Muslim Soldiers See ‘Teachable Moment’ in Ft. Hood

November 26, 2009 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

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Jamal Baadani was driving home from work outside Washington on November 5 when a friend called to tell him a gunman had shot up the Army base at Fort Hood, Texas. It didn’t take long for Baadani to learn that the suspect, Nidal Malik Hasan, was an Arab-American, a Muslim, and a member of the U.S. military. In other words, nothing like him and everything like him, all at once.

“I was just praying, man,” recalled Baadani, 45, a sergeant in the Marine Corps Reserve. “That’s just been my worst nightmare.”

[Security1]Three weeks after Hasan allegedly killed 13 people and wounded 40, even more aspects of that nightmare threaten to come true. Prominent elements of the conservative movement, particularly from the Christian right, have suggested that Arab-Americans and Muslim Americans, and especially those in the military, ought to pay for the crime. An official with a conservative organization, the American Family Association, wrote, “It is time, I suggest, to stop the practice of allowing Muslims to serve in the U.S. military.” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, asked at a congressional hearing last week if “political correctness” had prevented the military from addressing Hasan’s extremism before the shooting. More intimations of collective punishment are possible if and when Hasan stands trial. For Arab-Americans and other Muslims serving in the military, the post-Ft. Hood pressures are rising.

But Baadani and some of his Arab and Muslim friends in uniform consider it, in President Obama’s occasional phrase, a teachable moment. They are muting their frustration at having to demonstrate their patriotism in public, preferring to answer uncomfortable questions in order to promote cross-cultural unity, something they consider an opportunity that comes with the uniform they wear. After all, Colin Powell cited a New Yorker photo essay of the crescent-engraved headstones of American Muslim troops who died in Iraq and Afghanistan as an example of the national unity he hoped to inspire by voting for Obama last year.

“If we’re looking to heal divides and bridge gaps, I’m out there every day educating people about our history, culture and contributions to America,” said Baadani, the founder of the Association of Patriotic Arab Americans in Military, the support and outreach group he formed after 9/11. “We don’t have to prove we’re not terrorists. We have to prove we’re willing to work to educate our fellow countrymen.”

APAAM is an informal network Baadani put together both to provide support for other Arab and Muslim-American service personnel and to show other American communities that their communities eagerly serve in the military. It takes no money and has only as many as 200 members — active and retired military — around the country representing the group. Its outreach efforts, Baadani said in an interview, are mostly centered on the group’s website, which features stories of prominent Arab and Muslim American officers like Gen. John Abizaid, who served as commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East from 2003 to 2007. Baadani is an eager proponent of not letting even minor slights go unanswered. He replied to a derogatory email forward by writing respectfully to its author, “As a Muslim American Marine, I have lead Marines in combat on numerous occasions and since 9/11, I participated in counter-terrorism operations to pursue those terrorist bastards who attacked our country … The attachments I sent you will give you some other information regarding Muslim patriotism in helping defend our country.”

The military does not keep statistics on how many Arab-Americans or Muslims serve in its ranks. APAAM’s website estimates that 3,500 Arab-Americans and 6,000 Muslims currently serve in the military. It’s a sensitive subject. Baadani even said that he was a Methodist before his first deployment overseas, to Lebanon in 1984, explaining that he “didn’t want to attract attention to myself.” Post-Ft. Hood, the military has shown additional signs of apprehension about discussing Arab and Muslim Americans in the ranks. Although an Air Force sergeant based in Florida named Bassel Noori expressed interest in commenting for this piece, Noori’s chain of command denied a request for an interview. The Air Force, explained a public-affairs officer for Nouri’s unit, did not want to appear to be expressing a perspective on what it considered an internal Army matter.

That sensitivity makes APAAM all the more important to its members. One of Baadani’s first recruits was Ace Montasser, a Marine from Brooklyn, N.Y., whom Baadani met when both were stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C., shortly after the 9/11 attacks. “I was just a Marine under his wing,” remembered Montasser, an Iraq veteran and a 27-year-old radio DJ in Detroit. Baadani got in touch the old fashioned way: he knew Montasser’s cousin, and so placed a phone call asking if the young Marine would be interested in helping form a support organization for servicemembers like them. The organization grew from there, through family contacts and emails to friends. Media appearances soon followed, as reporters called for feature pieces about American Muslim military service.

Like several interviewed for this article, Montasser said his fellow Marines “never had an issue” with his heritage. Nidal Allis, a former Air Force intelligence expert who served in the Pentagon on 9/11, said the worst he has experienced was ignorant comments on his Facebook page from non-servicemembers. Indeed, it has been notable how in the wake of Ft. Hood, the most prominent military voices have been those like Gen. George Casey, the Army’s chief of staff, who said in a televised interview that the Army had to take care not to indicate an unwelcomeness to Arabs and Muslims. Baadani said the Marine Corps reached out to him in 2006 to help advise the service on Middle East culture while Marines serve in Iraq. Many APAAM non-online events, accordingly, come at the military’s behest, like the post-Iftar feasts hosted either at the Pentagon or at military events in Muslim countries.

Baadani hastened to add that he has not received additional accounts about internal military discrimination against Arabs and Muslims after Ft. Hood. But Allis said that he felt as if Hasan’s alleged crimes have cast a dark cloud over him. “Personally, it’s been a little challenging,” said Allis, 34, who owns his own technology company in Colorado. “I have the same first name as him. He comes from the same village my family comes from, which is in Palestine. There’s definitely been some pressure. You see it on CNN, ‘can you truly trust Muslims,’ but they forget Muslims have been fighting for this country since the Revolutionary War.”

Montasser feared for his mother, whose headscarf, he worried, might make her a target. “It’s bad enough what the media is doing to us right now, but he made it worse,” Montasser said of Hasan. “He just ruined and trampled our reputation even more. He’s made it so much harder. Arabs are not going to feel safe on the street.”

Some writers have suggested after Ft. Hood that Muslim soldiers should receive exemptions from serving in Muslim countries after accounts emerged of Hasan’s distress of a possible deployment to Afghanistan. In 2004, the Army convicted a sergeant named Abdullah Webster of violating a lawful order after Webster said his religious beliefs prevented him from serving in Iraq. But Allis blasted the idea of Muslims opting out for service in Muslim countries for the impact it would have on military discipline.

“If you’re signing up to defend this country as I did, you take on that uniform with the risk you may have to go in and fight,” Allis said. “If you have problems with that, you shouldn’t sign up.”

While the military has not indicated that it will place additional scrutiny on Arabs or Muslims, some senators at a Government Reform Committee hearing last week endorsed the creation of guidelines for the military to recognize Islamic extremism. But the hearing was light on details on what “warning signs” might be part of those guidelines, although Jack Keane, an influential retired senior Army general who helped spearhead a crackdown on white supremacists in the Army, said it would be helpful for the military to create them.

Baadani declined to comment on developments in the Senate, saying he wanted to focus on engaging and educating those who distrust Arabs and Muslims, rather than appearing political. “I approach it from the perspective of tearing down a wall, and the only way to do that is to respect one another,” he said. “I just ask people [to] hear me out. That’s the approach I always take, and the example I set. You can’t change someone’s mindset by calling someone a racist — they get defensive, draw lines, dig their heels in.”

Instead, Baadani said, he hoped APAAM would continue to provide information on its website about Arab and Muslim contributions to America. But he added that he felt the environment for Arab and Muslim-Americans is much better now than after 9/11, even in the aftermath of Ft. Hood.

“The backlash towards our community is nowhere even close,” Baadani said. “I attribute that to the intellect and the resiliency of the American people. And that’s why I’m proud to be an American.”