Army translator bridges U.S., Islamic cultures
TIKRIT, Iraq — A hungry American soldier wanted to take food back to his room. He was unsure if he should, however, while sharing quarters with Iraqi army recruits during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
He turned to “Spc. Selena” for advice. She told the soldier that “these people were fasting and it would be rude to eat in front of them,” she recalled. The soldier took his chow to the front seat of a Humvee, instead.
At a time when the U.S. military is desperately recruiting soldiers fluent in Arabic and steeped in Islamic culture, Selena, 26, is a rarity. Originally from Morocco, she is a native Arabic speaker and a Muslim, two traits not often found in the American armed forces. Her job is to translate for the 25th Infantry Division on Camp Speicher in northern Iraq. But along the way she also has served as a bridge between two cultures separated by the wire and war.
Few people in the military fit Selena’s profile. As reported in Reuters, the Pentagon lists 3,386 Muslims in active service, a fraction of the 1.22 million soldiers who identify themselves as Christians. With soldiers not required to declare their religion, some estimates place the number of Muslims in the military more around 10,000, still a small percentage.
Selena is not her real name. Her true name is a guarded secret for fear that radical Islamists may target her family. That danger was underscored recently by an alleged plot in the United Kingdom to kidnap a British Muslim soldier after a fatwa was posted on the Internet declared it against the religion for a Muslim to “fight under the banner of kuffar,” or nonbelievers.
The clerics who make such proclamations do not know the true meaning of Islam, Selena said. “[The word] Islam, if you translate it into English, it means ‘peace,’ ” she said. “Terrorists can be Christian, they can be Muslim. If you know the true meaning of Islam, then you don’t judge people because of their religion, you judge them by their actions.”
Her family supported her decision to join the U.S. Army, though they feared for her safety in Iraq, she said.
“They did not have any problem with my decision,” she said. “They just don’t want me to get hurt.”
If she is a rare recruit, she was initially viewed as an outright oddity by the Iraqis she encountered in the outlying communities near Camp Speicher. It wasn’t a question of allegiance, but of conservative cultural attitudes that questioned a woman’s place in society. For many, “it was the first time they had seen a female in uniform, carrying a weapon,” she said. “They didn’t like the idea of an Arabic woman working.”
In her first months, many of the local farmers and townspeople peppered her with questions, she said: Are the Americans really here to help? Do the Americans hate Muslims? How do the Americans feel toward Arabs?
In that regard, Selena’s special skills were a boon. Though possible for non-native speakers to learn Arabic, it is much more difficult to achieve fluency in the different dialects and forms of speech that differentiate, for example, a poor farmer in Tikrit from a college professor in Baghdad. She is able to adopt the different accents and slang, making communication easier, she said.
“The trust built up a lot,” she said. “Once [Iraqis] realized we were here to help, they helped us,” she said.
But Selena is not only educating people outside the wire. She has encountered ignorance on base, as well.
“I have talked to many people who just don’t know anything about Islam,” she said. “I have to tell them there is no connection between violence and the religion.”
Some of those fears were magnified after Army Sgt. Hasan Akbar, formerly of the 101st Airborne Division’s 326th Engineer Battalion, killed two soldiers and wounded more than a dozen others on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Akbar has since been sentenced to death.
At the same time, some Muslim advocacy groups in the U.S. have reported a rise in bias attacks against members of their faith.
Given her experience, Selena is hopeful of a greater understanding of Islam in the West and the possibility of peace in the Arab world.
“There are (at Camp Speicher) American Muslims, there are African-American Muslims, Puerto Rican Muslims,” she said. “Islam does not have a specific background. It doesn’t belong to Arabic people. And I still believe Americans and Arabs can live in peace.”
When her time in the Army is done, she hopes to open a school in Africa to help counter some of the radical institutions that take advantage of the poverty and ignorance to instill in their pupils violence and hatred.
“I believe the kids are the future of our country. They are the future of the world,” she said.