For Muslims in the US military, a different America than the one they swore to defend
By THOMAS GIBBONS-NEFF | The Washington Post | Published: December 9, 2015
U.S. Marine Gunnery Sgt. Emir Hazdic was a Muslim refugee.
"The way Americans welcomed us made such a huge impression on me that I felt like I owed something back," said Hazdic, a Bosnian-Muslim who fled Sarajevo in 1995. Shortly after arriving in the United States, Hazdic joined the Marine Corps as an infantryman — hoping to help peacekeepers deploying to his homeland.
"I thought I would sign up and pay my debt and on behalf of my family," he added.
Eight deployments later and still in the Marine Corps, Hazdic has become disturbed by the rising anti-Muslim sentiment in this country after the recent Islamic State attacks in Paris and last week's San Bernardino shootings. GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump, a candidate Hazdic used to support, has called for barring Muslims from entering the United States.
"We used to be a balanced people. We used to be true to our values, but now we're willing to betray our values because of a sense of fear? That's not American," said Hazdic. "What the hell happened to that America I immigrated to?"
Many American Muslims say they are living through a difficult time in this country. For the Muslims who are former and current servicemembers, the prejudice and anti-Muslim rhetoric is particularly painful. Those interviewed for this story said that hateful comments have driven a wedge between them and the country they swore to defend.
There are roughly 5,900 U.S. service members who self-identify as Muslims — just 0.27 percent of both active and reserve components of the military. In many units, they number in the single digits and often find themselves acting as representatives for the religion in their platoons, answering basic questions about the tenets of Islam.
Now they are finding a climate that is significantly worse than anything they experienced after the Sept. 11th, 2001, attacks.
"The rhetoric is definitely different, it's very alarming," said Cpl. Ibrahim Hashi, a Marine who left the service in 2011 and now attends American University in Washington. "And I'm concerned for myself and my family's safety."
Hashi said he has seen anti-Muslim postings on Facebook — often on informal military-themed pages set up by current and former service members. He recently saw a meme that read, "The only good Muslim is a dead Muslim."
He said he has tried to confront friends and former comrades who post hateful things about Muslims. Their response, according to Hashi: "Aw, man we're not talking about you, you're good. We're talking about those Muslims."
"I tell them you can't cut me out of my own community and say that I'm the good one," said Hashi, who deployed once to Afghanistan and twice to Iraq. "It's sad. I've had to cut people out of my life, people I consider friends, because I'm not going to accept it. I value myself. I have self-worth."
According to Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, the spike in anti-Islamic sentiment is inextricably linked to the presence of the Islamic State, an organization that "provokes a greater level of fear," than other extremist groups such as al-Qaida. In addition, Hamid thinks that President Obama's stance on how the Islamic State "has nothing to do with Islam" has provoked a hard-line response from Republican politicians.
"It would be different if there was a Republican president who would be able to push that message and own it," Hamid said. "Some people are re-discovering their appreciation for certain aspects of the Bush presidency, because he was unequivocal on the question of terrorism being different and separate and to make careful distinctions."
For Hazdic, the Bosnian immigrant, the suggestion from Trump that Muslims need to carry special ID cards is unmistakably similar to what he heard as a child in Bosnia in the early 1990s, when Serbs started rounding up Muslims with orders to wear white arm bands so they could be identified by their religion.
"That's what's scary with [the] things that he's saying," Hazdic said. "I know how things work when you start whipping up mistrust between your neighbors and friends . . . I've seen them turn on each other."
Some Muslim veterans have spoken out on social media. Tayyib Trashid, a former Marine, tweeted out a photo of his military ID card after Trump said Muslims should carry special cards.
"Hey @realDonaldTrump, I'm an American Muslim and I already carry a special ID badge. Where's yours? #SemperFi #USMC pic.twitter.com/QSf2O9PTi2"
Army Capt. Nadi Kassim said he sees today's rhetoric as "un-American" and has watched his country's descent into a renewed Islamophobia from a distance. Stationed in Germany and in charge of 120 men and women, he thinks the current climate is profoundly against his Army values.
"It doesn't represent what the military represents when it comes to equality," Kassim said. "It's not okay to discriminate, and it's not okay to be racially biased, and that's coming from someone who is Muslim and has decided to serve his country, which anybody can do."
Kassim, a 2010 West Point graduate and a son of two Palestinian refugees, has had an Army career that has been "100 percent positive" as a Muslim, and currently serves with a diverse command team that runs a headquarters unit under the 2nd Cavalry Regiment.
Former Marine Cpl. Mansoor Sham said the anti-Muslim rhetoric especially dishonors the memories of the American Muslims who have died in uniform.
"Every time that [anti-Islamic] comments are made we're pretty much doing a disservice to them, we're not honoring them," said Sham, a Pakistani American who left Karachi when he was 6 and joined the Marine Corps in 2000. "They're people that have died for this country, and we're bashing their faith around all the time."
Sham watched the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks unfold from his duty station in North Carolina, and in the days following the attacks was asked to teach Marines about his religion. As a newly minted Marine lance corporal who worked in administration, Sham stood up in front of hundreds of his comrades in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina's main theater and taught the five pillars of Islam.
During his five-year enlistment, Hashi said in his platoon, "it was nothing but love." His religion didn't matter, he recalled, and the only flak he ever really received — often jokingly — was for his last name. Hashi, he explained, sounds a lot like a derogatory term often used by U.S. service members for Iraqis and Afghans.
But after seeing such visceral reactions and condemnations toward his religion on fellow veterans' and Marines' Facebook pages, it has made him think twice about joining if he were to sign up today.
"It's a very real tangible hate that exists," Hashi said. "And knowing that hate is out there, I don't know if I'd do it again or not."