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Uncle Sam wants US Muslims to serve

The Pentagon builds Islamic prayer rooms and hires imams to make military life more appealing.

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As US troops battle Islamic extremists abroad, the Pentagon and the armed forces are reaching out to Muslims at home.

An underlying goal is to interest more Muslims in the military, which needs officers and troops who can speak Arabic and other relevant languages and understand the culture of places like Iraq and Afghanistan. The effort is also part of a larger outreach. Pentagon officials say they are striving for mutual understanding with Muslims at home and abroad and to win their support for US war aims. Among the efforts to attract and retain Muslim cadets:

•West Point and the other service academies have opened Muslim prayer rooms, as have military installations.

•Imams serve full- and part-time as chaplains at the academies and some bases.

•Top non-Muslim officers and Pentagon officials have taken to celebrating religious events with Muslims overseas and here in the US.

"There is a message here, and that is that Muslims and the Islamic religion are totally compatible with Western values," says Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England in an interview.

For the past two years, Mr. England has hosted an iftar, the feast that ends the daytime fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, at the Army Navy Country Club in Arlington, Va. His guests have included ambassadors, leaders of the Muslim-American community, and Muslims who serve in the US armed forces.

President Bush also hosted an iftar at the White House in October, as he has done for several years. Gen. Robert Magnus, the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, held one the same month at the Marine Corps Barracks in Washington for defense attachés from predominantly Muslim nations.

The US armed services don't recruit by religion, but the Pentagon estimates at least 3,386 Muslims were serving in the US military as of September. No precise figures are available because, while US service members are surveyed on their religion, they aren't required to disclose it. Advocacy groups put the number at 15,000, saying many are reluctant to reveal their religion. African-Americans represent the largest share of Muslims in uniform, they add.

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