US presidential election

Ever the aliens

Donald Trump has sparked a backlash after criticising the parents of a slain Muslim American soldier. It′s another reminder of the challenges faced by Muslims in the US military. By Brandon Conradis

After serving in the US Marines for eight years beginning in October 2000, Mansoor Shams never thought he′d have to one day prove his patriotism to his fellow Americans. A practising Muslim who came to the US from Pakistan when he was six years old, Shams, now 34, joined the military mainly as a way "to get on my own two feet," but also because he felt a sense of duty to his adopted country.

"My faith taught me that I must be loyal to my country of residence," he explained. "This message that′s being portrayed to the West that Muslims are not loyal to their country is a thought that never occurred to me."

But since 11 September 2001, he said, pressure to disprove that message has been dogging Muslims in the US – even those who′ve donned a uniform. And that pressure has only mounted in recent months with the rise of Donald Trump, whose anti-Islam rhetoric reached fever pitch earlier this month with his criticism of Khizr and Ghazala Khan, whose son was killed while serving as an Army captain in Iraq in 2004.

A growing rift

Trump′s comments – in which he criticised Ghazala for her silence as she stood by her husband on stage and Khizr for his accusations that Trump had "sacrificed nothing" – sparked an immediate backlash from both Republicans and Democrats.

The Khans' appearance at the Democrat National Convention in Philadelphia
Muslim participation in the US military is down since 9/11: according to an ABC News report from last December, of the nearly 2.2 million current active-duty and reserve members of the US military, only 5,896 self-identify as Muslim

For Muslim Americans such as Shams, the incident showed the growing rift between themselves and other fellow countrymen.

"There′s not enough conversation about Muslim sacrifice to the United States of America," Shams said, noting that Muslims have a long legacy of serving in the military.

A conflicted relationship

According to some accounts, Muslim participation in the US military stretches back to the First World War or earlier, but the military has noticeably struggled to recruit members of the religion in the wake of 9/11. Of the nearly 2.2 million current active-duty and reserve members of the US military, only 5,896 self-identify as Muslim, according to an ABC News report from last December.

Recognising the value of their language skills and cultural knowledge amid the ongoing US presence in the Middle East, the Army adopted the "09 Lima" programme in 2003. The programme, which specialises in translation and interpretation, focuses on recruiting native speakers of Arabic, Pashto and Farsi, among other languages.

But Muslims in the US military have also been confronted with suspicion and even anger over the past several years. In 2009, US Army Medical Corps psychiatrist Nidal Hasan shot 13 people to death and injured more than 30 others at Ft. Hood, a military base in Texas. Many in the Muslim-American community felt pressured to publicly condemn Hasan′s actions.

Fighting suspicion

Shams, who spent four years as an active-duty marine at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, picked up on some of that distrust in the wake of 9/11. While before fellow soldiers hardly seemed to care that he was openly Muslim, afterwards some began to look at him differently.

Trump is renowned for his heavily anti-Islamic rhetoric
Countering negative with positive: "in an effort to educate the public about the Muslim experience in the US, Shams has started a website called MuslimMarine.org, which he hopes will offer a more positive view of his religion than the one shared by the New York billionaire," writes Conradis

"I did experience a level of Islamophobia. It wasn′t as prevalent then as it is today," he said.

Shams said he was impressed by what Khizr Khan did, getting up on stage in front of the entire nation to denounce Trump. And he said he was appalled by Trump′s response, dismissing the billionaire′s claim that building hotels and hiring lots of people was a form of sacrifice on a par with that of the Khans′ son.

Other Muslim Americans felt similarly and began sharing photos of Muslim military members on social media. One user, himself a Muslim marine, tweeted a photo of the Khans′ late son.

In an effort to educate the public about the Muslim experience in the US, Shams has started a website called MuslimMarine.org, which he hopes will offer a more positive view of his religion than the one shared by the New York billionaire.

"America needs to know that a man with brown skin or black hair doesn′t always equal a terrorist," Shams said. "That could be your soldier that just died for your country."

Brandon Conradis

© Deutsche Welle 2016

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