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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Muslim Soldiers Show Loyalty...

In the wake of the Ft. Hood Massacre, the right wing attacks on Islam poses a threat to Muslims in the armed services. This Detroit Free Press article shows some of the strains for Muslims in the service. RGN

Muslim troops aim to build trust in U.S. military

Forces contend with cultural pressures, allegiance questions



When Jamal Baadani, a native of Dearborn and U.S. Marine, was visiting his nephew a few years ago, he noticed the 5year-old boy didn't want to play with him as usual.

"What's the matter?" Baadani said he remembers asking him.

"You kill Arabs," replied the boy, apparently repeating what he heard adults around him utter.

It was a cold reminder to Baadani that some in Arab-American and Muslim communities are reluctant to have their children serve in the U.S. armed forces, partly because they would have to fight fellow Muslims.

But that attitude pushed Baadani to continue his effort to bridge the gap between the military and his community. He founded the Association of Patriotic Arab Americans in Military, APAAM, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. His mission was to help educate people about the importance of serving your country.

It wasn't always easy. Baadani started out going door to door in Dearborn dressed in his Marine uniform. Some ignored him, others gave him concerned looks, but slowly, he earned their trust, paving the way for the military and other federal agencies to actively engage Middle Eastern communities.

Today, the U.S. military has robust programs - especially in the Army and National Guard- that try to recruit Muslims and Arab Americans.

"The military has done a tremendous job to reach out," said 1st Sgt. Baadani, 45, now a Marine reservist who lives in Virginia. "The U.S. Army really respects our community and goes above and beyond to understand our community."

There are about 3,500 Arab Americans in the U.S. armed forces, both Christian and Muslim. And there are about 3,500 Muslims of various backgrounds - Arab, Pakistani, African American, among them- who serve. They make up a small percentage of the 1.4million members of the U.S. military. But as the U.S. military engages in a wide swath of the Muslim world - from east Africa to the Middle East to central Asia - their views and language skills are needed more than ever.

At home, some Muslims who serve face pressure from family or their peers about fighting against Muslims in other parts of the world. And after the Nov. 5 shootings at Ft. Hood, Texas, by a Muslim major, they face scrutiny from some who are questioning their loyalty to the United States. And so they are caught between two worlds, trying to carve out their own identity during a time of war.

"We're getting so much criticism from our own community for serving," Baadani said. "The No. 1 question I used to get was, 'Why do you want to serve a government that's going to kill your own kind?' " Baadani's response was: "The U.S. military did not go over there to kill your kind. They went over there to attack a threat that came to this country to attack us."

Moreover, Baadani stresses the importance of duty, of serving your country, even if you happen to disagree with the policies of an elected official. That sense of patriotism was seen last week inside Masjid Wali Muhammad, a mosque in Detroit that has the oldest African-American congregation of any Islamic center in Michigan. With a backdrop of U.S. flags and a picture of Islam's holy book, the Quran, the mosque held a Veterans Day celebration that was a vivid illustration of how Muslim veterans reconcile their two worlds.

The mosque had planned for a Veterans Day event before the Ft. Hood shootings, given that many of its members are U.S. veterans. Many of them had converted to Islam during the 1950s and 1960s, a time of racial and political change that compelled some African Americans to explore different religions and belief systems. At times, that clashed with the U.S. military, most notably in the case of champion boxer Muhammad Ali who - after converting to Islam in 1964 - refused to join the Army to fight in Vietnam. Ali had joined the Nation of Islam whose leader, Elijah Muhammad urged members of his black nationalist group not to serve in the U.S. military.

"Why am I going to fight over there for freedoms that you deny me here?" was the attitude among some at the time, said Ajib Rashadeen, 66, of Detroit, a veteran of the Army.

But those views softened over time with racial progress and the new leadership of the Nation of Islam upon Muhammad's death in 1975. Many of the veterans at the Detroit mosque were followers of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, who replaced Muhammad, became an orthodox Muslim and said it was OK for Muslims to fight for the United States.

The new leadership allowed them to see that there was no conflict between being good Muslims and good American soldiers.

In March 2003, Sgt. Hasan Akbar, a Muslim, killed two of his fellow 101st Airborne soldiers and wounded 14 in a grenade attack near the start of the Iraq war; afterward, he reportedly said he feared Americans were going to kill and rape Muslims.

Muslim veterans say they're horrified by such violence.

"Islam has nothing to do with that," said Abdul Ali Sharrieff, 82, of Detroit, a Marine veteran. "Islam doesn't preach that."

Abdul (Ace) Montaser, 27, of Brighton agrees. Today a DJ with WKQI-FM (95.5), Montaser was with the Marines for six years, serving in Iraq in 2003.

Born to the son of Yemeni immigrants, Montaser said he was taught to respect all cultures and faiths.

While in Iraq, Montaser felt he was part of an important mission to stop a deadly dictator and help free a country. But at the same time, he said, he was reluctant to kill anyone, Muslim or not.

"Islam is a peaceful religion," he said. But there are some Muslim extremists who "have their own political agenda and use religion as an excuse ? because the religion doesn't preach killing."

There have been reports that the Ft. Hood shooting suspect, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, had expressed concerns about Muslims in the U.S. military going abroad to fight other Muslims in what some of them see as unjust wars.

Local Muslim veterans said his analysis was misguided because Muslims, like any other group, can break laws.

May photo by Jamal Baadani

Members of the Association of Patriotic Arab Americans in Military march in the Dearborn Memorial Day

Parade. Jamal Baadani said he founded the group to help educate people about service to their country.

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