Monday, November 21, 2005

Muslim Midshipmen

  The article below is from the "Isn't that Special" files.
  It's probably just me, but I don't find this article particularly warm/fuzzy.
  For example, we find a Midshipman Ali agonizing over whether he can perform as a combat leader.  The best we get out of him is that he will do the "right thing."  Sounds nice, but when you think about it for a minute, just who's "right thing" is he going to do?  Allah?  And, how is it going to be revealed to him just what Allah wants?  Hint -- do not assume that Allah wants the same thing that we in Western Civilization think that our Judeo-Christian Supreme Being might want.
  But, Midshipman Ali reassures us in no uncertain terms that he would "defend himself and his men without hesitation."  With all due respect -- whoop de do!  Defense is nice in a pinch, but being a competent combat leader is all about offense.  Not a very satisfying answer.
  Then we relate the problems of former West Point Cadet Yee.  I thought that maybe the author of the piece would balance things out by also relating the story of the Army Muslim soldier that rolled a handgrenade into the tents of fellow soldiers early on during Operation Iraqi Freedom.  Or, any of the other many stories of actual problems with Muslims in the military.
  Moving along, the author dutifully relates the standard speciousness disinformation of Muslim spokespeople, in this instance the Fiqh Council.  In the world of Islam, the only "innocents" are Muslims.  All the rest are fair game.  And, then we are supposed to be reassured that "noncombatants" will not be killed "without a justifiable reason."  Isn't that special -- wonder what the "justifiable reason" was to blow up the wedding party in Jordan recently?
  Matter of fact, as I think on it, the only tiny little shred of solace I came away with from this article was the fact that we have fewer Muslims than the other Service Academies.  Praise be.
  I suppose we'll wake up to the threat one of these days, but it looks like it is going to take lots more dead Americans before that happens.
    Live for Life, John Howland,1,4222049.story?coll=bal-local-headlines

For Muslim mids, uniformity in duty - but not in beliefs

By Bradley Olson
Sun reporter

November 20, 2005

Before Maksudal Ali decided to attend the U.S. Naval Academy, he struggled with a few questions: If the time came, could he kill a fellow Muslim?

Would he be able to fit his faith's requirements into the rigid structure of a military academy? Would he face bigotry?

Eventually, he made his way to Annapolis and is now one of 10 Muslim midshipmen among 4,200 student officers.

Although Ali rates his experiences on campus as positive, he said there are pressures unique to Muslims at the academy. Chief among them is preparing for a military career at a time when the nation is suffering casualties at the hands of extremists who say they are acting in the name of Islam.

There are other challenges, such as the difficulty of fasting for Ramadan - which ended earlier this month - or meshing a Muslim's five-times-a-day prayer obligations with the busy schedule of a midshipman, or attending an institution where most of his peers have had little exposure to Islam.

Ali, who is president of the Muslim Midshipmen Club, said he hasn't faced any hostility because of his faith. Occasionally, he said, he was unable to conduct daily prayers because of his busy schedule, but academy officials respect Friday worship time for Muslims.

"I really appreciate the way the Naval Academy has treated me and all the Muslims here," Ali said. "I wasn't sure - because of the way the culture of the Naval Academy works - if the freedom of religion in America would be more like a freedom from religion. It's not like that at all. Faith is very much a part of our lives."

Civil-liberties groups have challenged the academy's mandatory lunchtime prayer tradition as a state endorsement of religion, but college officials have defended it as a practice that teaches midshipmen about different religions, because various kinds of prayers are offered.

Another Muslim midshipman, Chiraz Chakroun, said she and her family worried that ignorance of Islam in the United States would make an education at the academy a harsh and lonely experience.

She has had the opposite experience. Well into her second year here, her family is proud. Her father often wears a U.S. Naval Academy T-shirt.

Before he came to the academy, Ali said he had to search his soul to determine whether he could "push a button or pull the trigger on another Muslim." He said he decided he would do the "right thing" and defend himself or his men without hesitation.

In the run-up to war in Afghanistan, Maj. Abdul-Rasheed Muhammed, the most senior Muslim chaplain in the Army, asked the Fiqh Council of North America, a panel of Muslim scholars that issues fatwas, or decrees on Islamic law, for a ruling on whether Muslims can participate in a war against Muslims.

The council ruled that it was permissible, saying: "All Muslims ought to be united against all those who terrorize the innocents, and those who permit the killing of noncombatants without a justifiable reason."

The fatwa wasn't enough for some Muslims in the military. One Air Force sergeant spent about a year in prison after refusing to deploy to Iraq, noting his faith and prohibitions against fighting other Muslims.

During his court-martial, a Muslim Air Force chaplain defended the sergeant's decision, saying he had consulted several clerics where he was serving in Germany and believed it would be better to die than to bear arms against other Muslims, according to an account published in Stars and Stripes.

The religious environment at the Naval Academy has received scant attention compared with the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Last month a Jewish graduate of that academy and father of two cadets filed suit in federal court claiming that academy brass had illegally tried to impose Christianity on cadets at the school. In June, a Defense Department task force faulted Air Force Academy leaders for not doing enough to accommodate people of different religions.

Ali, 22, of Clarksburg, is a senior at the Naval Academy and one of the leading distance runners on Navy's cross country team. He fasted for Ramadan, which made his preparation for the Army meet in mid October especially challenging.

He had dreams of becoming a fighter pilot when he was in elementary school, something that led him to consider the Naval Academy, although after about a month on a submarine last summer, he chose to be a submarine officer instead.

"They were very professional and hospitable, and I realized that these were the people that I wanted to be among and that I wanted to lead," he said.

That experience led him to believe that being Muslim would not be an obstacle during his Navy career.

When he graduates, Ali will become one of about 15,000 Muslims in the U.S. military, about 1 percent of 1.4 million active-duty troops. Twenty-three self-identifying Muslim cadets are at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., and 13 are at the Air Force Academy, spokesmen at each school said.

Chakroun, 22, is a sophomore and one of three international students at the academy from Tunisia, a small North African country that borders the Mediterranean Sea. Like Ali, Chakroun is Muslim and has fasted during Ramadan.

She attended a military prep school in Tunisia and wanted to join her country's Navy. When she learned about exchange programs at U.S. military service academies, she took interest. After speaking with two other Tunisian mids, she picked the Naval Academy.

When she told her parents, they worried.

"Before I came here, my family, of course, was like, 'They don't know the culture in the U.S.,'" she said. "But I'm lucky that I have an open-minded family who told me that if I wanted to study in the United States, go ahead."

Muslim midshipmen attend services every Friday in a 225-square-foot room in Bancroft Hall, occasionally venturing out to the local mosque. The officer adviser of the Muslim Midshipman Club is Cmdr. Irving Elson, a Jewish chaplain.

Elson said most of the Muslim mids have responded well to his role, even though he was the first rabbi some had ever met.

"Some say it's a joke, but some say I've had an impact," he said. "I look at it as an honor."

Chaplains like Elson are charged with making sure the religious needs of Ali, Chakroun and other Muslims at the academy are accommodated. During Ramadan, for instance, Elson said he may have to go an extra step or two to make sure they're given adequate time and respect for traditions such as Iftar, a meal eaten to break the daily fast during the Muslim holy month.

"I counsel the institution as much as I counsel the mids," Elson said.

Muslims may not be able to make every religious observance, Elson said, but that's part of military life. "Muslim mids, just like all our mids, are asked to compromise," he said.

Chakroun said she has never felt ostracized or uncomfortable at the academy because of her faith.

"Most of the questions that I get concerning my religion were just curiosity from my classmates, like, 'Hey, you're going to fast, so what's that mean?'" Chakroun said. "They just want to know about a faith they're not used to."

One of Chakroun's close friends at the academy - a Buddhist - has helped her feel more comfortable. Chakroun said her friend's mother is a Southern Baptist and her sister is a Muslim.

"If I see a family like that, with so many diverse religions in one family, I know it's not a problem," she said.

Ali, who was born in Albany, N.Y. and went to Gaithersburg High School, said that one reason he wanted to serve is because of the opportunities afforded in the U.S. to his Bangladeshi parents.

His father works as a bio-statistician at a pharmaceutical company; in addition to supporting Ali and the immediate family, he also sends money to the extended family in Bangladesh.

"For me and especially for people coming from other backgrounds, we have a duty to give back to this country," he said.

For some Muslims in the military, fulfilling that duty has come with special challenges.

David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization, compared the hostility faced by some Muslim military service members today to what Japanese-American troops experienced during World War II.

"Back then you saw a lot of the same kinds of concerns about loyalty that we are hearing now about Muslims," he said. "But on the other hand, lots of Japanese-Americans served very honorably in World War II, including some who came out of relocation centers to do it."

One of the most vocal critics of the military's treatment of Muslims has been James Yee, a former Muslim Army chaplain at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention center who was accused - and cleared - of spying.

A graduate of West Point, Yee said he and other Muslims face a great deal of suspicion in the military, especially while deployed to the Middle East or somewhere like Guantanamo Bay. And when at home, he has had to intervene for observant Muslims to be able to worship as Jews and Christians do.

"Even then, when a chaplain gets involved, it's not guaranteed," Yee said.

Ali said he's seen no indication of any problems so far, at the academy or in brief stints in the fleet.

During the academy's grueling initiation period, termed "plebe summer," where incoming midshipmen go through six weeks of boot camp conditions before enrolling in the fall, Ali met two "beautiful brothers" who showed him that being a religious Muslim and excelling at the academy were not incompatible.

"During plebe summer, it's very tough to get by," Ali said. "No one cares what your faith is, because you're stripped down to the bare bones. And then, when you see someone there who knows who you are, who can see your face and know that you're scared, and they come and tell you, 'Hey, I'm Muslim, let's go pray,' that's what you want to do. You want to go and worship by them, by their side."

Copyright © 2005, The Baltimore Sun |


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