By Syed H. Tanveer, US Navy (E-5)
The recent argument between Khzir and Ghazala Khan, parents of Bronze Star Medal recipient Capt. Humayun Khan who was killed in Iraq in 2004, and presidential candidate Donald Trump have raised many questions about Americans who practice the Muslim faith serving in the United States military, including whether the military is safe with Muslims in it and whether Muslims should have the opportunity to serve their country when some believe this country is at war with Islam.
I am one of 5,900 service members—a mere 0.02%—who identify themselves as an American of Muslim faith in the US military. Just like every other service member, we have taken an oath to “Support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” and to “bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” But not only have we sworn to represent and defend the United States and its Constitution, we are also bestowed the task of representing our cultures, which in my case is an American of Pakistani descent and of the Islamic faith, and to teach fellow service members who Muslims really are.
I enlisted into the United States Navy to give back to the country that gave me everything: a home, a public education, a childhood that most Pakistani children only dream of, and the tools necessary to have a stable and successful life. American is near and dear to my heart, but my faith stands alongside it.
Being an American of Muslim faith in the US military is neither a task that is too daunting nor a task that is too simple. The atmosphere in the military is diverse but because the objective is always “mission-oriented,” it is very easy for us to fit into our respected commands and to do the jobs we are given adequately and with equal opportunity. No non-Muslim servicemember will come up to a Muslim servicemember and say, “Hey, you must be a terrorist because you sure look like one.” In fact, most people approach me with many questions about what Pakistani Muslim culture is like and what my religion sets out to teach. In return, I always give them the answer that I’ve learned and followed growing up as a Pakistani-American Muslim: Islam is a faith that teaches peace, not harm.
Servicemembers have a mindset that differs from the general population. We are taught to be curious, which creates us a thirst for learning, but still obey the orders of those appointed over us and learn from the people next to us in order to create comradery that assists us during harsh conditions. Most of my peers in the military have learned what type of people Muslims really are through my own actions, such as always helping your peers before yourself, giving back to the community as often as you can, and being calm in any circumstance. Through my actions, my colleagues see what we Muslims are taught to do and why we do it on a daily basis, such as not eating pork because we believe it is unclean or giving 2.5% of your income to the needy.
In fact, spreading Muslim awareness within military commands is a way to reiterate who the enemy target really is. We need to stay away from ideas of who average Americans think the war on terrorism is against. In the military, we know that the target isn’t the Muslim populous; the target is the ideology of terrorism. Having American Muslims in the military is a way to reinforce a positive image of Islam because we can teach the true message of the faith to our peers, and when we fight alongside our comrades, who are from many faiths and many cultures, it is in pursuit of one goal—to subdue those who threaten the national security of the United States and who are opposed to what the US Constitution represents.
Recently, I fasted through the month of Ramadan, a month in which Muslims don’t eat from sunrise to sunset for 29 or 30 days. Most of my military peers didn’t know what Ramadan was about, what it represents, and what happens after the last day of this Islamic holy month. So I answered the questions they had to the best of my abilities and shared the knowledge of the Islamic faith throughout the month itself, which enlightened them enough to want to learn more on their own. Specifically, one of the sincerest actions that anyone has done for me in my time of service is when my supervisor—or LCPO, a Chief Petty Officer at rank E-7—fasted all 30 days during the holy month herself! She had set out the goal to go through Ramadan with me in order to support my goal of fasting. I was astounded, especially because we were going through a very vigorous and stressful inspection, which also included going out to sea, and the Hawaiian heat was at its peak during the month of June. I never would have thought a fellow servicemember—who isn’t Muslim at all—would want to go through the demanding month of Ramadan with me, let alone complete all 30 days of it. It made me so excited to see what servicemembers will go through in order to understand and support their peers.
In those 30 days, my supervisor learned more than the struggles of not eating or drinking anything from sun up to sun down, she learned why Muslims do this and what it represents, and thus she learned the history behind Ramadan, some of the teaching of the Quran, and the “five pillars of Islam.” This personal example shows how being an American of Muslim faith in the military makes me an effective representative of Islam. I and my fellow Muslim servicemembers are able to encourage others to take the knowledge we give them about Islam and make it positively influence their views on the faith, as a way to spread understanding about what Islam is properly trying to teach. This new found knowledge of Islam can aid those who fight our wars in the Middle East because they will better understand and communicate with the local populous.
When military members swear to defend the United States and its Constitution, one of the core values we are defending is “equality.” Equality is one of the core ideas of the American experiment, but throughout American history this concept has been beaten and battered around, always with a new social, religious, or ethnic group claiming its right to this value. First there were the American colonists shaking off English King George III’s reign; then there was the abolition of slavery during the US Civil War, followed by the fight to end the Segregation; and along the way the fight for women’s rights included securing a woman’s right to vote. Now we’re seeing other diverse communities—such as American Muslims—raise issues about equality.
Recently, the fight for Muslim equality has centered around political discussions of Islam, immigration, and patriotism (as in the case of the Khans and Trump) and around trying to change the perspective of those who view all Muslims as radical Islamists. As American Muslims, I and my fellow servicemembers want to help shape the image of Islam in a positive way and to encourage others to look past the image of the radical Islamist. The fight for equality might never end, but hopefully progress will always be ongoing. In my case, being able join the military as a Muslim shows me just how far the battle for equality and equal opportunity for American Muslims has come. If the United States as a whole could learn from the diverse and evolving culture of the military, we would be a stronger nation. Freedom of religion, equality under the law, and equal opportunity is what separates this nation from the rest of the world, and it is what I believe makes us the United States of America.
Syed Tanveer attended the Warrior-Scholar Program Academic Boot Camp at Syracuse University in summer 2016. He is an active duty member of the US Navy (E-5 rank) and has applied for a transfer to become a computer science major at SU in fall 2017.