Uncle Sam wants US Muslims to serve

The Pentagon builds Islamic prayer rooms and hires imams to make military life more appealing.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

As US troops battle Islamic extremists abroad, the Pentagon and the armed forces are reaching out to Muslims at home.

An underlying goal is to interest more Muslims in the military, which needs officers and troops who can speak Arabic and other relevant languages and understand the culture of places like Iraq and Afghanistan. The effort is also part of a larger outreach. Pentagon officials say they are striving for mutual understanding with Muslims at home and abroad and to win their support for US war aims. Among the efforts to attract and retain Muslim cadets:

•West Point and the other service academies have opened Muslim prayer rooms, as have military installations.

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•Imams serve full- and part-time as chaplains at the academies and some bases.

•Top non-Muslim officers and Pentagon officials have taken to celebrating religious events with Muslims overseas and here in the US.

"There is a message here, and that is that Muslims and the Islamic religion are totally compatible with Western values," says Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England in an interview.

For the past two years, Mr. England has hosted an iftar, the feast that ends the daytime fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, at the Army Navy Country Club in Arlington, Va. His guests have included ambassadors, leaders of the Muslim-American community, and Muslims who serve in the US armed forces.

President Bush also hosted an iftar at the White House in October, as he has done for several years. Gen. Robert Magnus, the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, held one the same month at the Marine Corps Barracks in Washington for defense attachés from predominantly Muslim nations.

The US armed services don't recruit by religion, but the Pentagon estimates at least 3,386 Muslims were serving in the US military as of September. No precise figures are available because, while US service members are surveyed on their religion, they aren't required to disclose it. Advocacy groups put the number at 15,000, saying many are reluctant to reveal their religion. African-Americans represent the largest share of Muslims in uniform, they add.

However uncertain the progress, the military is intensifying its outreach.

On June 6 – the anniversary of D-Day, he notes – Mr. England helped dedicate a new Islamic prayer center at the Quantico Marine Corps Base near Washington, whose 6,100 marines include about 24 Muslims, according to Lt. Cmdr. Abuhena Saifulislam, a Navy chaplain who serves as their imam.

The Marines also have allowed Muslims in their ranks at Quantico some dispensations to make it easier to practice their religion, says Lieutenant Commander Saifulislam, a US citizen born and raised in Bangladesh. During Ramadan, "they're allowed to have some time off to prepare for their fasting break and not to go to physical training" while fasting, he says.

Muslim troops say misunderstandings and friction with non-Muslims in uniform arise sometimes, but practicing Islam in a military at war with extremists who profess the same faith isn't a burden, they add.

Petty Officer Third Class Nicholas Burgos, a Sunni Muslim training to be a Navy SEAL, or commando, says instructors sometimes goad him by calling him "Osama bin Burgos" or asking if he's training to help the Taliban. But "it's all in good fun," he insists.

"It's all about how much mental stress you can deal with while you're in training," Petty Officer Burgos says. "I just laugh or have a smirk on my face."

His father, Asadullah Burgos, is the part-time imam at the US Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., whose roughly 4,000 cadets include 32 Muslims, 12 of whom are foreign students.

"There's been some insults and some taunting, but it's been handled at the cadet level," Imam Burgos says. "Usually that's due to ignorance."

Col. John Cook, the senior chaplain at West Point, says that after media reports about the academy's new Muslim prayer room, he got a call from a self-described "concerned citizen" who fretted that "the Muslims are taking over the world."

"I told him, 'I'm a Christian chaplain, but I have the responsibility to provide for other faith groups,' " Colonel Cook says. Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish cadets all have their own chapels at West Point, he notes.

Marine Sgt. Jamil Alkattan, a Sunni Muslim of Syrian heritage from South Bend, Ind., says his religion, his knowledge of Arabic, and his familiarity with Arab culture were major assets during two tours in Iraq.

Not only was he able to teach fellow marines key Arabic phrases and explain that all Muslims aren't extremists, he says, but he also was able to befriend locals, who brought him vital intelligence. "They would come to me and say, 'I know where bombs are,' and this and that," Sergeant Alkattan says. "I never got to sleep. They would come at night time and tell me, 'Hey, I think these guys [insurgents] are trying to set you guys up,' or, 'I've seen these guys with an IED [improvised bomb].' I think it stopped a lot of things that could have happened."

Under a new Middle East Cultural Outreach Program created by the Marine Corps, Sergeant Alkattan is one of six Arab-American marines selected to be stationed in major American cities as liaisons to the Arab-American community and advisers to recruiters.

The program was conceived by Gunnery Sgt. Jamal Baadani, a Muslim born in Cairo who emigrated to Michigan when he was 10.

"It is not a direct recruiting program," says Sergeant Baadani, but its goal is to educate recruiters to avoid cultural no-nos and foster good relations with Arab-American communities. The "overall objective ... is to develop solid relationships with the Arab and Muslim communities for the 21st and 22nd centuries. This isn't something that's just a Band-Aid treatment."

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