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General News

by Sonia Azad
Mar 20, 2008

WASHINGTON-- Muslim troops in the U.S. military  face tough challenges that often leave them choosing between their faith and their duty.

There are nearly 3,400 active duty troops who identify themselves as Muslim, according to the Pentagon.

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Spc. William Fenwick, 28, converted to Islam during basic training. He gave up his post with the U.S. Army after what he described as a boiling point. It happened during a simulated attack in the California desert.

"The drill was to come out of our tents and jump into a foxhole and the first sergeant was standing on the top of the trailer steps and he sees me come out and he says, 'Hey Fenwick, go get in the foxhole and take one for Allah'."

Fenwick, who now drives a taxi and works part-time at a Washington radio station, argued the military's regulations don't mesh well with the Muslim lifestyle.

"The military isn't conducive to the Muslim faith," he said.

Experiences like Fenwick's are rare, according to 35-year-old Abdul Rashid Abdullah, who spent seven years as a parachute rigger for the Army. Like Fenwick, Abdullah converted to Islam in the 1990s. He joked that though he appears to be of middle-eastern descent, his heritage can actually be traced back to Germany and Italy.

As a leader of the American Muslim Armed Forces Veteran's Council, Abdullah addresses the concern of accomodations for Muslims when they arise.

"They do come up from time to time," he said, citing examples such as women wanting to wear the hijab, a traditional headscarf, while in uniform.

But the military won't allow it. Headscarves are against regulation.

That is one challenge facing Kendish Hassan, a 28-year-old African-American training specialist in the National Guard.

"I really would like to wear my hijab every day, but I understand the meanings behind the regulation," she said.

Beyond the issue of headscarves, Muslims require specific dietary attention, are obligated to pray five times each day at fixed times and must fast during daylight hours for the holy month of Ramadan.

Though it's possible to make it happen, Hassan agrees with Fenwick's statement that it's tough.

"I don't think there's a happy medium," she said. "Honestly speaking, I think that if you want to be a full, outright praciticing Muslim, the military is not for you."

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