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One Muslim's decision to join the US Army

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 28, 2007


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.

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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."