Muslims in the US military face pressure to prove their loyalty | News | DW | 01.08.2016
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Muslims in the US military face pressure to prove their loyalty

Donald Trump has sparked a backlash after criticizing the parents of a slain Muslim American soldier. It’s another reminder of the challenges faced by Muslims in the US military.

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 practicing 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 told DW. "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."

Mansoor Shams, US Marine

Mansoor Shams served in the US Marines for eight years

But since September 11, 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 a fever pitch this weekend 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 criticized 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.

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.

Khizr Khan and taciturn wife at the Democratic National Convention

The Khans garnered praise for their speech at the DNC in Philadelphia

A conflicted relationship

Muslim participation in the US military stretches back to World War I or earlier according to some accounts, 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.

Recognizing the value of their language skills and cultural knowledge amid the ongoing US presence in the Middle East, the Army adopted the "09 Lima" program in 2003. The program, which specializes in translation and interpretation, heavily recruits native speakers of Arabic, Pashto and Farsi, among other languages.

Donald Trump

Trump has been heavily criticized for his anti-Islam rhetoric

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 publically 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, afterward some began to look at him differently.

"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 par to 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."

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