Some Muslim servicemembers struggle to balance faith and service
By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 10, 2011
STUTTGART, Germany — When Mohammad A. Hasan joined the Army in 1994, practicing his Muslim faith wasn’t hard.
Even in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks 10 years ago, not much changed.
It wasn’t until his deployment to Iraq in 2003 that Hasan says he began to notice the ways in which his religious background set him apart from his peers.
“After the deployment, everything changed,” said Hasan, who left the military in 2005 and now works as an Army civilian in Virginia.
With a dark complexion and Muslim name, the Bangladesh-born soldier’s loyalty was at times questioned by suspicious troops during his deployment in Iraq, he said.
Later, at Fort Stewart in Georgia, Hasan said, he also ran into conflict with a commander over his desire to attend Friday afternoon prayers.
Though he offered to come to work early or stay late to make up for the time spent in prayer, those requests were rejected again and again.
Eventually, the command capitulated, but the work environment felt unwelcoming, Hasan said.
Hasan, who left the service as a staff sergeant, said he felt no conflict between his faith and service.
Troops serving today should avoid getting pigeonholed as a “Muslim soldier,” he said. “Just be a soldier.”
During the past decade of fighting in Muslim countries, some soldiers have struggled to strike a balance between the demands of faith and service.
They also sometimes have to battle perceptions that Muslims are hostile to the military they serve, particularly in light of high-profile incidents involving Muslim troops who turned against fellow servicemembers.
The most notable of those cases occurred nearly two years ago, when Maj. Nidal Hasan opened fire at Fort Hood, Texas, where he was stationed, killing 13 people.
Investigators have said Hasan drew inspiration from U.S.-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a drone strike last week in Yemen, where he was based.
It was Hasan who may have served as inspiration for Naser Jason Abdo, a soldier who will be tried later this year in connection with allegations that he planned to bomb a restaurant popular with Fort Hood soldiers.
“Professionally, as a theologian and a Muslim, it is frustrating because you don’t want those people (attackers) to be an advocate of your community,” said Muhiyyaldin Ibn-Noel, a former Muslim chaplain for the Navy who now works as a civilian with the Marines in Okinawa.
Currently, there are about 3,600 people who identify themselves as Muslim in the military’s active component and 1,500 in the Reserve component, according to the Pentagon.
Ibn-Noel, who retired in July after nearly two decades of service as a chaplain, said it’s up to Muslim troops to speak out against servicemembers like Nidal Hasan and prevent false perceptions from taking root.
“If there’s nothing to fill in those areas of doubt, those things will continue to grow,” said Ibn-Noel, who ended his 32-year career as a lieutenant commander.
While the mission comes first, Ibn-Noel said, commands he’s worked in over the years have been willing to make accommodations for troops when it comes to things such as Friday prayer obligations and the requirements of high holidays like Ramadan.
There’s no reason that faith and service can’t be balanced, he said.
“People are just sometimes afraid to ask for things,” said Ibn-Noel, explaining that some troops are hesitant to express their needs in the regimented military environment.
While challenges persist for Muslim troops when it comes to practicing their faith and avoiding discrimination, those problems tend to occur at the small unit level, according to Ibrahim Hooper, communications director of the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations.
“Generally, the reports we get are of lower-level officers and enlisted personnel who engage in bigoted speech,” Hooper said. “We don’t see it as a systemic problem from the top down.”
In most cases, commands do a good job of handling those complaints, once they’re made aware of the problem, he said. “That doesn’t lessen the effect on the individual,” Hooper said.
The experiences of Muslim troops vary. While some have struggled at times for acceptance, others say they’ve noticed no discernable discrimination or suspicion from their peers.
Spc. Anza Ali, a Heidelberg, Germany-based soldier who was raised in the Muslim faith, but no longer practices, said she’s never encountered any serious discrimination.
“Because Islam is no longer a significant part of my life, I would probably be oblivious to any unfair treatment I may receive … aside from the occasional terrorist joke here or there,” Ali wrote in an email.
But for Mohammad A. Hasan, memories of the struggles he had with his unit are still with him.
“It left a scar in my heart,” he said.