Discrimination and targeting innocent people is never justified and should always be rejected. But in this Army News commentary (thanks to Nicolei), Staff Sgt. Russell Bassett is a bit too quick to assume that bigotry is all that’s behind the questioning of the Islamic roots of terrorism — and to dismiss the ties that Osama bin Laden and other radical Muslims have to Islam. As I say all the time, unless the Islamic roots of jihad terrorism are recognized and rejected by a large number of worldwide, that terrorism will continue. This kind of analysis just leaves us more vulnerable to an attack from a source that we thought was peaceful.
FORT EUSTIS, Va. (Army News Service, May 14, 2004) — Religion is never a very easy topic to talk about. It tends to divide more than it unites.
Religion gets to the heart of what we believe and what we value, and strong emotions are wrapped around those beliefs and values. Even atheists strongly defend their right not to believe in God.
Down through history, religion has been used to justify great injustices, including war and genocide.
Today, one religion — Islam — is facing close scrutiny as its radical fringe terrorizes the world through violent attacks.
The White House has gone to great pains to ensure the War on Terrorism is not seen as a clash of religions. President George Bush made a point of praising Islam as “a religion of peace.” He invited Muslim clerics to the White House for Ramadan dinners and criticized evangelicals who call Islam a dangerous faith.
One such evangelist, Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham wrote, “Islam – unlike Christianity – has among its basic teachings a deep intolerance of those who follow other faiths.”
That Islam has produced its share of fanatics should come as no surprise. Every religion has its extremists, and there can be no denying that militant Islam’s rigid and intolerant orthodoxy is making the world a more dangerous place.
But is Islam itself the reason for terrorism, or is it something else? Has the backlash against terrorism created intolerance for Islam? And are those of us in the military doing enough to ensure that Muslims in uniform are enjoying the same tolerance of their faith as those from different religions?
Islam is the second largest religion in the world, totaling more than 1.3 billion believers. Less than 20 percent of the Muslims in the world are Arab, and all Arab countries have populations that believe in other religions. Indonesia has the world’s largest Islamic population —88 percent of citizens are Muslim.
In the United States, Islam is the fastest growing religion. There are currently five to seven million Muslims who are U.S. citizens.
There is also a substantial number of Muslims in the U.S. military; between 10,000 and 20,000 U.S. service members consider themselves followers of Islam.
In the U. S. Army, Muslims are afforded the same rights to worship as any other religion.
“The Army tries to accommodate different religions,” said Col. Hanson Boney, Fort Eustis chaplain. “There have been Muslims in the Army for the past 40 years. There are times we can’t accommodate religions, like in times of war, but Muslims have no harder time worshiping in the Army than any other religion.”
Some Muslims are finding that the backlash against terrorism has made it harder for them to practice their faith.
Matthew Hicks, a Soldier in E Company, 71st Transportation Battalion , said he was “jumped” after 9-11. “People get the wrong idea about Muslims,” he said. “They think I’m a terrorist or going to blow something up.”
In 2002, Hicks changed his name from Abdulaziz Gazah so he wouldn’t have to face the prejudice associated with an Islamic name.
After joining the Army, Hicks also faced discrimination.
“When I was in Basic,” he said, “I told my drill sergeant that I wanted to attend Muslim service and he at first didn’t believe me and then started ranking on me, so I stopped going to the services all together.”
After that incident, Hicks decided he was not going to tell anyone he is a Muslim. He arrived on Fort Eustis two weeks ago and had not even told his battle buddy about his Islamic beliefs.
One of the five pillars of the Muslim faith is to pray five times a day. As an Initial Entry Soldier, it has been difficult for Hicks to find time to pray.
“I have had zero time to pray,” he said. “But in the Islamic faith it is not so much that you have to pray, it’s if you have the time or make the intent. It is all about your intent.”
The Jacksonville, Fla., native who speaks Arabic said he joined the Army to work as a translator in the Persian Gulf.
“Most fights start from a misunderstanding,” Hicks said. “I’d like to go over there and help clear up some of those misunderstandings.”
Hicks, whose parents are from Saudi Arabia, said he spent some time in that country growing up, but that he is “born and raised American.”
“I am so loyal to the United States,” he said. “My grandfather served in the U.S. (Army) Air Corps and even when I was in Saudi Arabia I told everyone I was American.”
Spc. David Burgos, operations clerk for the 492nd Harbormaster Detachment, who has been an active Muslim for 25 years, said Islam helped give him direction and hope.
“I came from a broken home and when my parents divorced I became a ward of the State,” Burgos said. “The path I was walking was one of crime and drugs and it was the light of Islam that brought me off that path.”
Before joining the Army, Burgos faced prejudice because of his faith during the first Gulf War.
“There was a lot of backlash as a Muslim for me in the workplace,” he said. “Coworkers would place notes that said, ‘Go back to your own country’ or ‘Muslims are trouble makers.'”
Like Hicks, Burgos also did not mention his beliefs during Initial Entry Training. “I wasn’t sure how it would be accepted,” he said.
Since then, Burgos has spent eight years on Fort Eustis, and he said working here has enabled him to actively pursue his faith.
“My unit has always been accepting,” he said. “They let me to go to Jumah (prayer) at 1300 on Friday and they always inquire about me during Ramadan, especially for PT (physical training). Since Ramadan is a time of fasting and no liquids during the day, they have allowed me to do PT later in the day.”
Burgos said he has experienced no discrimination or prejudice here, even after 9-11.
“The whole year after 9-11 I had people asking me questions about Islam, but I don’t believe any of them were in a negative manner,” he said. “Fort Eustis has been good for me as far as being Muslim and wearing the green uniform.”
The United States has several allies among the Arab nations, and many Arab countries send their soldiers to the Transportation School here for training.
Sebastian Velilla, international military student specialist with the T-School, helps ensure that Muslims who visit Fort Eustis to train are allowed to practice their beliefs.
“We have students from the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Egypt.” he said. “Next year we will have 223 Arab students.”
Friday, 15 Arabs from the school joined together at the Islamic Center here to pray. Sgt. Maj. Alkhedaid Aazib, an aviation soldier from Saudi Arabia, led the prayers.
He said it has been “easy” to practice his faith since coming to Fort Eustis and that he has not faced any discrimination because of his beliefs.
“Because we are working with Americans here, they get to know us and we get along well,” he said. “We are treated like equals.”
Aazib stressed that Islam is a religion of peace.
“We believe in peace for every person and every country,” he said. “You cannot be a Muslim and be a murderer or killer.”
Hicks and Burgos agreed.
“Islam is actually a peaceful religion,” said Hicks. “When Muslims say hello we say, ‘Peace be upon you’ and when we return the greeting we say ‘Peace be back to you.'”
Burgos said the Koran teaches peace and nonviolence.
“I have read the Koran several times and there,” he said. “Islam teaches its followers to be peaceful. Islam is all about giving life, not taking it.”
Hmm. I myself have read the Qur’an many more than several times, and I could show Burgos the verses Osama and Co. use to justify warfare against non-Muslims. This is not just based on just a few Qur’an verses, either, but on numerous ahadith and tenets of Islamic law. I wonder how Burgos missed them.
However, the question still remains: If Islam is such a peaceful religion, why then are there schools in such traditionally allied nations like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia that teach intolerance and hatred? And why do terrorists use Islam to justify their violent actions?
Hicks believes it has to do more with the political situation than the faith.
“(Terrorism) is not Islam,” he said. “It’s certain people with messed up ways. Bin Ladin’s hatred comes from his hatred of the United States, not his religion.”
“Some people who call themselves Muslims are angry about what is going on in the politics of their region,” agreed Burgos.
Despite a few isolated cases, Muslims who serve in the United States armed forces are proving their loyalty to this country. They should be afforded the same rights and privileges afforded their non-Muslim brothers in arms.
As Americans, we set the example. Let’s be sure that example is one that includes tolerance for people of all religious faiths.