2016-06-30
The mind-boggling story of Sergeant Assan (Hassan) Akbar, both an African American and a Muslim, who was taken into custody for allegedly killing a fellow serviceman and seriously injuring fifteen other soldiers with a grenade attack at a 101st Airborne Division brigade command center in Kuwait, caused a jolt of emotions and thoughts to surge through my consciousness like a shot of lightning. The news left me "shocked and awed" by the extent to which this incandescently unrighteous war, opposed by so many from the Pope to Mandela, enters me and will not leave.

I am African American. I am Muslim. I oppose the war. And my little brother is a Marine.

The war is against a country filled with Muslims. I am both a racial and religious minority in America at a time where it is not safe to be either. I am American at a time when Americans are moving targets throughout the world. Akbar and I have a lot in common in that sense. I wondered, at the split second when the news of Akbar's religion was released, would any harm or discrimination come to my brother who left his wife and his daughter behind to loyally defend his country? Would he be treated badly now that a Muslim, and an African American at that, had allegedly committed treason and mutiny against his fellow servicemen and his country?

The day after the war started, when antiwar protests drew more than a thousand students, faculty and staff to walk out of their classes and into Harvard Yard, I could not help but feel like a useless sack of bones that would surely incur God's wrath for not doing more to stop the inevitable while at the same time asking myself, "What more can I do?" That ominous day, I stood on the outskirts of the crowd unable to join in on the chants of, "No war on Iraq! Bill of Rights, take it back!"

"My little brother is a United States Marine!" I wanted to shout as I observed a young Asian-American student weave in and out the crowd with a sign taped to his head that read, "Support the troops, go to class." The urge to say this bubbled in my throat as the self-described "anti-antiwar protestors" shouted, "Go to class, you guys love Saddam." I was saved from having to say anything when a student passing by said, "I used to be in the armed forces and I oppose the war."

Instead, a deluge of conflicting emotions moved me to tears. Here I stood, a descendant of slaves in America, whose "peopleness was fired in the crucible of their American experience," as one esteemed professor eloquently put it recently. At that moment, I felt psychologically transported, like a trauma victim with flashbacks, to the agony and torment of a time I have only known heretofore through the stories of my elders, who will not let me forget. As a child I used to wonder how so many people could have stood by while millions of human beings were entered into chattel slavery in America. Now I can only imagine the innocent Iraqi people wondering how the world can stand by while 2000-pound bombs drop on their country.

I cried not just for the Iraqi civilians and the American troops, who, like my brother, must follow orders at a time when perhaps their consciousness too might be moved to tears. I cried because of the sheer acceptability of injustice by so many and the staunch arrogance in the way it is supported. My own loss of innocence did not start with 9/11, or when the Secret Service and FBI came to my house six days later because I write on Islamic issues, or with the daisy-cutter bombs dropped on Afghanistan, or with the current war in Iraq. "We [African Americans] just got to be free and now all the freedom is gone," I said to my African-American and Muslim friends, in a feeble attempt to lace half-hearted humor with a marker of truth.

Could Assan Akbar, or Hassan as his mother says he spells his name, relate to this? An army spokesman believes he lashed out because of resentment. He is quoted as having objected to U.S. attacks on Muslim countries and had told his family and his friends that he felt racial discrimination in his military career.

As America scrambles to liberate Iraq, we must not forget what it has done to create resentment in the hearts of racial minorities in America. In fact if we cannot forget it, it will serve us better in our treatment of others in times of war. You will be hard pressed to find a large cohort among historically oppressed minorities in America fervently in support of this war. This line of thinking is not an apologia for Akbar if he is guilty--and the Army has stressed that Akbar should be considered innocent until proven guilty. Rather, this is an attempt to understand what type of resentment could incite one to commit such an indisputably heinous act, just as we took the time to understand the lives of the white students who viciously murdered their classmates at Columbine. We often forget to do this when racial minorities commit unspeakable crimes. Akbar is reported to have told his mother, "Mama, when I get over there I have the feeling they are going to arrest me just because of the name that I have carried." Whether Akbar is innocent or guilty, imagine what it is like to live with that fear.

In his opposition to the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King wrote, "If we will make the right choice, we will be able to transform the jangling discord of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. If we will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."

Is justice rolling down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream in America as we attempt to bring justice and righteousness to the "axis of evil?" Shortly before the war began, a young Muslim boy was stabbed multiple times and beaten so badly in an anti-Muslim hate crime that he had to have reconstructive surgery. A few days ago, an explosion rocked the van of a Muslim-American family in Illinois. A Los Angeles man accused of singing about the rape of Muslim women pleaded no contest to a hate-crime charge. These are just a few of the incidents that beg the question, "Where is our beautiful symphony of brotherhood in America?"

Protesting the war does not mean we do not care about our troops. It means we care about them enough to oppose sending them to fight battles that will shed the blood of innocents and likely take their lives as well, or leave them psychologically damaged for life at the horror of it all, in a war that most of the world opposes. Mike Getlin, a Harvard sophomore with a promising military career, who was recently accepted to the Marine Officer Candidate School, told the crowd, "Yesterday, I withdrew my application from the Marine Corps after having asked myself some questions I could not answer."

A mosaic of emotions washed over me at that moment as I thought of my brother and the paradoxical position believing Muslims in the military must be in right now, supporting the war when so many non-Muslims vocally oppose it.

Shortly after 9/11, Chaplain Abdur-Rasheed Muhammad, the most senior Muslim chaplain in the American Armed Forces presented a question to the Fiqh Council of North America, a body of qualified Islamic scholars who live in the United States or Canada, concerning the permissibility of Muslim military personnel within the U.S. Armed Forces to participate as military combatants against Muslims in other countries.

The fatwa, or legal ruling, given in response stated that Muslims should stand together with other Americans to protect their country and its interests, abide by its laws and combat terrorism. "Muslims are part of the American society. Anyone who feels he's fighting in a just war must fight," one scholar stated. Another scholar declared, "If any Muslim serving in the U.S. Armed Forces has a conscientious objection to combat and believes that it is against Islamic principles to fight in any war, then that individual has the right to stand by his or her conscience." However, he points out, "they realize, of course, that they may be administratively separated from the military as a result of their choice." The scholars make it clear that this is only one of many legal opinions and does not stand as an ultimate religious order.

I am not against the U.S. military--I know we need armed forces. But Islamically I am not sure it would be in the best interest of Muslims in America to volunteer to serve. We are enjoined to honor and take seriously the oaths we take, and I cannot be sure that the aggression will be Islamically just.

Moreover, my brother has chosen a path that I do not necessarily agree is in the best interest of African Americans or Muslims. But I respect his right to choose, and I love him for his courage to stand up for what he believes. This is why Islam is so beautiful to me. He represents an Islamic view that it is acceptable for a Muslim to join the fight if he believes it is Islamically just.

I have no doubt that some Muslim servicemen and women who eschew this war will be moved to become conscientious objectors just as the non-Muslim Harvard student was moved to withdraw his application from the Marine Corps. It is a difficult process to apply for conscientious objector status if you are already enlisted, but for Muslims in the military who change their minds about fighting, this is a proper course of action to take-not to resort to treason or mutiny or violence against fellow servicemen, as Sgt. Akbar is alleged to have done. That is dishonorable and unIslamic.

No matter how much war enters me and will not leave, I can never disobey the injunctions of the Qur'an, which teaches, "O ye who believe! Stand firmly for God, as a witness to fair dealing and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is next to piety: and fear God. For God is well-acquainted with all that ye do." [Al-Qur'an 5:08]



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