NEW YORK — As soon as Abdel Salam Abdel Salam heard about the attack on the World Trade Center, he went to the supermarket in his Brooklyn neighborhood and bought enough cases of water to fill up his van. He then headed to ground zero and gave it out to anyone who needed it.
This week, the Egyptian-born Muslim-American is embarking on another venture motivated by his desire to help: He's joining the US Army as a translator.
"I want to help the Iraqi people understand what the [American] soldiers are there for," says Mr. Abdel Salam. "To show them there's someone from their culture, who's also from the US, who understands them and wants to help."
With the United States engaged in an unpopular war in a primarily Arabic-speaking country, the US military has significantly stepped up its efforts to recruit Muslim-Americans who are native speakers of Arabic, Pashto, or Farsi. In addition to setting up special outreach programs, it's also hired imams, opened prayer rooms on some bases, and increased military observances of Islamic holidays to assure Muslims they are welcome.
But for many who choose to serve, like Abdel Salam, the decision is ultimately a complex and personal one. It combines deeply held religious beliefs with love of their adopted country and native region, as well as inner conflicts about the validity of the war in Iraq and what role, if any, they should play in it.
"Overall, there is some interest [among Muslim-Americans] in the Army for the usual reasons: career, benefits, and serving my country," says John Zogby, president of the polling group Zogby International, which has interviewed young Muslim-Americans about their views of the military. "But a key reason ... is being in the position to help. They think: 'If I could go in and stop a situation where someone goes in shooting because they don't understand Arabic, maybe I could help.' "
The US Army doesn't require its service members to declare their religion. But estimates put the number of Muslims serving at about 10,000. Since 9/11, many Muslims have decided against enlisting because of concerns that a bias exists that could limit their career prospects, according to Mr. Zogby.
But Brooklyn has proved to be one of the Army's best recruiting grounds, particularly for Arabic speakers. It has enlisted as many as 20 translators a year. While the war in Iraq is unpopular and polarizing here, as it is elsewhere in the country, recruiters in Brooklyn say there's a pool of immigrants who are very supportive of the war.
"Most of the people I deal with of Arab descent, especially those that have family members in Iraq – they're very much in favor of it," says Capt. Thad Krasnesky, company commander for US Army recruitment in Brooklyn.
Abdel Salam fits that profile. At 6 foot, 1 inch, 260 pounds, with an imposing build, Abdel Salam is aware of the intimidating impact of his large presence. He hopes it can be helpful, if and when he gets sent to Iraq. And he wants to go, very badly. Unlike many of his Arab and Muslim-American neighbors who believe the US is a primary cause of the current chaos in the region, he believes that America has a responsibility to play a role as peacemaker. He's aware that's an unpopular view. But it doesn't bother him, he says, because he grew up in Egypt when Anwar Sadat put out a hand of peace to Israel. At the time Sadat was roundly condemned in the Arab world.
"They may one day call me a traitor.... I'm not going to be surprised to hear it, but I'll ignore it," says Abdel Salam. "They called Sadat a traitor, but now he's a hero. Tomorrow, I'm also going to be the peace-process person."
Raised in the heart of Cairo, Abdel Salam grew up in a prosperous middle-class family. In 1973, when Egypt was at war with Israel, he remembers looking out of the windows from his home at night. The explosions of the bombs on the horizon turned the skies blue. His parents kept trying to put him to bed, but he refused to go. "I said, 'No, I have to see it,' " he says. "It was then I knew I wanted to be a soldier."
But life took him in another direction. He graduated from the Egyptian equivalent of the Merchant Marine Academy and served as a civilian in the merchant marines for several years. Then in 1992, looking for more opportunity, he moved to the United States. He worked as a doorman, took up karate, and eventually opened his own restaurant. Last October, a business dispute led him to close the restaurant. It was then, with the war in Iraq deteriorating, that he decided it was time to return to his original goal.
He contacted the Army recruiting officer in Brooklyn and found out that he was just young enough – three years shy of the 42-year-old age limit. But there was another hurdle: To be qualified, he had to lose 80 pounds. And so he did.
"I'm proud to be an Egyptian, I'm proud to be an American, and I'm proud of what I'm doing," he says.
But some Muslim-American veterans warn that despite Abdel Salam's optimism, he will face an undercurrent of distrust in the Army simply because he is a Muslim. Capt. James Yee, a West Point graduate who converted to Islam, says he experienced that firsthand. He was one of the Army's first and most high-profile imams and served at Guantánamo Bay. In 2003, when on his way home for leave, he was arrested and charged with espionage. He was put in solitary confinement for 72 days. Captain Yee was then released, and eventually all charges were dropped. When he resigned, he was given an honorable discharge and a meritorious service award. The inspector general is now investigating the Defense Department's handling of his case.
"There's still an extreme amount of Islamaphobia in the United States, including in the military," says Yee. "Anyone who's considering joining should thoroughly educate themselves because when you do join, if you decide that it's not for you, you can't just quit."
Many other Muslim- American veterans believe the Army botched Yee's case and in doing so significantly set back efforts to recruit Muslims. The abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, the torture allegations at secret overseas CIA prisons, and the treatment of prisoners of Guantánamo have also significantly undermined recruiting efforts, according to Zogby.
Yet at the same time, Muslim-American veterans believe the Army has made significant strides. "The military right now doesn't have as big a problem as in 1965 when I first joined," says Abdul Aziz-Shaheed, assistant commander of the Muslim American Veterans Association in Washington. "Then if you were anything other than mainstream Christian, you were singled out."
But Yee is less optimistic, saying the progress is superficial at best.
Still, Abdel Salam is trusting in the positive. He recognizes, though, that some of the people he'll be dealing with have never dealt with an Arab-American Muslim before. He's prepared to respond to anyone who may distrust him because he prays to Allah.
"I'll use humor. I'll show them I'm just like them," says Abdel Salam. "Christian, Muslim, it doesn't matter: We're all people. And we all want the same thing – peace and a better world."