IU Press recently had the opportunity to speak with Edward E. Curtis IV, the author of the newly released book Muslim Americans in the Military: Centuries of Service. This is a transcript of that conversation.
IU Press: There are about 3.3 million Muslims in the United States, or roughly one percent. How does that compare to the percentage of Muslims in the military?
Edward Curtis: There are 4,000 or so service members who register their religious preference as Muslim with the Department of Defense. So, about one tenth of one percent of Muslims serve in the military. For comparison, this is similar to the percentage of American Jews who serve in the U.S. armed forces.
It may be that the military's dominant religious culture of Christianity discourages some religious minorities from joining, but there are obviously other economic, social, and political factors, too.
IUP: Your book is subtitled “Centuries of Service,” and that may come as a surprise to some people. Muslim Americans have come into the spotlight much more frequently recently, but your book points out that they have played a role in American culture since the very beginning. How have Muslim Americans served in the military?
EC: Before the twentieth century, Muslims often played supporting roles in the military. In the War of 1812, enslaved Muslim scholar Bilali Mahomet led a group of enslaved musket-bearing African Americans on Sapelo Island, Georgia, ready to defend the seacoast against British invasion. In the 1850s, Hadji Ali was recruited from the Middle East to help run Army Secretary Jefferson Davis' experiment to introduce camels into the military. In the Civil War, the jobs of Muslim soldiers were largely those of other African American people, though Sgt. Nicholas Said of the 55th Massachusetts (Colored) Infantry — one of the better educated Americans of any race — served as a clerk for a famous military doctor.
In the 20th century, there has been no job in the military that Muslims have not performed. As my book shows, they serve on the front lines as combat engineers, as members of infantry, as decorated pilots, public affairs officers, logistics specialists, as intelligence officers at Ft. Meade, as doctors, nurses, and medics, as chaplain and chaplain assistants, as sailors, as Air Force reserve human resource officers, you name it.
IUP: Speaking of Muslim Americans filling a variety of roles through all major combat operations, you tell a great story about a Muslim flight engineer and turret gunner named John Ramsey Omar, who served during World War II. In fact, people will be able to read that story as a short excerpt online. Are there any other stories that jumped out to you as you were working on this book that perhaps didn’t make the final cut?
EC: One great untold story is the service of Col. Doug Burpee, call sign ""Hadji," a Muslim Marine pilot who flew helicopters in Afghanistan. I wish that I could have asked him not only about the missions that he flew but also about how he views the ongoing conflict in what has become one of America's longest wars.
I had to write the book quickly. So what really jumped out at me were the number of leads that I didn't have time to track down. To give you one example, perhaps a thousand Muslims served during World War I. There is still so much to be written about them. Since their religious identity is not part of their military records, I had to find other historical records that would tell me something about just two of them, including oral histories, tombstones, deeds, and their social networks. I was lucky that I had already researched Muslims in North Dakota — buried in my files were photocopies of WPA interviews from the 1930s that happened to include some veterans. They've just been sitting there for years. I was able to use them in the book to depict the lives of these service members beyond what their military records told me. But I wonder what stories are still out there waiting to be told.
IUP: A recent survey by the Pew Research Center shows that Americans have a lower opinion of Muslims than they do atheists. How have you found that Muslims in the military combat this stigma?
EC: It may be sad to say, but Muslim military members combat the stigma sometimes by remaining quiet when a fellow soldier insults them. They take a lot of grief, keep their head down, and try not to make a big deal of it. They try to prove their loyalty and value by being the best service member possible. Some file formal complaints against overt acts of discrimination.
The military reflects U.S. society, and so like America as a whole, there is both tolerance for and discrimination against Muslim service members. The culture of the military can be deeply Islamophobic. There is a lot of hazing, especially anti-Muslim name calling. Perhaps most painful for Muslim military members is the questioning of their loyalty to the United States. The difference between the military and American society more generally is that the military follows a chain of command. Since the Gulf War of 1991, some military leaders have often sought to accommodate and support Muslims under their command. The Pentagon has developed a core group of Muslim chaplains. Commanding officers sometimes employ Muslims to advise them on religious issues and to conduct cultural training for service members. Muslims are also being promoted up the ranks, which shows that the Department of Defense is serious about its commitment to the success of Muslim armed service members. When the commanding officer is a Muslim — as is the case with Col. Nashid Salahuddin — they are particularly sensitive to the religious minorities under their command. Other Muslim military members, especially those in small units deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan, report that the intimate, life or death circumstances almost force non-Muslims to get to know their Muslim brother or sister in arms beyond stereotypes and misunderstandings.
IUP: As a follow up to the previous question, why would a Muslim even want to serve in the American military? What motivations do you find that this community has for offering up, in some cases, the ultimate sacrifice for a country that has a generally low opinion of that community?
EC: Muslim Americans want to serve for the same reasons that non-Muslims do. After 9/11, there was a spike of young Muslim Americans who wanted to serve in the military, sometimes to prove their loyalty to the country. Some Muslims say that their faith actually requires that they defend their nation — that this is a religious duty. But Muslims join for other reasons too. They hope to get their education paid for by the military, they need a job, they wish to see the world, and for some, they pine for adventure.
IUP: What sort of effect, if any, has this year’s presidential campaign had on the perception of Muslims in the military, if any?
EC: The first chapter of the book examines how two fallen Muslim soldiers — Kareem Khan and Humayun Khan — played important symbolic roles in the Presidential elections of 2008 and 2016. For the large percentage of Americans who hold anti-Muslim views — it is about 40 to 50% depending on the poll — the service of Muslims in the military does not make them question their points of view on the whole. But among Americans already sympathetic to the plight of Muslims in the country, it has solidified the idea that Muslims in uniform prove the promise of America: if you work hard and you serve the country, the country will honor you as one of its own. The blood sacrifice of these soldiers even redeems the idea of America.
Muslim Americans in the Military: Centuries of Service is available now from IU Press. Read a short excerpt here.