years ago another Muslim soldier from Cedar Rapids, Abdullah Igram returned home after serving with the Army in the Philippines. The 26-year-old staff sergeant came home to work in the grocery store his Lebanese parents, Hassan and Fatima, had opened on the southeast side of Cedar Rapids.
At that time, Christian and Jewish soldiers had their religions clearly indicated on their dog tags for easier identification in case they were injured or killed. Many Muslim soldiers, in contrast received dog tags with an ‘X,’ indicating ‘no religion.’
According to his widow Betty, when Igram returned he was on a mission. “He vowed that future Muslim soldier’s would be able to have an “M” or an “I” for Islam on their tags,” she says.
A soldier’s final connection to his family and his religion is through his dog tag. If Igram had been killed in battle he could have been laid to rest as an atheist. He would not have been buried in the Muslim National Cemetery in Cedar Rapids, where all the graves face toward Mecca.
In 1953, Igram wrote to President Eisenhower. His letter stated that, “Thousands of men of my faith have served to protect the principle of freedom of faith and many have given their life and had to be contented to have a ‘P’ [for Protestant],’C’ [for Catholic], or ‘J’ [for Jewish] on their dog tag.”
Eisenhower did not grant Igram’s request. His letter, however, highlighted inequality in the military — a particular concern of the Eisenhower administration. Eventually, the U.S. Department of Defense changed its policy.
Today, Muslim soldiers are able to designate their religion on their dog tags. Major Tarik Beloach of Cedar Rapids, a member of the Army National Guard is one such Muslim soldier. Beloach, 45, was stationed in Afghanistan for a year staring in July 2005. Like Igram, Beloach is the son of Muslim immigrants. His father, Mohammed Beloach, came to Cedar Rapids from Pakistan in 1957. Tarik, his mother, and older sisters followed ten years later. Mohammed Beloach was one of the city’s first foreign-born mechanics. He was known to be able to fix all cars foreign or domestic. He could neither read nor write in English so he relied on his customers to make out their own bills.
Beloach joined the military out of a desire to work hard and prove himself. His father wanted him to go to college but after an unsuccessful attempt in 1981 he left to join the Air Force. He joined National Guard in 1990 and rose to the rank of major.
Tarik’s leadership was put to the test when he was stationed in a remote area of Afghanistan in 2005. As the only Muslim leader in the camp he was called upon to build a prayer area and arrange the evening Tarawih prayers during the month of Ramadan. It took a while for the locals to accept Beloach as a fellow Muslim.
“The Afghan soldiers were a little skeptical initially, but we developed a bond,” Beloach said. “It helped my relationship with the Afghan soldiers, knowing that they had an [American] Muslim soldier amongst their ranks. They would say, ‘Major Beloach: Good Muslim, Great American.”
His fellow soldiers were amazed at Beloach’s ability to build bridges with the Afghan locals. For Master Sergeant Dan Edwards of Des Moines, Beloach’s involvement in these services was particularly memorable.
“Watching him pray alongside the Afghan soldiers was one of the most positive memories of my year in Afghanistan,” Edwards remembers.
Training the Afghan soldiers made Beloach feel like he was making a difference and helped him overcome most of the concerns he had about the war. But he can understand how other Muslim soldiers like Aaron Robinson might feel conflicted fighting against fellow Muslims.
“War is not pretty, there are some bad things that result from war,” Beloach says. “We do enjoy the things we have in this country and we’re prepared to fight for them.”