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Islam in the US Armed Forces
Humayun Akhtar


There are at least 4,000 Muslims on active duty in the US armed forces in observing Islam’s annual holy month of fasting and spiritual reflection, writes The Washington Post in a report republished on the advent of the Muslim holy month of Ramadān.

Lt. M. Malik Abd al Muta’ Ali ibn Noel, Jr. Is the first Muslim Chaplain in the Navy. He holds the rank of lieutenant in the Navy, and wears Islam’s universal symbol --a crescent moon-- on his shirt collar. And as a new moon cued the onset of Ramadān, the first Muslim chaplain commissioned by the Navy led Tarāvīh prayers in the first mosque build on a US naval base, according to the Post.

Three Muslim chaplains, were appointed beginning with the Army in 1993, drafting about a dozen others into chaplain training programmes. The US armed forces offer pork-free field rations; allow Muslims to leave duty stations to attend prayers on Friday, facilitating travel to Makkah for Hajj to this holy city.

In June, this year, a crescent was added to the Christian cross and Jewish Star of David that long have adorned the exterior of the military chapel at the National Naval Medical Centre in Bethesda. “This speaks loud of the navel interest in honouring and enhancing religious diversity within the military,” said the hospital’s civilian Muslim chaplain, Yahya Hendi.

In the US, an estimated 3.5 million to 6 million Muslims are becoming more visible in every layer of American society, and the military is no exception. Since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when a massive deployment of US troops to the Middle East increased American awareness of Islam, US military officials have redoubled efforts to give the faith the same recognition and status as other religions. Against the backdrop of the latest US bombing of Iraq, as well as US retaliatory attacks in August on Sudan and Afghanistan after terrorists blew up US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the military’s support for its Muslim servicemen helps counter perceptions by some Muslims that the United States is antagonistic toward their religion, the Post adds. “There has been an intentional and systematic effort to provide for the Muslim men and women serving in our military service,” said Capt Mel Ferguson, executive assistant to the Navy Chief of Chaplains and until recently executive director of the Armed Forces Chaplains Board. “The rising number of Muslim military personnel,” he added, “is clearly a growing phenomenon which we have recognised.”

During the month of Ramadān, when Muslims refrain from food and drink during daylight hours, military commanders are urged to accommodate their fasting servicemen and women – excusing them, in some cases, from rigorous physical exercise. The commanders also allow flexible work hours so Muslims can take Iftār, the traditional fast-ending meal, and attend the social gatherings and community prayers that usually follow.

Many US military bases have rooms set aside for Muslim prayers, and at least two military facilities have their own mosques. In 1992, the Saudi Arabian government donated founds to transform an office at Fort Eustis Army Base in Newport News, Va., into a mosque. And in November 1997, about a year after Noel’s chaplaincy appointment, Norfolk Navel Station’s mosque opened in a complex that also houses a synagogue and two Christian chapels. “I thought it was an important thing to do that our Muslim sailors have the same type of religious support that our Christian and Jewish sailors were being afforded,” said Capt. John N. Petrie, the former base commander who now is assigned to the chief of naval operations at the Pentagon. “About 70 percent of the 1.4 million active-duty US military personnel have voluntarily declared a religious preference,” said Lt. Col. Tom Begines, Defence Department spokesman. Of those 4,000 have identified themselves as Muslims, up from 2,500 in 1993.

Because of a common reluctance to publicly state their religion, Air Force Master Sgt. Talib Shareef, president of the recently formed Muslim American Military Association (MAMA), estimates that there may be as many as 10,000 Muslims in the armed forces. These include American-born converts such as Noel, who is from Salem, N.J., and converted to Islam in 1989, and immigrants such as Navy Capt. K.M. Mohammad Shakir, who was born in India. Shakir, a US citizen since 1978, is programme director for endocrinology training at the National Navel Medical Centre in Bethesda and was on the physicians’ team that treated the then-president Bush’s overactive thyroid condition.

Some Muslims, recalling how the military was a leader in breaking down racial segregation after World War II say that it can play a similar role in furthering the understanding of their faith. “I went into the military when integration began,” said Ghayth Nur Kashif, who is imam, or prayer leader, of a Mosque in Southeast Washington and has spent four years in the Air Force. Other Muslims say that their growing presence in the military helps assuage fears about Islam caused by the embassy bombings and other terrorism. “Our presence here today should serve as condemnation of …. any act of violence against the innocent or against peace,” Shareef said at a recent conference organised by MAMA on the theme: “Muslim Americans serving Allah and serving your country”. “Such acts are against our religion. … It’s not Islamic behaviour. Terrorist attacks sometimes cause tension between Muslims and non-Muslims in the military,” said Shareef, who is stationed at Fort Gordon Air Force Base in Georgia.

In interviews, some Muslims said that the US military is doing a good job to accommodate Islamic adherents. “A lot of people who know me have already learned a little from me about my religion”, said Petty Officers 3rd Class Undra Tincari 24, a machinist mate stationed at Norfolk. A Los Angles native who converted to Islam in 1994, Tincari said that when she is on duty, she uses her uniform’s cap as a substitute for the head covering many Muslim women believe is required by their faith. Unless she is in an area of the ship where all sailors must go capless, “I just keep that on all the time,” she said. “I’ve never had any trouble with the military for practising religion,” said Noel, who served aboard a battleship during Operation Desert Storm and later studied for his master’s degree in Islamic law on a Navy scholarship. The goal, he said, is “to educate the military as to what we’re really about”.

The US armed forces have announced special facilities for Muslims in the services to observe the holy month of Ramadān and celebrate the Eid. The Armed Forces Chaplains Board has issued a notification which says that during the Ramadān, Muslims in the services may be released from duty at least half-an-hour before sunset to help them break their fast and they may be exempted from rigorous daily physical and field training during the month. The notification also recommends a liberal leave policy to allow service members and department of defence staff to celebrate Eid.


(Courtesy the daily “Nation” 29-12-98)

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