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SERVING ISLAM IN THE U.S. MILITARY

By Will Martin
(McClatchy Newspapers/Beaufort Gazette)

When Lance Cpl. Usman Aleen joins Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort's other Marines for their daily runs this week, his body will be lacking two essentials: food and water. In fact, he won't have had anything to eat or drink since sunrise.

"I still run when I'm fasting," said Aleen. "I don't want it to be, 'He's cheating himself out of this run.'"

Aleen's self-deprivation isn't born of neglect but devotion.

Aleen is one of only three Muslims stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, a striking minority not uncommon in the Armed Forces.

According to the Pentagon, fewer than 4,000 Muslims serve in the U.S. military. Even when the figure is adjusted for the fact that reporting one's religious preference is optional, estimates rarely exceed 10,000, a marked contrast to the military's 1.2 million Christians.

In America, Muslims practice the nation's fastest-growing religion. In the Marines, they scarcely outnumber witches (426 Muslims to 354 Wiccans.)

Aleen is one of the few, but he's also among the proud, and his decision to participate in unit runs during Ramadan, Islam's holiest month of fasting and reflection, exemplifies the many challenges -- and opportunities -- facing Muslims in the U.S. military.

"Everybody on the air station almost always knows that I'm not a Christian; I'm a Muslim," said Aleen, a 27-year-old son of Pakistani immigrants. "For the most part, they treat me just the same way."

Serving amid a war on terror that targets his faith's most-extreme elements, Aleen can only hope for equal treatment from other Marines. His air station co-workers happily oblige, sparing him none of their good-natured ribbing.

"In a joking way, they'll say, 'Hey, you're one of the insiders.'" said Aleen. "I take it all with a good sense of humor; I don't let it get to me."

Aleen's path to Islam was direct; he was raised Muslim. His introduction to America and the Marines was more diverse.

Born in Saudi Arabia and raised in the United Arab Emirates, Aleen came to the U.S. with his parents as a teen in 1994. After enjoying success in the classroom and on the soccer field -- "a very good upbringing" -- he did a very American thing: He went off to college.

While enrolled at Louisiana State University, Aleen watched media reports with horror as Muslim militants orchestrated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. His heart sank.

"This is not going to be pretty," he remembers thinking.

Aleen "wanted to believe" Muslim communities would escape any repercussions, but as police patrols and hate crimes increased in his neighborhood, the "truth came out." It was a bad time to be Muslim in America.

Aleen, however, stayed focused: "I was in college. ... I was more worried about school."

Amid the diversity of the university environment, Aleen was embraced. He loved how Americans typically "judge first by your personality," enjoying warm relationships with non-Muslims in the community. After graduation, he pondered how to better himself and express his gratitude to the nation that welcomed him as a teen.

In May 2005, he joined the Marines.

The acceptance Aleen experienced in college has carried over to the Marines.

When asked to go out for a drink, he honors his faith by passing on the alcohol and offering instead to drive. His ethnicity and religion -- hot-button issues among America's media -- arouse little more than amiable curiosity among co-workers and friends. And while Beaufort's bases lack a Muslim chaplain, they've done "whatever they could in their power" toward meeting his spiritual needs, said Aleen.

In the end, he's just another Marine.

"We all wear the same uniform," he said.

Many outside the military, however, seem less ready to give him the benefit of the doubt.

A 2006 Washington Post poll found negative attitudes toward Muslims in the U.S. have grown since the months closely following the Sept. 11 attacks.

According to Gallup pollsters, 39 percent of Americans confess to a prejudice toward Muslims and favor requiring religious identification "as a means of preventing terrorist attacks in the United States." Twenty-two percent affirm they would not want Muslims as neighbors.

"I tend to overlook it or not pay too much attention to it," Aleen said of societal attitudes. "I realize I can't take the news on face value, either."

Amid this climate of mistrust, a number of watchdog Internet sites have emerged warning of a "fifth column," a term for the alleged infiltration of the U.S. military by Islamic extremists. Islam, they state, is a religion of the sword, and no blade is sharper than the U.S. Armed Forces.

"Political correctness is running amok inside the military," writes Paul Sperry of FrontPageMagazine.com. "Chief chaplains for the Navy, Army and Air Force routinely meet with top leaders from the Islamic Society of North America for PC powwows, even though ISNA is a Saudi-backed group with ties to terrorists."

Such sites contend that world domination -- and the violence it necessitates -- are the stated goals of Islam.

"One of the common elements to all Islamic schools of thought is jihad, understood as the obligation ... to conquer and subdue the world in the name of Allah and rule it under Sharia law," writes New York Times best-selling author Robert Spencer on JihadWatch.org. "All (Islamic schools) agree that there is a collective obligation on Muslims to make war on the rest of the world."

"It could not be further from the truth," retorts Chaudry Sadiq, president of the South Carolina chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. While Sadiq acknowledges that Islam, like most major religions, has seen its share of battles, Muslims, he said, do not subscribe to a militant theology.

"Islam by definition is 'peace'; that's a matter of fact," said Sadiq. "An extension of that, and this is in the Holy Quran, is that if one person is killed, it's as if you you've taken the life of the whole of humanity. If you save one life, you've saved all humanity."

Academic insights on the nature of Islam, while less passionate, are nearly as conflicted.

Princeton University's Bernard Lewis might be the West's foremost academic authority on Islam, boasting a string of bestselling books and the ear of White House policymakers.

Lewis states in his "The Crisis of Islam" that Muslim terrorists, while perverting the application of the Islam's sacred texts -- "At no point do the basic texts of Islam enjoin terrorism and murder" -- are drawing upon elements inherent to the faith.

"In Muslim tradition, the world is divided into two houses: the House of Islam (Dar al-Islam), in which Muslims governments rule and Muslim law prevails, and the House of War (Dar al-Harb), the rest of the world, still inhabited and, more important, ruled by infidels," writes Lewis. "The presumption is that the duty of Jihad will continue, interrupted only by truces, until all the world either adopts the Muslim faith or submits to Muslim rule."

"To be fair, the question should be 'Are Muslims militant or peace-loving?' and the answer, of course, is: 'It depends on the Muslim,'" counters Barbara Brown Taylor, former Episcopalian priest and chair of religion and philosophy at Piedmont College in northwest Georgia. "In the Quran there are 192 references to God's compassion and mercy and only 17 references to God's wrath and vengeance, so if Muslims mean to surrender to God ... then there should be no question which one wins."

Shirin Taber writes books. She's never been to war, never worn a military uniform. Yet when she considers how Aleen and other Muslims in the Armed Forces live as bridges between often-conflicting cultures, she speaks from experience.

"I imagine there would always be this nervous energy, feeling this constant tension," said Taber. "It's a tightrope experience."

As a junior high student in 1979 in Bellvue, Wash., Taber found herself surrounded by a pack of 12-year-old boys just outside the girls' restroom.

They circled and scorned, accomplishing with their tongues what their fists never could. Her crime? Being born to an Iranian father.

That year, radical Islam and the West collided when Iranian militants took 52 Americans hostage, giving rise to severe anti-Iranian sentiment in the U.S.

"I felt that nothing could be worse than being from Iran," Taber recalls.

Taber later converted to Christianity, drawing healing and strength from her faith. It was with regret, then, that she witnessed the "flames of suspicion" smoldering among U.S. Christians in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

In 2004, she authored "Muslims Next Door," a plea for greater understanding of the followers of Islam. Most Americans' grasp of Muslim culture is pervaded by absolutist myths, she contends: All Muslims are Arabs; all Muslims hate the West; all Muslims are radical fundamentalists. How Americans interact with servicemembers like Aleen, she said, might prove key to transforming skewed perceptions.

"Just because (a service member's) name is Muhammad, we can't assume he represents the fundamentalists we see on the evening news." Taber said. "He doesn't have an interest in a world conspiracy to have Islam take over the world."

Aleen isn't interested in conquering the world, but he would like to help change it.

"When I joined, it wasn't a very big, grand reason," he confesses. But living as a bridge between cultures -- Muslim and military, East and West -- has since expanded Aleen's vision.

"I can't start pointing fingers until I decide to do something about (stereotypes)," Aleen said. "I look at the news, and I see Muslims killing Muslims; I have no right to question the media. It's the Muslims who have to correct themselves first."

Today, he interprets that as working hard, treating his neighbor with kindness and living out his faith with integrity. In short, he lives by example. But he conceives of a bigger, grander future.

"I want to go to Afghanistan," said Aleen.

In Afghanistan, Aleen sees an opportunity to impact Muslims in much the same way he's impacted Marines: by just being present.

"These people in Afghanistan are mostly uneducated, and their first tendency is (to think) Americans, West, infidels," he said. "They put all these three things together pretty quickly.

"Maybe they fail to realize that ... it's not a war against Islam; it's a war against terrorism. I want to show from my example when I'm over there, this is not a war against Islam."

"These are very, very trying challenges for an individual," said Sadiq, in reference to Muslim servicemembers serving in the Middle East. "Naturally, you go into a country that the action is centered on those (Muslim) countries, and there is often a huge conflict within one's self. It doesn't make things easy."

But, added Sadiq, "When there's a challenge, there's an opportunity to put things right."

Aleen believes that by honoring his faith and serving his country, he can help to put things right, both abroad and at home.

"(My) everyday life is my way of impacting opinions -- what these Marines or my friends think about Islam," said Aleen.