After Fort Hood shooting: attention on Muslims in US military

The alleged shooter last week at Fort Hood is Muslim. But the overall picture of Muslims in the military is hardly one of strife and fundamentalism.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The Army's top officer is concerned about a backlash against Muslims in the US military following the shootings at Fort Hood. But, he says, the military's tradition of accepting people from different faiths must never waver.

As investigators sifted through the aftermath of the shootings at the Texas Army base, allegedly carried out by a Muslim Army officer, Gen. George Casey warned against drawing broader conclusions about the Muslim community.

"Frankly, I'm ... concerned that this increased speculation could cause a backlash against some of our Muslim soldiers," Casey, chief of staff of the Army, said on CNN's "State of the Union" program. "As great a tragedy as this was, it would be a shame if our diversity became a casualty as well."

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Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, is suspected of a shooting rampage at Fort Hood last Thursday in which 13 people were killed and nearly 30 injured. The incident has sparked fear that Hasan was a religious fanatic, once again drawing attention to Muslims in the armed forces. But the overall picture that emerges about their service is hardly one of strife and fundamentalism.

At least 3,500 Muslims are known to be across the military. An additional 283,000 service members have not identified themselves with any religious preference, meaning there could be more Muslims who do not describe themselves that way for military records. Hasan's personnel files did not identify him as Muslim, for example.

In the years since 9/11, the military has made extraordinary efforts to encourage Muslims to join its ranks. Last year, the Army announced a program to pay $150,000 as a signing bonus to Arabic speakers, for instance.

Hasan allegedly felt harassed by fellow service members about his religion, according to a member of his family speaking earlier this week on Fox News.

While racism and religious intolerance exist in American society and the military reflects that, it's unlikely that in today's modern military, a Muslim officer would be overtly harassed: It would be a violation of rank and authority, says one Muslim officer, who says such charges don't ring true for her.

Maj. Aisha Bakkar says that her fellow Marine officers and enlisted Marines have never had a problem with her religious background. On the contrary, she believes that people are receptive to her faith and that the events of 9/11 actually have enlightened a lot of people about Islam.

She says she makes no secret about her faith, and she is proud of her heritage. Her father, from Syria, joined the Marine Corps and flew helicopters.

During her own career, she says, she has sometimes had to step in to correct misconceptions about Islam and Islamic extremism.

"I listen to them and then ask, 'What Koran are you reading?,' because it's clearly not the same one,' " she says. "It's just unfortunate that the religion is being bastardized by some fundamentalists." Bakkar will be promoted within the next year and is a public-affairs officer at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C.

Past incidents have raised questions about Muslims in the military, including in 2003 when a US Army sergeant and a convert to Islam rolled a grenade in a tent that killed two officers and injured more than a dozen others. During his trial, it came out that Sgt. Hasan Akbar feared that Americans would kill Muslims.

To Bakkar, such incidents can "put another black eye on the whole Muslim religion," she says. She feels as if the community takes one step forward, only to take two steps back.

When some details of the shooting at Fort Hood emerged, Bakkar knew this one would be difficult to overcome. "Here we just took five steps back," she says.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a civil rights and advocacy group in Washington, receives few complaints of harassment from members of the military, according to Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman. Most are limited to junior enlisted troops, he says.

"We get periodic reports, but it's not one of our larger areas," he says. "It does happen on occasion."

The use of the term "Haji" within the military is probably the most common form of harassment in the military. It has been used indiscriminately to describe any thing or person connected to Muslims. CAIR has worked to educate senior military leaders about the term and how, when used pejoratively or without understanding, it can send the wrong message.

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