With long and seemingly endless conflicts across the Middle East and North Africa, the United States Armed Forces is constantly struggling to meet recruitment targets for its wars. One group that is greatly underrepresented in our armed forces is Muslim Americans; fewer than 10,000 troops list their faith as Islam, accounting for just 0.3 percent of personnel. This is despite large and active recruitment drives to hire Muslims – particularly Arab Americans – to serve as intelligence officers, translators and in other key roles in the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Muslims are among the fastest growing minority groups in the United States, their numbers increasing from 2.35 million in 2007 to 3.45 million in 2017, around 1.1 percent of the total U.S. population. Yet, if the military genuinely wishes to recruit more Muslims, it has been slow to accommodate their needs. Very few bases have Islamic prayer services, and only five of the Army’s roughly 2,900 chaplains are imams. For decades, Muslim soldiers were forced to shave their beards and made to eat meals containing non-Halal meat and even pork, although this has begun to change.
However, there is more to the question of why so few Muslims serve in the military than simply a lack of tolerance. There has, for a long time been a strong strain of anti-war, anti-imperialist sentiment within American Islam, as Dawud Walid, Executive Director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, explained to MintPress News.
If you go back to the Nation of Islam’s days, which includes Muhammad Ali resisting the draft, many Muslims have looked at the interventions of the American military abroad as being immoral and conflicting with the teachings of peace and justice within Islam. So there is a long tradition of African-American Muslims in particular being skeptical of how America exerts its military strength abroad,” he said.
The majority of Americans do not know even a single Muslim, according to a survey by Pew Research. However, the events of one day – September 11, 2001 – put Islam on the national agenda like no other. Despite the fact that the vast majority of Islamic groups immediately denounced Osama Bin Laden’s attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., suspicion of America’s Muslim population – or anyone who looked passably Middle Eastern – rocketed across the country. “Post-9/11 America isn’t exactly the most welcoming place for Muslims,” Walid said. President Bush famously announced that the United States was on a new “crusade” in the Middle East, and the heightened levels of covert and overt hostility from the state led increasing numbers of American Muslims to question the military’s role in the world.
For Muslims already serving in the armed forces, that day seemed to change everything. “Discrimination got crazy worse after 9/11,” said Affraz Mohammed, “You served your country honourably, you had great positions in the military. And now, here it is that you are being discriminated against by your own country.” Mohammed, a native of New Jersey, joined the Marines in 1997 due to a lack of opportunities elsewhere. “In America, people say we have choices. But not many have lots of choices. In the ghetto, how much choice do you really have,” he asked MintPress. Born in Trinidad and with Indian Muslim ancestry, he served honorably for seven years, rising to the rank of sergeant.
On trial for my religion
Like many veterans, he suffered greatly from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But unlike others, his trauma was not from combat: it was from how he was treated at home. In 2002 another Marine pressured him into buying his AK-47 assault rifle. He had originally come to (legally) buy a handgun, but the Marine was insistent he take the Kalashnikov instead, and for an extremely low price. As soon as he accepted, he was swarmed by government agents and charged with buying an illegal, fully automatic weapon. He was stripped naked, tortured and held incommunicado.
His Marine-corps appointed lawyer told him to plead guilty, but he resisted and the case went to trial, where he was found unanimously innocent. The weapon he bought appears not to have been fully automatic anyway, while prosecutors had filed documents listing two different serial numbers for the gun, raising further suspicions about the validity of their case. While he was officially on trial for an illegal weapons charge, he maintains that his real crime, in the eyes of the establishment, was “being a brown-skinned Muslim with the last name Mohammed.”
Many of his fellow Marines were not happy with him, and rumors spread that he was a terrorist. He was harassed, woken up in the middle of the night, called “Mohammed the Taliban Marine,” and fellow Marines constantly warned that he would be the victim of a friendly fire incident. He left the service in 2004, having never been sent to the Middle East. Since then, he claims that the police, Department of Homeland Security, FBI and other agencies constantly harass and try to provoke him, informing his neighbors and relatives about his supposed danger. He also told MintPress he has been blacklisted by several agencies and is flagged as a risk when flying.
“I stood up to the empire that everybody is afraid of. I stood up against the highest government agencies all by myself and came out on top. That inspires people to stand up for their rights, if they get to know about my story. So what they’re trying to do is make sure I don’t have a positive story or a positive image,” he said, when asked why he believes the government is still going after him. Despite this, he remains proud of his service and fiercely loyal to the Marines and says his training helped him through his ordeal.
When asked if Muslims are welcome in the military, Mohammed was blunt, “They’re not,” he said. “Because of the current situation. If we look back at history, during the Second World War, even the Japanese-Americans serving in the armed forces were being scrutinized. So if we look at our past, it has a lot of information; any time a military is fighting against another country, those people automatically become enemies.”
By the “current situation,” Mohammed is referring to the 19-year occupation of Afghanistan, the 17-year occupation of Iraq, and multiple conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, the large majority of which are Muslim-majority nations. Even today, the Trump administration continues to increase tensions with Iran, sparking fears of another long and bitter war.
“My brother did 20 years in the Navy, and he had it worse than me. When the Iraq War started in 2003, and his peers were saying ‘put him in jail because we are going to kill his people.’ So the racism is there and it is brutal,” Mohammed added. For so many American Muslims, the prospect of going to war with their own country of origin or that of their close friends is unpalatable, to say the least.
Walid, a member of the Michigan Muslim Community Council Imams Committee, explained that,
For those Muslims who are immigrants or children of immigrants and are underrepresented [in the military], most likely feel a sense of alienation from the American military for similar reasons. If we look at the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians that were killed during that time, and the use of drone bombings that killed high percentages of civilians and the extrajudicial assassinations via American drones; these are factors that I believe have stopped many American Muslims from joining the U.S. military.”
Inside the armed forces, Muslims are often suspected of being disloyal and often are the targets of their superiors’ prejudices. Last year, Sgt. Cesilia Valdovinos was forced by a senior non-commissioned officer to remove her hijab while at a briefing. She had previously complained of being made to cook pork and of being labeled a “terrorist” by another soldier. In 2016, Marine Corps recruit Raheel Siddiqui leapt to his death after being constantly hazed and bullied by drill instructors during training. One instructor reportedly labeled him a “terrorist” and had slapped him a number of times. He was also known to have forced other Muslim recruits into industrial clothes dryers and turned the machine on. While the official verdict was suicide, Siddiqui’s family contested the decision. Mohammed suffered similar treatment at training, with instructors punishing him more than others, attempting to sow division between him and his peers, encouraging others to fight him, calling him a “towel head,” and placing sand around his bed to “make him feel more at home.” As stated previously, Mohammed is originally from the Caribbean island of Trinidad, and of Indian extraction, but knowledge of geography is not many Americans’ strong suit.
Walid suggested that if Siddiqui had been from a different religion or race, the story would have become a “national scandal” and there would have been a senate committee hearing. But, “when it comes to Muslims, the anti-Muslim bigotry is overt and subtle,” he said.
The “reality of systemic racism”
When the parents of a Humayun Khan, a fallen Muslim-American soldier spoke up against Trump’s proposed Muslim ban, he mocked them, implying Khan’s mother was silent as a result of Islam’s backward practices and repressive attitude towards women. While he scandalized many in the punditry class, a majority of Americans supported the ban on entry to the United States, such is the level of demonization of the religion in media and public life. 1 in 9 Americans say they would refuse to accept a Muslim as a neighbor and 41 percent believe that Islam encourages violence more than other faiths, with nearly two-thirds of Republicans polled saying that a great deal of Muslims are anti-American, and 16 percent saying almost all are. The same survey found that Americans are far more likely to hold Islamophobic beliefs if they do not know any Muslims personally.
As a result, Muslim Americans are much more likely to hold liberal economic, political and cultural views, with only 13 percent identifying with the Republican Party at all. Three-quarters say they face a lot of discrimination living in the U.S. “I don’t think it is limited to the military at all,” Walid told MintPress. “I think it goes back deeper beyond religion to an issue of systemic racism that takes place in America. Muslims are a faith group, but we are predominantly seen as people of color and non-white in the American imagination. And the reality is that non-white people in America have never been treated equally in American institutions. That is the historical reality.”
There is perhaps no better example of this than Minnesota Congressperson Ilhan Omar. As a black, African, refugee, hijab-wearing Muslim democratic socialist woman, her existence is a bingo card for bigots. A study published in November in the Social Science Research Journal found that roughly half the tweets mentioning her contained some kind of hate speech.
Omar has drawn public attention as an outspoken critic of the police’s role in the killing of George Floyd. However, less well-known is how authorities’ surveillance of Muslims contributed to his death. Since the days of the Nation of Islam, black Muslims have been targeted by law enforcement and the secret services as an enemy of the state. Minneapolis has one of the largest populations of black Muslims in the United States, due in part to its large Somali community. Under Obama’s Countering Violent Extremism program, Minneapolis was plied with cash and equipment to surveil supposedly radical extremist groups, leading to a situation where blackness became to be seen by police as a crime in itself. As Venessa Taylor argued in The Progressive, state surveillance of Muslims “paved the way for George Floyd’s murder.”
While the U.S. military does want and need to recruit soldiers from Islamic and Arab-American background, they have also been fighting decades-long campaign against Islamic groups in Muslim-majority countries, leading to a heightened level of casual and toxic Islamophobia within its ranks, alienating many Muslim Americans who might otherwise consider joining. Soldiers are trained to see brown-skinned Muslims as the enemy, meaning those who join their side are subject to abuse or mockery. Still more of a question for other American Muslims is whether any war, especially these wars are worth fighting and dying for. Considering the dearth of Muslim recruits, It appears that, for many, the answer is “no.”
Feature photo | A combination photo shows Affraz Mohammed during his time in the US Marine Corps. Photo | Courtesy | Affraz Mohammed
Alan MacLeod is a Staff Writer for MintPress News. After completing his PhD in 2017 he published two books: Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting and Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent. He has also contributed to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, The Guardian, Salon, The Grayzone, Jacobin Magazine, Common Dreams the American Herald Tribune and The Canary.