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Monday, March 4, 2024

Some fear backlash against Muslims in US military

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Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan’s family says he confided in them that he felt harassed as a Muslim in the U.S. military — and wasn’t treated as an American and soldier should be.

He visibly lived his faith, wearing his military uniform to services and a cap and tunic around his apartment complex. But one day, he discovered his “Allah is Love” bumper sticker was ripped up and torn, and his car was keyed. A fellow soldier was charged, and the apartment manager where the two lived said the serviceman had recently returned from Iraq and was upset that Hasan is Muslim.

Authorities don’t know if Hasan’s faith or encounters with other soldiers played any role in the attack at Fort Hood, and a motive is still not clear. They say he jumped atop a desk and began firing on his fellow soldiers, yelling “Allahu akbar!” — a phrase that means “God is great!” in Arabic — as he set off on a rampage that killed 13 and wounded 29 others.

Still, some of the thousands of Muslims in the U.S. military worry that one burst of violence could unravel all of their work to be accepted as loyal, dedicated soldiers, and that their reputation could be another casualty of the attack.

“Just as this guy in Fort Hood doesn’t represent every single Muslim in the world or in this county, the few ignorant or racist people that remain in the military, they are so few and far between, they do not represent the military at large,” said Ashkan Bayatpour, 25, a U.S. Navy veteran and the American-born son of Iranian immigrants.

Army Chief of Staff George Casey said this week he worried about a backlash after the shootings. However, leaders of the American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council predict that any backlash will be limited. Military personnel often have a more sophisticated world view after traveling the globe and working with people from diverse backgrounds, said Abdul-Rashid Abdullah, a U.S. Army veteran who served from 1991 to 1998.

Most importantly, he said, they form strong bonds with their fellow soldiers. In his weekly radio and Internet address, President Barack Obama noted those bonds, too.

“They are Americans of every race, faith and station. They are Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and nonbelievers,” Obama said. “They are descendants of immigrants and immigrants themselves. They reflect the diversity that makes this America. But what they share is a patriotism like no other.”

There is no exact count of Muslims in the military. The Pentagon lists 3,557 Muslims out of 1.4 million U.S. servicemembers, however the figure is likely low because the disclosure is voluntary, military officials said.

The Army trains officers to be sensitive to Muslim culture because the nation is anxious to hand over security responsibilities in Iraq and Afghanistan to local authorities. But when combat troops are trained with war games, the soldiers playing “enemy” are often wearing head scarfs or traditional Muslim caps and knee-length tunics in mock villages or other surroundings with fake roadside bombs and exchanges of “gunfire.”

Bob Jenkins, a spokesman at Fort Campbell in Kentucky, said that the notion of fighting an enemy with commonalities to U.S. servicemembers is not new — and that other soldiers have had to come to terms with that in past conflicts.

“There is really no difference if you get someone who is of Italian heritage in World War II and send them into Italy to fight the people who backed Mussolini,” he said. “There are some things you have to come to grips with.”

The armed services have a clear, well-known policy against discrimination, said Imam Yahya Hendi, a Georgetown University chaplain who has worked for more than a decade with U.S. military personnel. The military requires servicemembers to respect others’ beliefs, and he has found officers take complaints of prejudice very seriously.

He noted that the U.S. military is desperate to recruit American Muslims and make them feel welcome because, like many government agencies, the Armed Services need people with knowledge of Islam, Muslim culture and the Arabic language. Hendi has traveled to military bases nationwide, including several visits to Fort Hood, holding classes for soldiers deploying to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Still, Hendi said policies and sensitivity training can’t stop every snide comment. He said rank-and-file Muslim servicemembers have complained to him of being asked whether “you guys always pray to destroy us,” or “Are you going to do what your people do?'”

Hendi said he has encountered a few people during his trainings who consider the Muslim religion, not extremism, the real threat to national security.

“There are always individuals who don’t want to believe what you’re saying about Muslims or Islam,” he said. “They think you’re evil.”

Bayatpour, who grew up in Mobile, Ala., and served in Iraq, said it was rare to hear offensive comments about his religion from fellow servicemembers. He said he found his presence in the Navy encouraged questions about what Islam teaches, and would often spark conversation about commonalities between Islam and Christianity.

There have been pockets of conflict over religion in the military in recent years with accusations that Christian officers are evangelizing and creating an uncomfortable environment for underlings. However, Bayatpour said no one ever tried to persuade him to convert. The closest anyone came was giving him a copy of the best-selling book “The Purpose-Driven Life.”

Lt. Col. Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad, 57, the U.S. military’s first Muslim chaplain, said he’s experienced little prejudice in the Army because of his religion and has heard of few complaints from other Muslims on base. Off base is worse, he said. He has been delayed at airports and had his luggage searched.

Retired Marine Col. Doug Burpee, 52, who converted to Islam three decades ago to marry a Muslim woman, said fellow Marines were more curious about his religion than upset by it. He does remember Marines of similar rank chiding him, saying things such as, “Burpee’s a traitor. He was a Christian and he’s a Muslim.” But he dismissed the comments as “guy stuff.”

“It is that kind of football banter that goes on,” said Burpee, a business development manager from Glendale, Calif.

Roberts reported from San Antonio and Zoll reported from New York.

Associated Press writers April Castro in Killeen, Texas; Samantha Henry and Brett Zongker in Washington; Katrina Scoggins at Fort Jackson, S.C.; Kevin Maurer in Wilmington, N.C.; and Amy Taxin in Tustin, Calif., contributed to this report.

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