Over the July 4th weekend I was one of the speakers at the 47th Annual Convention of the Islamic Society of North America, the largest gathering of Muslims in North America. At their Community Service Luncheon I was seated next to Lieutenant Colonel Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad, the first Muslim chaplain in the US military. After some initial small talk I leaned over and thanked him for his service.
Chaplain Abdul-Rasheed with a wide grin accepted my thanks and then with sadness in his voice said that in his experience not too many Muslims extend such appreciation to our men and women in uniform. Some even question the Islamicity of being in the US army. This despite the fact that, according to American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council, upwards of 15,000 Muslims serve in the US armed forces. Chaplain Abdul-Rasheed went on to say, “If America is worth being inhabited by Muslims, reaping her many benefits, then Muslims have a natural obligation to serve in her defense against those who choose to do harm to its citizens, property, or values.”
Extremists, both from within the Muslim community and outside, fail to grasp the importance and necessity of Muslims serving in the US armed forces. The American Family Association, a conservative Christian group, has published an article on its website calling for Muslims to be barred from military service. The radical Muslim cleric Anwar al Awlaki, who influenced the Maj. Nidal Hasan to go on a killing rampage at Fort Hood said that the only way a Muslim can justify serving in the U.S. military is if he intends to “follow in the footsteps of men like Nidal.” Awlaki went on to say that Hasan, “is a man of conscience who could not bear living the contradiction of being a Muslim and serving in an army that is fighting against his own people.”
American Muslims are sickened by the views of radicals like Anwar al Awlaki as much as they are alarmed by the anti-Muslim rhetoric loudly reverberating among the extreme right of American politics. However, simply expressing outrage is not enough. Collectively and individually American Muslims need to take concrete and meaningful steps that marginalize the views of radicals like Awlaki and also win the hearts and minds of those who stay silent when powerful forces align to marginalize the Muslim community.
One useful step is making a conscience effort to make overt gestures of patriotism even when such gestures are symbolic. Regardless of whether the men and women in uniform are Muslims or people of other faiths they all deserve our gratitude and appreciation. Showing that gratitude is not symbolic and does not undermine any advocacy against current US foreign policy and armed conflicts.
American Muslim events generally begin with the recitation of the Holy Quran. This can easily be followed with a Pledge of Allegiance or the singing of the National Anthem. A few organizations have been doing this despite the cynicism of the misguided few. Flying the American flag on the premises of the Islamic centers will also be a step in the right direction. Several Islamic centers already do this. More need to follow their lead. Incorporating the “Changing of the Colors” flag ceremony could also be an appropriate fixture at American Muslim events.
In 2001 when the US was preparing to invade Afghanistan, Taha Jabir Alwani then president of an institute that trains Islamic military chaplains, issued a fatwa (religious decree) that allowed Muslims to fight for the United States in Afghanistan. The fatwa also gave Muslims the option of refusing to fight on grounds of religious conscience. With the gathering danger of radicalization looming over the American Muslim community, a case can be made for a more clearly worded fatwa that encourages, instead of merely allowing, Muslims to serve in the US army.
The presence of American Muslim soldiers can be beneficial on many fronts. Besides being appropriately reflecting of our national diversity the presence of American Muslim soldiers can mitigate abusive incidents such as the ones at Abu Ghraib that justifiably deserve our condemnation. At a time when the American mission in Afghanistan and Iraq is not merely to win a conflict but also to win hearts and minds, American Muslims in the U.S. military can be a valuable bridge between the U.S. military and the Muslim world.
It is possible to be a good American and a good Muslim. More of one does not mean less of the other. Weaving American patriotic traditions into Muslim events will make this point loud and clear. Thanking our men and women in uniform is not just keeping up with finest traditions of being American but it is also authentically Islamic. God loves people who express their gratitude towards those who serve us. The men and women in the armed forces volunteer to lay their lives so that we can live free. Undoubtedly they deserve our thanks.
Professor Parvez Ahmed is a Fulbright Scholar and Associate Professor of Finance at the University of North Florida. He is also a frequent commentator on Islam and the American Muslim experience.