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Service members bridge gap between mosque and military

It's never been easy for Muslims in the military, but as their ranks grow the armed forces become more accommodating and families more accepting.

November 12, 2009|Teresa Watanabe and Duke Helfand

Lt. Col. Shareda Hosein, who lives dual lives in Army fatigues and an Islamic head covering, sometimes encounters what she calls "Islam anxiety" among her fellow soldiers, saying they pepper her with direct questions about jihad and Islamic law.

Army Sgt. Ayman Kafel, who served as a military police officer in Iraq before retiring two years ago, had to overcome family objections to his service. Marine Sgt. Souhaib Elkoun, who also served in Iraq, was heckled as a traitor by fellow Arab Americans when he showed up in uniform at a community event.

Even before the shooting rampage that killed 13 at Ft. Hood in Texas last week, allegedly carried out by a Muslim Army major, it was never especially easy to be a Muslim in the U.S. military.

But these and other Muslims in the armed forces say they are proud of that service and of their ability to act as bridges between Islam and U.S. troops. Many, including Elkoun and Kafel, speak Arabic and are often able to serve as cultural and linguistic translators in the U.S. and abroad.

The military has increasingly recognized the key roles Muslim service members can play in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The services have stepped up recruitment of Muslims and Arabs through ads in ethnic media and booths at Islamic forums. They have asked people like Elkoun and Kafel to conduct cultural sensitivity workshops for troops in Iraq. And they have invested in educational initiatives, such as a Web portal offering "cultural readiness" lessons and a documentary project on Islam and other Abrahamic faiths.

"I will say unequivocally that the Department of Defense and services truly value the Muslim or Arab American soldier and . . . are going out on a limb to bring them into the ranks," said Daniel P. McDonald of the Florida-based Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute, which researches diversity and equal opportunity issues and conducts training for the U.S. armed forces.

Of 1.4 million active-duty service members, about 3,500 identify themselves as Muslims, according to military officials. Listing a religious preference is not required.

Standard background checks are performed on all applicants regardless of faith and more detailed inquiries are made on those seeking security clearances, including looking for any possible association with extremist organizations, a military spokesman said. By and large, the Muslim military men and women interviewed said that they have suffered no serious harassment about their faith and that their commanders have tried to accommodate their needs regarding prayer and other religious observances.

Retired Col. Doug Burpee, a Muslim convert who flew helicopters for the Marines for 27 years and completed a seven-month deployment to Afghanistan in 2004, said he encountered good-natured ribbing about his faith, which he would laugh away. Some in his squadron called him "rag head" or joked that he would be rewarded with 70 virgins in heaven if he died in a helicopter accident, but he didn't take it seriously.

When fellow Marines made comments about Muslims waging a holy war against nonbelievers, however, Burpee used the incidents to teach others about his faith.

"Islam is not about any of those things," he recalled telling them. "It's about believing in God. It's about believing what is said in the Koran."

Dawud Salaam, 52, who served in the Army for 20 years before retiring as a master sergeant in Colorado in 2002, said his biggest challenge was pressing for more religious accommodations, such as time for prayer and access to food that didn't contain pork and other forbidden ingredients. Since then, he said, the military has improved religious conditions for Muslim soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen.

Elkoun, a native of Morocco who joined the Marine Corps in 2003 to prove to Americans that "we're not bad people," said his commanders let him work graveyard shifts during the fasting month of Ramadan so he could sleep during the day. In 2005, the service opened a mosque at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia, where he was stationed.

And Jameel Sabree, 46, a recently retired sergeant first class, said that even soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, his fellow soldiers at Ft. Irwin never bothered him when he set up a prayer rug in a parking lot. "They didn't even stop," said Sabree, who acts as an informal adviser to Muslim soldiers at Ft. Hood.

More challenging, he and others said, has been the controversy within the Islamic community about their military service.

Many Muslims oppose U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, seeing it as the latest instance in a decades-long history of destructive meddling in Islamic lands. They argue that it is sinful for Muslims to kill one another.

"There is a stigma about Muslims joining the military, and a fear of retaliation by your families and communities," said Kafel, a Lebanon native who joined the Army National Guard in 2002. "But anyone who lives in this country with these freedoms has to fight for them."

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