War tensions put pressure on rising minority
Don Lattin, Chronicle Religion Writer
Wednesday, April 9, 2003
Jeff Hammad, an American Muslim in the U.S. Marines, noticed the shift during the buildup to the last Gulf War.
"The military has a tendency to demonize the enemy, and Muslims are on the receiving end of that hostility," said Hammad, a Palestinian American who served in the Marines from 1990 to 1994.
Hammad heard his faith disparaged dozens of times during his four years of duty. There were battle cries like "Kill ragheads," and "Let's go Muslim hunting."
These are not easy times for U.S. military personnel of the Muslim faith or Middle Eastern heritage.
According to some Muslim soldiers and sailors, the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq -- along with the hostility many Muslims have felt directed against them in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- are taking their toll on Muslims in the military.
Hammad, who was born in the United States, has a younger brother now in the Marines and an older sibling in the Texas Air National Guard.
"Nobody wants to talk about it," Hammad said, "but it's getting progressively worse."
In addition, he said, "It's getting harder and harder for Muslims in the service to morally justify being in a military that seems constantly engaged against fellow Muslims."
Other Muslim servicemen disagree.
"All of my co-workers and commanders have been respectful," said Air Force Technical Sgt. Abdul-Basir Lipscomb, an African American convert to the Muslim faith.
PILGRIMAGE TO MECCA
Lipscomb and five other military Muslims even got permission to make a pilgrimage to Mecca when they were stationed in Saudi Arabia in 1999.
And while reports of the treatment of Muslims in the military vary, one thing is certain -- their numbers are on the rise.
According to some reports, more than 1,000 members of the U.S. armed forces converted to Islam while stationed in the Persian Gulf in the early 1990s.
Pentagon officials say there were 4,070 self-declared Muslims in the U.S. Armed Forces in May 2001, the last time a count was made.
But other observers say there may be three or four times that many. That's because many Muslims decline to state their religious preference when they enlist, while those who convert during their time of service are not counted.
Lipscomb, for example, converted in 1997, when he was stationed in North Carolina.
Raised in the Baptist church, Lipscomb first started exploring the Muslim faith after he enlisted in the military.
"I read the 'Autobiography of Malcolm X,' but wasn't really drawn to a radical type of Islam."
Intrigued by political events in the Middle East, Libscomb began studying a copy of the Koran that a friend had given him, and started comparing it to the Bible.
"I weighed the pros and cons of each one, and started understanding what Islam was all about. It started to make sense," he said. "I decided it was something I needed in my life -- I needed that type of discipline. My friends and family saw a change in me. I became a better person."
As the number of Muslim soldiers rise, so have the ranks of chaplains of that faith. In 1993, the U.S. Army appointed its first Muslim chaplain, and there are now 14 of them in the four branches of the armed forces.
In 1997, the military's first mosque, Masjid al Da'awah, opened in Virginia at the Norfolk Naval Air Station.
Last month, military Muslims got some unwanted attention when Sgt. Asan Akbar of the 101st Airborne Division allegedly rolled grenades into three tents of sleeping officers at Camp Pennsylvania in Kuwait, then sprayed them with bullets when they ran out. Two officers died, and 14 others were injured.
Akbar, an African American who converted to Islam, was soon captured and reportedly said, "You guys are coming into our countries, and you're going to rape our women and kill our children."
Lipscomb, who works in the finance office at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, said he was shocked by the overseas attack.
"I don't know what kind of Muslim he is. I don't want people thinking I'm like that," Lipscomb said. "There are a lot of Muslims in the military. We're here to defend our country and help the people in Iraq."
Akbar's attack came as a growing number of Muslim leaders around the world issued calls for Muslims to take up arms against U.S. and British forces -- calls that are ignored by the vast majority of Muslims, both here and abroad.
But since the Camp Pennsylvania attack, it has not been easy to get Muslim chaplains to talk about morale among soldiers and sailors of the Islamic faith.
Abuhena Mohammed Saiulislam, the Muslim chaplain in Norfolk, said he could not grant an interview to The Chronicle without permission from his commanding officer. The interview was denied.
Meanwhile, three phone calls to the Army's first Muslim chaplain, Abul Rasheed Muhammad, were not returned.
Officials at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield said there was no Muslim chaplain nor any enlisted lay leader of the Islamic faith who could speak to The Chronicle.
Capt. Jesse Tate, the Navy's regional chaplain based in San Diego, did agree to an interview. He said the number of Muslim sailors has steadily grown over his 21 years of active duty.
Twenty years ago, when he was serving on the aircraft carrier Independence, there were only two or three Muslims aboard, Tate said. Last year, he was in the Persian Gulf on another aircraft carrier, the Harry S. Truman, and there were between 40 and 50 Muslims on deck.
Tate, a Christian chaplain, said commanding officers have taken special training to "deal with the myths" and "defuse misgivings" about Muslims and Arab Americans in the ranks.
"We try to focus on the commonalities," he said. "We (Christians, Muslims, Jews) are all monotheistic religions and people of scripture."
E-mail Don Lattin at email@example.com.
Muslim Military Members