Army Gains with Muslim Soldiers May Be Lost

  • Share
  • Read Later
Sardar Ahmad / AFP / Getty

U.S. Army specialist Zia Ulahaq, a Muslim, offers prayers during anti-Taliban operations in the Karky valley in Afghanistan's Zabul province

Less than 1% of America's 1.4 million troops are Muslim — and that number is only the military's best guess, since just 4,000 troops have declared their faith in their service records. By all accounts, the percentage of Muslims who are outstanding, competent or misfit soldiers is proportional to that of every other ethnic group. But that logic is increasingly hard to hear in the aftermath of Major Nidal Hasan's killing spree at Fort Hood in Texas.

While the word was merely whispered in the hours following Hasan's rampage, Senator Joe Lieberman, who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, made it close to explicit on Fox News on Sunday. He didn't call Hasan a terrorist, but Lieberman suggested the psychiatrist became "an Islamic extremist" while in the Army and should have been weeded out of the ranks. Ralph Peters, a retired Army officer representing a not-insignificant strain inside the U.S. military, said in the New York Post that Hasan raised all sorts of red flags and that the Army was too timid to address them. "Political correctness killed those patriotic Americans at Fort Hood as surely as the Islamist gunman did," wrote Peters. "Maj. Hasan will be a hero to Islamist terrorists abroad and their sympathizers here."

Determining whether Hasan's actions were inspired by religious fervor (he reportedly said "Allahu akbar" before opening fire), his exposure to the mental trauma of the soldiers he counseled or other unknown factors may be impossible. Hasan is in intensive care at a San Antonio hospital, breathing without a respirator. But given his mental state, even he may not know what caused him to kill.

At least for now, the Army is more worried about how the world is reacting to Hasan's actions than getting an explanation for them. "I'm concerned that this increased speculation could cause a backlash against some of our Muslim soldiers," General George Casey, the Army's top officer, said on CNN on Sunday. "And I've asked our Army leaders to be on the lookout for that." At least one Muslim Army veteran agrees. "Muslims have been serving for generations in the United States armed forces, and we will continue to serve proudly and with honor," says Abdul-Rashid Abdullah, who served as an Army parachute rigger from 1991 to 1998. Hasan's religion "is immaterial," says Abdullah, deputy director of the American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council.

Since Sept. 11, Muslims in uniform have come under increased scrutiny and tested the ability of the U.S. military to balance its needs with the Islamic beliefs of a small number of its members. While there have been occasional tense moments around questions like "Can the Air Force compel Muslim troops to wear pigskin boots?" or "Should the U.S. stop fighting during the holy month of Ramadan?" the rarity of such cases highlights how smoothly the integration of Muslims into the ranks of the U.S. military has gone. (The answer to both questions, by the way, is no.)

The Army appointed its first Muslim chaplain in 1993, and five years later the Navy opened the U.S. military's first mosque at Norfolk Navy Base in Virginia. The Pentagon is eager for the language skills of Muslims, and has been awarding signing bonuses and expedited citizenship (for the two-thirds of enlistees who are legal aliens) since 2003 to recruits fluent in Arabic, Dari, Farsi, Kurdish and Pashto. (The Army's website, in its typically patriotic but omnisciently weird way, declares these 450 new soldiers – all sent to Afghanistan, Iraq or the Horn of Africa — "100% support the Global War on Terrorism.") During Ramadan, fast-breaking dinners are regularly held at the Pentagon and other military installations. Because Muslims cannot eat or drink from dawn to dusk during their holy month, dining facilities have opened earlier and closed later in war zones to accommodate their beliefs. In short, the right steps have been taken to make Muslims feel as comfortable as possible in a fighting force waging two wars against Islamic fundamentalism.

But now the challenge will be far greater. Lieberman's Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs will try to move forward on an investigation to address Hasan's motives and whether signs of extremism were apparent but ignored. At Fort Hood on Sunday, at least there was one sign that the military's embrace of its Muslim soldiers would continue undeterred. At the 1st Cavalry Memorial Chapel, Colonel Frank Jackson asked the congregation to pray for the 13 dead and 29 wounded in Hasan's rampage. The chaplain also asked the worshippers to pray for Hasan.