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U.S. Air Force Capt. Muhammad: A Muslim American

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 11, 2002 – When hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon last year, Air Force Capt. "Muhammad" had just left his office in the military headquarters known as "the building."

Muhammad, whose real name is withheld for security reasons, is one of an estimated 15,000 Muslims in the U.S. military. He was on his way to a meeting at a nearby office complex when he heard news of the terrorist attack. His first thought was to call his mother back home in the Midwest.

"I was lucky that I was able to do that, because she got inundated with phone calls from people who knew I worked in the Pentagon," Muhammad said. "Shortly after, I couldn't even dial out to make calls to anybody else. That night, I was finally able to get through and we started talking."

The captain and his family worried about a backlash against Muslims in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Muhammad said he had not previously experienced any kind of bias or racism, but he and his family heard about a Sikh who was shot in Arizona and news of other attacks.

"This discussion continued for a few days, especially the more incidents we heard about," Muhammad recalled. "In the back of your mind, you worry about your family and what could possibly happen."

About 7 million Muslims live in the United States. An FBI report issued Nov. 25, 2002, indicates that of the 9,726 incidents of hate crimes committed in 2001, 481 were against Muslims.

Muhammad said his family's fears about backlash eased when members of the community they'd lived in for 20 years made their feelings known.

"On the 13th of September last year," Muhammad said, "I called my Mom, and she said, 'You won't believe what just happened tonight.' We were walking up the steps of the mosque and there was a bouquet of flowers and a lit candle and a card signed by all the churches and synagogues in the area. The card said, 'You all have been a member of our community for the past 20 years. We love you, you're safe, you have nothing to worry about."

"Before Sept. 11, there'd been a lot of interfaith exchanges, and I think that's what really helped," Muhammad noted. "People generally fear what they don't understand. It's a challenge for all of us to take the time to learn about different faiths and teachings so that we don't fear one another and we actually do unite in time of crisis."

Muhammad, who enlisted in the military 13 years ago, said his religion was not represented in the military's chaplain's corps back then. "Today, to see that the services have imams is really amazing," he said.

While the attacks on America have affected the whole nation, Muhammad said "being Muslim and being in the armed services, it's kind of been a double-edged sword. We've been hit twice as hard as any other community has been hit."

Unfortunately, he said, like many religions throughout history, Islam is now linked with terrorism.

"Terrorism has been associated with all religions," Muhammad stressed. "If you look at the battles in Ireland between the Catholics and the Protestants, or the battles that have taken place in India and Pakistan and even in Africa -- Islam is being tarnished right now.

"That's why I strongly recommend people make an effort to understand what people believe in, and understand that the majority of the people who practice Islam are people of faith," he said. "They're people who believe in a single God who created Adam and Eve. We believe in heaven and hell. If anything, in Islam, you believe in all the prophets that God sent, including Moses and Jesus."

Muslims are very proud of their faith, he said, but perhaps they haven't done a good job in reaching out to their communities. He hopes they'll do more outreach efforts in the future, for he believes the war on terrorism is going to be a long one and the nation must remain strong.

"We need our diversity to be our strength," Muhammad said.

The U.S. military, for example, successfully brings people together, he said. "Inside the military, because we're such a cross-cultural organization, you feel safe in really having intellectual discussions about religion.

"As a society, we're not encouraged to talk about religion or politics," Muhammad said. "The fact that in the military, in certain circles, you feel comfortable doing that is a reflection of the caliber of the people that are in the military today."

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