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Islam Growing in America, U.S. Military

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 4, 2001 – "Islam is peace," President Bush said. And the United States is not against the religion of Islam, he stresses, but those who pervert the religion to support terrorism and mass murder.

Muslims, those who believe in Islam, are everywhere in the United States. They may be your doctor or drive your taxi. They may serve you in restaurants or advise you in law. And they increasingly may be in the same foxhole, manning the same position or working on the same aircraft as you.

Islam is the second-largest religion in the world, counting more than 1.3 billion believers. Americans have the misconception that all Muslims are Arabs and that all Arabs are Muslims. In fact, less than 20 percent of the Muslims in the world are Arab, and all Arab countries have populations that believe in other religions. The nation with the world's largest Islamic population is Indonesia -- 88 percent of its 280 million people are Muslims.

In the United States, Islam is the fastest growing religion, a trend fueled mostly by immigration. There are 5 million to 7 million Muslims in the United States. They make up between 10,000 and 20,000 members of the American military.

Army Chaplain (Capt.) Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad is a Muslim Imam stationed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. In his chaplaincy, he ministers to all faiths.

Imam Muhammad said Muslims all believe in the Five Pillars of the Faith. "The foundation of the faith, or Shahada, is the testimony in the belief in one God and that Muhammad is the messenger of God," he said.

Another of the pillars is prayer. Muslims pray to Allah five times a day, at dawn, midday, afternoon, evening and night. Wherever they are, they bow in the direction of Mecca, the Saudi Arabian city where Muhammad was born, for their prayers.

Charity is another pillar, Imam Muhammad said. "One gives a minimum of 2.5 percent of their wealth to the Islamic community yearly," he said.

Another requirement is fasting during the month of Ramadan each year. Ramadan begins Nov. 18 this year.

Finally, Muslims are expected, if possible, to make a pilgrimage to Mecca once in a lifetime. This is the Hajj to the Grand Mosque.

In addition to prayer, a requirement of Islam is to not eat pork and not consume alcohol. Muslims gather at mosques for religious services, called Jumah, on Fridays just after mid-noon. Like many other religions, men typically do not mix with women during worship.

Muslim women wear the headscarf, or hijab, and all Muslims must dress modestly. Men may wear a head covering called a kufi, but it is not a requirement of the faith. The chaplain said one of the obstacles for Muslim women serving in the U.S. military is that commanders may authorize them to wear the hijab or not. "Some do, some don't," he said.

Muslims accept vast portions of the Bible and accept many Judeo-Christian teachings. Islam sees Jesus Christ as a very holy man, but not the Son of God. But Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad received the revealed word of God -- and that is Islam's holy book, the Koran.

Like the Bible, the Koran is open to interpretation, up to a point. "Those terrorists must be reading a completely different Koran than the rest of us," said Marine Corps Capt. Aisha Bakkar-Poe. Bakkar-Poe is from Kentucky. Her father comes from Syria and her mother from the states.

She said her co-workers have been asking her about Islam since the attacks in New York and Washington. "The question I get most often is, 'Who is this Allah guy,'" she said. "And how could these fanatics make these attacks.

"I try to answer their questions and explain that Islam does not believe in killing innocent men, women and children."

Army Capt. Arneshuia Balial, a nurse instructor at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and a Muslim, said the terrorists claiming to act in the name of Islam was "like a knife through my heart -- that people would practice Al-Islam, but do deeds like what they've done. It's not true faith. Some people twist religion to the way they think." Balial converted to Islam in 1987. She said the religion is more than just a set of beliefs, it is a way of life.

Army Sgt. Jamal Abdel-Wahed is a medical supply specialist at Walter Reed. Born in Jordan, he moved to the United States in 1986 and is now a citizen. Abdel-Wahed said he has a good working relationship with his co-workers.

"The people I work with are all professionals, and we deal with each other in a professional manner," he said. Like many other Muslims in America he worries about the effect the terrorist strike will have on his family. He said he hasn't experienced any discrimination, but has heard reports. "I am proud of what I am, who I am and what I believe in," he said.

All of the Muslim service members said they would have no problem going to war against terrorism. "This isn't about Islam," Bakkar-Poe said. "It's about terrorism."

Chaplain Muhammad said service members must understand that their fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen who are Muslim are just like they are. "It's important for all of us to see ourselves as coming from the same origin," he said. "It's too easy for people to get off on what's different.

"People have a way of just being people," he continued. "That nature God has already put into us. There's not one Polish nature or Italian nature or Muslim nature or Christian nature. It's just human nature. When people get to the essence of what makes us who we are, then that's what binds us together.

"The Koran says that God created us different nations and tribes that we may come to know each other, not that we should hate or despise each other."

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