One Muslim's decision to join the US Army
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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."Skip to next paragraph
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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."