November 11, 2020
By: Adam Beddawi, MPAC Policy Analyst
American Muslims have been an essential part of our American community, dating back to our nation’s founding and on through the epochal shifts which maintained the union. One under-appreciated component of our American Muslim faith and practice has been the long history of Muslims serving in the military. This Veteran’s Day, it is important to highlight the role that American Muslims in the military play in protecting and serving our nation on the frontlines.
This is particularly true today, given President Trump’s recent attempts to demean the bravery of our troops and undermine our nation’s defense capabilities through his recent government agency appointments. Just yesterday, Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper, which set off a wave of replacement procedures which, in effect, gave Anthony Tata control of the Pentagon’s policy division. Earlier this year, Trump attempted to nominate Tata to a position within the U.S. Pentagon, but the hearing was cancelled over concerns regarding Tata’s history of Islamophobic statements. In a series of tweets from 2018, Tata called Islam “the ‘most oppressive violent religion I know of’,” called former President Barack Obama “a ‘terrorist leader’ and referred to him as Muslim.” This is not the first time that President Trump has leveraged anti-Muslim bigotry in service of his political ends. Altogether, these two actions ignore a fact which should, by now, be common understanding: American Muslims have been a core reason for the strength and endurance of this nation.
According to recent estimates, roughly 5,000 Muslims serve in the US military, and an additional 10,000 serve as linguists and analysts.
These service members continue in a long lineage of Muslims who served this nation during its era-defining military conflicts. During the American Revolutionary War, many Muslim slaves were compelled into service and fought bravely. During the War of 1812, an African slave by the name of Bilali Muhammad led a group of 80 soldiers, most of whom were fellow Muslim slaves, in defense of Georgia’s Sapelo island from British attacks. During the American Civil War, multiple Muslims achieved high-ranking official positions in the US military, working to transition America away from its insidious slave plantocracy.
Despite these robust examples, much of the breadth and depth of American Muslim military service is obscured by the de facto and de jure repression of Islam in the American imaginary (for instance, well into the 1950s, service members could only identify as Christian or Jewish on their dog tags). Abdullah Igram, a World War II veteran and community leader from Cedar Rapids, Iowa — home to the Mother Mosque of America, which is one of the earliest mosques in American history — led the charge to include Islam as a possible identification for service members. He appealed his case to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who would go on to be the first American president to visit a mosque. Igram worked steadfast to ensure that many of his fellow service members understood his Islamic faith for what it was, not what it was represented as. His practical application of his faith is as much an example for Muslims around the world as it is for Americans in the United States. His is just one of many examples of American Muslim service members extending their faith commitment to the betterment of the broader American mosaic. Placed in the broader context of American Muslim military involvement, it constitutes a longstanding commitment to this nation’s finding ideals. The lesson is needed now more than ever.
If we take a step back, we can see that Trump’s staffing decisions threaten the very strength and endurance which American Muslims have fought for through their military service. That he is doing so through anti-Muslim bigotry just adds injury to insult. Today, we must remember the longstanding commitment of American Muslims to the strength of the nation and steadfastly condemn any and all attempts to weaken it through a politically expedient use of anti-Muslim bigotry.