Muslims in military say ‘everybody belongs’
While serving their country, they find time to pray to Allah at least five times a day.
On Fridays, they recite their Jumah prayers in community worship, whether at the Camp Foster Chapel masjid on Okinawa or at a room set aside for them in the base chapel at Misawa Air Base, Japan.
Like other members of faith groups in the minority among U.S. troops, their numbers at Pacific bases overseas are small. But their religion is center stage in the U.S.-led war against terrorism and Islamic extremism.
Things have changed for Muslim servicemembers since Sept. 11, 2001 — not necessarily for the worse.
They get more questions from mostly curious — but sometimes sarcastic — colleagues about their beliefs, and some have searched their souls for answers on how their faith squares up with military duty in this current war.
But even as some American Muslims continue to report discrimination and other difficulties in the United States since the Sept. 11 attacks, some U.S. Muslim servicemembers in the Pacific said they haven’t experienced any collective backlash.
They said they openly practice their religion without fear of ostracism or discrimination and report few, if any, incidents of unfair treatment.
“It’s never been an issue,” said Keith Cherry, a U.S. Air Force technical sergeant with the 35th Logistics Readiness Squadron at Misawa Air Base. “I’ve always been forthright about being a Muslim.”
Cherry, 34, from Louisa, Va., recalls how the military reached out to support him after Sept. 11. He was stationed at Langley Air Force Base, Va. After the attacks, his chief enlisted manager, someone who didn’t share Cherry’s faith but often discussed religion with him, called him and said that if Cherry got so much as a bad look, “I needed to route it up to him,” Cherry recalled. “I never got any bad stares or anything.”
“We’ve got protection,” said Marine Corps Master Gunnery Sgt. Hafiz Camp, a building administrator for Marine Wing Headquarters Squadron One, First Marine Aircraft Wing, on Okinawa’s Camp Foster, and a practicing Muslim. “We’ve got equal opportunity advisers at each level of the command that closely monitor activities of discrimination. In the civilian world, it’s not that easy. It’s a very serious issue in the military, and it’s not tolerated.”
Shorts vs. sweat pants
Camp, 49, is the Sunni Muslim lay leader for the U.S. military’s Islam community on Okinawa, a group of between 30 and 40, including dependents. He was raised Baptist and converted to Islam 13 years ago while stationed in Hawaii.
He said the only time he felt mistreated because of his faith during his 26-year military career was in 2000. On the first day of an advanced training course for gunnery sergeants at Camp Hansen, Okinawa, Marines were required to take a physical training test.
As a Muslim, Camp can’t wear shorts that fall above the knee. He asked to wear the PT sweat pants. A squad leader allowed it. The next day, the program’s deputy director, a master gunnery sergeant, singled him out for wearing the sweat pants. “What’s wrong with your uniform there?” he barked. Camp said he explained that as a Muslim, he couldn’t wear the shorts.
“He told me, ‘Why don’t you go inside and change into the green shorts and come back out here?’ He also said, ‘The next issue I hear about your religion, I’m going to drop you from the course.’ I ran in, changed and ran back out,” Camp recounted.
Fearing reprisal, Camp said he didn’t mention the issue until two days prior to graduation. The program’s director, a sergeant major, told Camp the master gunnery sergeant was out of line and that he would speak to him, but he also asked Camp to talk to him. “I went and talked with him. He gave me a little bit of his religious background (Christian) and said he didn’t think he did anything wrong,” Camp said.
At the time, Camp said, he thought about filing an official complaint, but “I just left it alone. I still think I should have.”
The green shorts are still part of the Corps’ official PT uniform, but Camp, to this day, wears the sweat pants. He hasn’t had a problem since.
Capt. Dawud Agbere, one of six U.S. Army Muslim chaplains, said he can’t say there’s no anti-Muslim bias in the military.
“It’s an entity filled by people with their own views and background,” he said in a phone interview from Fort Jackson, S.C.
“Are there some people in the military who think Muslims don’t belong? I don’t think you can run away from that,” Agbere said, adding that “the military is very clear. Everybody belongs here,” and everyone is entitled to religious freedom.
Agbere, 39, was born and raised a Muslim in Ghana, west Africa. He’s been on active duty since September 1999 and soon will be promoted to major.
His experiences in the U.S. military have been mostly positive, he said. Once, while he was deployed to Iraq, someone crossed the line, he said, and was preaching hatred about Muslims.
“It was in a personal capacity, but they were speaking in a military environment,” he said.
When Agbere learned of the incident, he brought it to the attention of unit leaders, who took action to correct it. But Agbere views negative experiences as an opportunity to educate.
“The reality is, Islam is just so small a religion in the U.S.,” he said. “A lot of people don’t know much about Islam. They hear a lot about it, but they don’t have a lot of experience with Muslims. Most of the time, people say things out of ignorance.”
There are an estimated 1.2 billion Muslims around the world. The Pew Research Center estimates the total population of Muslims in the United States at 2.35 million, though other estimates go as high as 7 million.
In the U.S. military, about 3,400 of the 1.4 million active-duty troops identify themselves as Muslim, according to Pentagon figures. The Army claims the most Muslims, with about 1,500.
Regardless of which branch of service they’re in, Muslims are supposed to be protected from discrimination by the military’s equal opportunity program.
Each service has one, to ensure all military personnel, family members and retirees are treated fairly regardless of age, sex, race and religion.
While each military branch provided the number of religious and other equal-opportunity complaints it receives annually, none categorized religious grievances by denomination.
Religious complaints, however, ranked among the lowest in reports provided since 2001, with race and sex among the highest.
A high-profile Army case of alleged religious discrimination after Sept. 11 involved West Point graduate and former Muslim chaplain Capt. James Yee, who served at Guantanamo Bay.
He was accused of espionage, adultery and other misconduct and held in solitary confinement for more than 70 days. Eventually, all charges were dropped.
Yee resigned and was given an honorable discharge and meritorious service award.
In a book he later published, Yee blamed his arrest on anti-Muslim sentiment following the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
“There’s still an extreme amount of Islamaphobia in the United States, including in the military,” Yee was quoted as saying this spring in the Christian Science Monitor. “Anyone who’s considering joining should thoroughly educate themselves because when you do join, if you decide that it’s not for you, you can’t just quit.”
Seaman Mawdud Ahmed, a Muslim culinary specialist aboard the guided-missile cruiser USS Shiloh at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, had no qualms about military service.
The 19-year-old native of Patterson, N.J., joined the Navy nine months ago to get an education and make a better life for himself, he said.
However, his mother, who emigrated with Ahmed’s father 25 years ago from Bangladesh, wasn’t so sure being Muslim and joining the military was a good idea.
“My mom thought I might get treated wrong,” Ahmed said. “I told her not to worry. I said look at the opportunities this country has provided our family. To me, serving in the military was my way of giving back and earning my own way.”
So far, he hasn’t had any problems, he said.
As a culinary specialist, he is able to make his own meals, giving him more flexibility to meet Islam’s dietary requirements, including the prohibition against pork.
‘No gray factor’
As lay leader, Camp, the master gunnery sergeant from Okinawa, acts as an advocate for the Muslims in his fold in the absence of a Muslim chaplain. “A lot of youngsters bring issues to me,” he said.
He recalled one young Marine on Okinawa who was prohibited from praying at his workplace.
“He wanted to do his prayers in the motor pool over in the corner,” Camp said. “He would bring his prayer rug. They would tell him, ‘No, you can’t do that; you can’t bring religion into the workplace,’ even though it would only take four or five minutes. We had to go to his [commanding officer], his chaplain, his sergeant major. He was able to do his prayers over on the side.”
Cherry, the technical sergeant at Misawa, has found that being upfront with his supervisors and colleagues about his religion and any special accommodations he might need has headed off any potential problems.
While deployed to Kuwait, for example, Cherry got permission to pray at a local mosque, as long as it didn’t interfere with his military duties.
“I talk about it so much, there’s no gray factor,” he said of his beliefs. “They don’t feel threatened by you.”
Stars and Stripes reporters Leo Shane III and Chris Fowler contributed to this story.