Muslim GIs Also Battle Prejudice

Times Staff Writers

The deadly grenade attack on the 101st Airborne Division in the Persian Gulf -- allegedly by one of its own -- left military personnel stunned. But the further news that the suspect is an observant Muslim set off a ripple effect that touched at least two soldiers at this mountain post two continents away.

They are Muslims too.

Specialists Aboubacar Ballo and Abdul Faragan Muhamaad Raheem Marrow had long ago gotten used to explaining to fellow soldiers their schedule of five prayers a day, the purpose of the prayer mat, the prophet Muhammad. But what to say when asked why a Muslim soldier might kill and wound his comrades?

Ballo, a 28-year-old native of West Africa, decided the answer was easy: “It didn’t happen because the guy was Muslim,” he said. “The guy was stupid.”


Today’s military is considered a model for accommodating soldiers of the Islamic faith, providing outlets for counsel and worship and adapting GI uniformity to diverse religious customs.

Even so, it hasn’t been easy for U.S. Muslims in uniform since the Sept. 11 attacks by 19 Muslim hijackers. Some said they have been viewed with suspicion or subjected to jokes and snide remarks about camels and turbans. Now the specter of the days-old war with a predominantly Muslim Iraq and last weekend’s “fragging” incident in the 101st has heightened concerns for these soldiers, who enlisted to defend their country but find themselves also defending their faith as well as wrestling with the ethical dilemma of combating other Muslims.

Of 1.4 million active-duty U.S. forces, nearly 4,200 are declared Muslims. Factor in the undeclared, and Islamic organizations say the number exceeds 10,000.

“There are some people in this country who want to marginalize Muslims and vilify Islam,” said Ihsan Bagby, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky. “The Sept. 11 attacks gave them one opportunity. The attack at the 101st has given them another.”

Authorities allege that Sgt. Asan Akbar, a 31-year-old Muslim convert who grew up in Los Angeles, rolled grenades into three tents at Camp Pennsylvania in Kuwait in which officers were sleeping last Sunday, then shot at least two fellow soldiers as they ran for cover. As the suspect was led away in handcuffs, having been overpowered by a 101st Airborne major, witnesses said they heard Akbar say, “You guys are coming into our countries and you’re going to rape our women and kill our children.”

A major and a captain died in the attack and 14 people were wounded. Akbar has not been charged, but a military judge has found probable cause to try him.

Although the attack is considered an anomaly -- “This just hasn’t happened,” an Army spokeswoman said -- it raised new questions about the military’s vulnerability to terrorists and gave Muslim soldiers one more extremist act to disown.

“It made me feel the same way I would feel if someone came into my home and attacked my family,” said Marrow, the specialist at Ft. Carson, expressing a sentiment that resonated from GIs interviewed here and abroad. The assault remains under investigation and the military’s response to a new risk of attack from within the ranks is yet unformed.

Ahead of the Curve

There is widespread agreement that the American military has outpaced the civilian world in accommodating the traditions of Islam. A dozen Muslim military chaplains provide religious support in every branch. Strict dress codes have made way for female soldiers to wear the traditional hijab, or head scarf, albeit khaki in color. Pork-free diets are available. Time for prayer is allotted and light duty permitted during fasting in the holy month of Ramadan.

Since arriving in the Middle East from Camp Pendleton, Cmdr. Jerome Cwiklinski, a U.S. Navy chaplain, has consulted Web sites that help him calculate the direction and times of prayer for American Muslims in any battlefield location. If anything, he sees Islam as particularly flexible in terms of giving troops leeway for prayer and diet during wartime.

“If they are near a small town or city or even a Bedouin encampment, they can hear the call for prayer,” he said. “Five times a day they hear it.” So far, Cwiklinski said, he has seen no backlash from the incident in the 101st.

Muslim soldiers who have faced ridicule say they have used the episodes as an opportunity to educate comrades who know little about their faith.

Marrow, 25, who is from New Jersey, said he was taught as a boy in Islamic schools to respect other religions. He bristled when his was disparaged after he joined the Army.He consulted his father.

“My father said, ‘Go easy, teach them.’ So I started reacting in my own style.”

So when a former commander would ask him in a mocking Middle Eastern accent, “Abdul, when are you going to open your 7-Eleven?” Marrow decided it wasn’t worth a fight.

“My 7-Eleven will open tomorrow morning at 7, sir,” he would reply.

When fellow soldiers still ask him where his Aladdin-style slippers are, he doesn’t get worked up. He doesn’t wear them, he says, but agrees they are pretty wild.

“I let them know what jokes to make and what jokes not to make,” Marrow said. “They understand me. And the ones who are mature and curious, I teach them. I know how to filter out the immature ones.”

The soldiers most likely to succumb to stereotyping are those who have no contact with the Muslim comrades in their ranks, said Air Force Staff Sgt. Nidal Allis, an Arab American Muslim based at the Pentagon and a member of the Assn. of Patriotic Arab Americans in Military, formed after the Sept. 11 attacks.

After the attacks, with emotions running high and part of the Pentagon still in rubble, Allis started running up against anti-Arab sentiment. He decided his detractors should get to know him.

“Now they have a completely different view. I come to work every day in my uniform, I tell them my family heritage, where I am from. They say, ‘Wow, Islam truly is a religion that represents peace.’ ”

For the military, the problems presented when roots collide with national duty have marked virtually every modern war.

During World War II, Japanese Americans were sent to the European theater but were restricted from serving in the Pacific. German Americans were regarded as suspect in both world wars, and some Asian Americans have described discrimination and ridicule from fellow soldiers while serving in Vietnam.

But having their national loyalty called into question is not the only challenge for members of an institution as multi-faith and multiethnic as the U.S. armed forces. Like the Japanese Americans and German Americans before them, today’s Muslim soldiers face the moral question of shooting an enemy of common heritage.

Defining a Threat

Though the Koran prohibits one Muslim from intentionally killing another, it also commands followers to fight oppressors. A group of prominent Islamic legal scholars ruled after the Sept. 11 attacks that Muslims serving in the U.S. military had a duty to fight for their country, even if it meant taking up arms against other Muslims.

The ruling seemed clear for the war in Afghanistan, a direct response to the homeland assaults. But many Islamic scholars are unconvinced that Iraq poses a clear and immediate threat to the United States, a view shared by the Vatican, U.S. bishops and bishops’ conferences around the world.

The disagreement makes the issue particularly complex for American Muslims engaged in the war in Iraq. Each has a personal decision to make.

For soldiers like Marine Lance Cpl. Rajai Hakki, there was never a doubt.

He dropped out of college in Washington to join the Marines after Sept. 11. Born in Pennsylvania, the son of Syrian immigrants and raised in the Muslim faith, Hakki said he felt compelled to defend both his country and the good name of Muslims and Arab Americans. His parents urged him to stay in school; he would hear none of it.

“When I joined the military, I wanted to do something to protect my country and to show everybody that Arab Americans, Islamic Americans, can be as patriotic as any Americans,” said Hakki, 22, who is with the 1st Marine Division, reportedly moving north toward Baghdad. “This is not a war against Islam or Arab people. This is a war to bring down a dictator.”


Times staff writers Tony Perry in Iraq, David Wharton in Kuwait City and Teresa Watanabe in Los Angeles contributed to this report.