There are up to 15,000 Muslims in the US military, according to the American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council. They make up 1% of the forces on active duty around the world, and they face an unenviable dilemma: Flag or faith?
The constant drumbeat of the “war on terror” has been the rationale that interventionist wars abroad preserve US national security. While the Quran tells American Muslims they should not fight other Muslims, it does concede that they are required to defend themselves if attacked.
In the wake of the 11 September, 2001 attacks on America, while gearing up for war in Afghanistan, Muslim soldiers turned to their spiritual leaders for guidance.
On 11 October , Islamic scholars of the Fiqh Council of North America issued a fatwa that read, “It’s acceptable – God willing – for the Muslim American military personnel to partake in the upcoming battles, against whomever their country decides has perpetrated terrorism against them.”
Though a fatwa is rather a statement of legal opinion than a religious decree, this and other such declarations gave a sheen of respectability to the role of Muslim US soldiers in the war.
They were fighting to defend their country from further attacks by al-Qaida, who were based in Afghanistan, the justification went.
The current situation is not as easy to rationalise. President George Bush has recently, after long equivocation, admitted that Iraq had nothing to do with the 11 September attacks. At a stroke, the Iraq war has become impossible to justify as a war of self defence.
As well as being forced to fight fellow Muslims, they face racism and ignorance among their comrades.
Despite US protestations that the wider “war on terror” is not a war against Islam, the vast majority of about 10,000 civilians killed in the assaults on Afghanistan and Iraq have been Muslims.
The detainees at Camp X-ray in Guantanamo Bay, who have been held without trial for almost two years, are also predominantly Muslim.
As well as being forced to fight fellow Muslims, they face racism and ignorance among their comrades. Three-quarters of respondents to a 1997 Department of Defense study on Armed Forces race relations said they had experienced a racially offensive incident.
Khalil, a reservist with the US National Guard until 1999, claimed in May that his marine commanders discriminated against new Muslim recruits, Columbia News Service reported. He was appointed an Islamic lay leader, a person who conducts religious services for members of the same faith.
However, when he filed complaints against superiors who withheld rations specially prepared for Muslims, and against those he said made racist remarks, his loyalty was questioned and his commanders forced him to step down from his religious post.
“You guys are coming into our countries and you’re going to rape our women and kill our children”
Sergeant Asan Akbar,
Military leaders have realised that this treatment can make Muslim soldiers uncomfortable, which is partly why the recently arrested Chaplain Yee was in his job.
In the decade following the first Gulf War in 1991, the military expanded its chaplaincy programme, increasing from one to 16 the number of chaplains who assist Muslim servicemen, and who educate non-Muslims about the faith.
Other directives were issued, aimed at preventing harassment of US soldiers perceived to be Muslim, or of Middle Eastern descent.
None of this was sufficient to dissolve the wrath of one soldier, whose opening salvoes of the current war could hardly be described as friendly fire. Sergeant Hasan Akbar, a Muslim American paratrooper killed two US officers and wounded 14 others in a grenade attack in Kuwait, as his unit prepared to move into Iraq.
As Akbar was hauled off into custody, he was reported as saying, “You guys are coming into our countries and you’re going to rape our women and kill our children.”
The incident sparked a fierce debate in the American media over whether Muslim soldiers could be trusted to put their allegiance to the star spangled banner before their devotion to their brothers and sisters in Islam.
Servicemen who express their reluctance to make war on fellow Muslims in non-violent ways are also penalised. To qualify for conscientious objector status (and get an honourable discharge), they must prove they oppose all war.
“They must be opposed to any and all war, and not any particular war,” according to Bill Galvin of the Washington-based Centre on Conscience and War. “If someone articulates that this is their objection – that they would have to kill other Muslims – they don’t qualify,” he said.
Conscientious objectors who do not see Iraqi Muslims as their enemies will recall heavyweight champion boxer Muhammad Ali’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War.
“No Vietnamese ever called me nigger,” he said.