Some U.S. military troops are pulling double duty defending their religion in the buildup to America's war on terrorism.
Muslim-American soldiers are fighting off questions about their patriotism, even though they're as appalled by the terrorist attacks as the rest of the country, say Muslim military chaplains and other Islamic leaders. "Muslims serving in the American military are just as American as everyone else, and we ... carry the Army values card just as anyone else would," said James Yee, a West Point graduate and Muslim chaplain at Fort Lewis Army Base in Washington state. "People will come and ask you, 'What does a Muslim believe?'" he said. "I had a soldier tell me about (the need for) a sensitivity class after he was asked how he could be in the military and still be a Muslim."
Like Japanese-Americans who fought for the United States in World War II, Muslim soldiers find themselves in an awkward position since radical Islamic terrorists were linked to the Sept. 11 attacks. There have been a handful of incidents, including a Department of Defense Muslim worker at Tinker Air Force Base in Texas who reported finding her computer vandalized when she returned to her desk.
But in general, military discipline and the need for a diverse, unified force has made the military more accommodating than society as a whole, said Qaseem Uqdah, executive director of the American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council. "These are isolated incidents," Uqdah said. "What we find is the military has zero tolerance. They're not tolerant of a climate where there's bigotry of any sort because we're one unit. You train as a team. ... If it was otherwise, you'd have a force that would not be able to carry out the broad spectrum of missions we've undertaken over the last several years."
That includes the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when about 2,000 Muslim soldiers fought with the U.S. military despite Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's declaration of an Islamic holy war against the West. That conflict raised awareness about believers in Islam serving in the U.S. military, and led to the approval of the first Muslim chaplains in the Army in 1993. Today, there are 15 Muslim chaplains, scattered in each branch of the service.
The Defense Department estimates there are at least 4,000 Muslims in the ranks, although Uqdah believes the number to be much higher around 15,000 because many soldiers decline to state a religious affiliation.
While in hiding, terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, whom U.S. officials say is the main suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks, has called for an Islamic holy war on the United States. In a letter obtained by several news outlets in the Middle East, a writer claiming to be bin Laden seized on President Bush's use of the term "crusade" to describe the counterattack on terrorism and said people in Afghanistan and Pakistan would be prepared to "die defending Islam."
The U.S. military hopes it can dispel the rhetoric by protecting religious diversity within the ranks, said Lt. Col. Cynthia Scott, an Air Force spokeswoman. "There has clearly been an emphasis since the attack on America to understand that Islam has nothing to do with the attack here," she said. Uqdah, who served 21 years as a Marine, said Muslim soldiers have no divided loyalties. "Muslims share the same grief as everyone else and are affected by the attacks as anyone else would be," Uqdah said. "There were Muslims who died in the attacks. There were Muslim doctors and volunteers who were among the first to respond to the attacks."
"I'd hope they'd be more understanding of Islam as a religion," he said. "Surely, something like this turns back a lot of progress."