The Soldier

One of the most lauded ideals in United States is the support for the men and women who serve in its Armed Forces. Regardless of the nature of the conflict or the rationale of the acting generals/politicians, the praise of the soldiers on the ground remains inextricable from the most basic tenets of American patriotism.

Since 9/11, the general perception of Muslim Americans by non-Muslim Americans has gotten more negative (according to the Gallup polls). Muslims, however, have a generally positive outlook on the lives and opportunities afforded to them in the United States. In spite of all odds, Muslims have permeated through every level of American society, from street vendors in New York City to State Representatives in Congress.

So what happens when the two come together? The topic of Muslim-American soldiers is certainly not a stone that has never been overturned, but it’s become apparent that many people, including myself, still hold preconceived notions about why a Muslim might be serving in the military and fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan. I discussed the topic with Ian, a Muslim African American in his early twenties who is currently a soldier in the US Army and has seen action in Afghanistan. He kindly agreed to share the story of his experience.

Ian lived with his mother and his half brother Anthony. Their life was not an easy one, having grown up in a poor neighborhood and subject to much of the crime, stereotypes and general problems that African Americans in impoverished regions face. However, when Ian was sixteen years old, his brother came up to him one day and asked him what he thought about Christianity.

Ian was initially taken aback. Their family had never been very religious, and didn’t have very many conversations on faith or spirituality. He expressed to his brother that that he hadn’t really thought about it.

Anthony then handed Ian a copy of the Quran and told him that he had converted to Islam, inviting Ian to do the same. While Anthony had been on a reflective path for a long time, this was Ian’s very first exposure to Islam. Nevertheless, he took the Quran and told his brother he would read it. When he did read it in its English translation, he said that he couldn’t put it down. He loved and felt inspired by its verses and the power of its language, and felt a connection to its message of the Oneness of Allah. Ian would go join his brother in becoming a convert to Islam.

Despite this change in lifestyle, their problems did not end. Anthony and Ian would both decide to go to college to support their family. However, there were no easy means to pay for such an endeavor. Ian considered the pros and cons of many different options, but eventually decided that the best choice was to join the Army and earn a scholarship to help pay for college.

When Ian enlisted in the Army, there were many potential roles he could have been placed in, with combat being only one of them. He signed up for and expected the type of job that would involve engineering rather than fighting. However, he stated that the Army can transition the roles of its recruits very easily, and before he knew it he was completing basic training and being shipped off to Afghanistan. It was there that he faced a surprising level of discrimination and harassment.

Ian had many stories about his time in Afghanistan. Because he was a Muslim and the battlefield was a Muslim country, he felt the other recruits doubted his loyalty to the United States. He firmly stated to me that he did not complete training and don an American uniform to go defect to the Taliban.

Nevertheless, this mistrust about his devotion to the Army was manifest in the treatment he received from everyone in his chain of command. Oftentimes his higher-ups would not let him pray Salat, stating that “the Army comes before religion.” He said that he might have understood if they were in the middle of an operation, but he could not even go and pray during lunch time when no one needed him. He was also at times prohibited from reading the Quran, yet he observed Christian soldiers reading the Bible with no punishment on them. The Army would also neglect to account for his passive religious activities, such as abstaining from eating pork. One night he was forced to go hungry because the food rations only had pork-based food and the supervisors refused to accommodate him.

On the other hand, the Afghan civilians were pleasantly surprised to discover he was Muslim. He was initially afraid of admitting that he was Muslim to the Afghanis, because he didn’t want to compromise his standing with the Army or be associated with people that could be labeled as terrorists or insurgents. The Afghanis understood, however, and kept it secret.

One day Ian visited a general store to buy some DVDs. The storekeeper, an older Afghani man, had a discussion with Ian about his Muslim faith. Before Ian left, the storekeeper invited Ian to come back the next day. When Ian returned he was gifted with a Quran and a prayer rug, and pointed to where Ian could attend the Jummah prayers. He thanked the man and left. When Friday came around, Ian began to walk to the masjid. Unfortuantely, the supervisors in his regiment had gained knowledge of what Ian was doing. They rushed over to Ian and he was was harshly reprimanded for stepping out of line. This appeared to have been the final straw, and by the next day Ian learned he was getting on an aircraft and being transferred to another division.

I asked Ian whether he was ever questioned or criticized by other Muslims for serving in the United States Army. He said that he was, but almost all of it came from specific Muslims in the United States rather than the Afghanis. His response was that the people who made such accusations against Muslim soldiers never bothered to understand their situations or reasons for joining the military.

“None of us joined to go and kill Muslims. I thought I was going to sit behind a computer all day. But even when you’re fighting, you don’t stop and wonder whether the guy firing an RPG at you might be Muslim. You either fight or you run, and you can’t always run.”

Having been under fire from all sides, Ian has become disillusioned. He says that although it seemed to be the only option he had at the time, he never would have joined the Army if he knew he would be subject to everything he went through. He will be let off in eleven months, and he affirmed that he’s not going back.

Listening to Ian’s story was very enlightening to the problems Muslim soldiers face, both from their fellow soldiers and fellow Muslims. I was lucky to be able to encounter him on this trip, and I hope that this message counters some of the stereotypes many people hold about Muslim soldiers.