Republished from Mint Press
Despite the large and active recruitment drives targeting them, a heightened level of casual and toxic Islamophobia within the ranks of America's Armed Forces is alienating many Muslim Americans who might otherwise consider joining.
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."
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