Muslim Americans in the Military

Centuries of Service

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Edward E. Curtis, IV
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , October
     2016.
     102 pages.
     $20.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780253027177.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In the United States, Muslims have become a symbol for both sides of the political spectrum—seen as a threat by some political conservatives and as a measure of tolerance and inclusion for some political liberals. Yet this objectification of Muslim Americans, regardless of motives, is a disservice to real people. Muslim Americans in the Military: Centuries of Service is a brief book by Edward Curtis that narrates the stories of individual Muslims who have served in the American military from the American Revolution to the present day wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Curtis hopes to help American Muslims “become less symbolic and more real” in order to “appreciate Muslim American armed service members and Muslim Americans as a whole as human. Just human” (11).

The book is anecdotal: rather than provide detailed information about Muslims in the military, each chapter focuses on a few Muslims’ stories during a particular time period. Using individuals’ stories, rather than a more comprehensive historical study, helps the reader see that Muslim Americans in the military are simply ordinary Americans. Curtis’s de-symbolism of Muslims is accompanied by an implicit de-symbolism of the military, America’s most trusted institution. Curtis treats the military as a profession, but not a sacred calling. I welcome this approach—the so-called civ[ilian]-mil[itary] relations gap exists, in part, because some military personnel consider themselves superior to civilians. Treating a military career as a profession, instead of as a holy vocation, is a healthy corrective to this attitude. And Curtis is at his best when writing about Muslims whom he has interviewed, such as Army Staff Sergeant Jibril Smythe, who, rather than being outraged at the stereotypes that he has encountered, tells Curtis he has “enjoyed debunking some of the stereotypes that people have [about Muslims]” (77). Curtis’s book should leave no doubt that Muslims can serve in the American military, and have done so with excellence.

However, simply using stories to achieve this goal is also a considerable weakness of the book. Curtis does not have, or use, Department of Defense data beyond the number of Muslims serving in the American military. He cites a 2015 ABC News report to point out that “More than five thousand service members in the US Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines—both active duty and reserves—have registered as Muslim with the Department of Defense” (69). (“Registered” is an unfortunate term—“self-identified” would be better.) Yet crucial details such as military specialties, military rank, and even gender are lacking from this data, and Curtis does not fill in the gaps for his readers.

Almost six thousand Muslims serve in the American military. But where? Do Muslims tend to cluster in enlisted career fields such as military translators? How many Muslim officers serve on active duty, and are they concentrated more in combat arms branches or support branches? Do they commission from the service academies or from Reserve Officer Training Corps programs? These questions could be answered with statistical data. Even though this data would not help us much in answering more difficulty questions about integration, discrimination, and service, a book titled Muslim Americans in the Military ought to at least acknowledge these considerable gaps in research, and suggest that these areas receive further consideration. This data is difficult to compile: it requires mastering various military dialects, but it does exist.

A second weakness in Curtis’s use of stories is that some are told poorly. Curtis’s description of Major Nidal Hasan, an Army psychologist who killed thirteen soldiers and wounded thirty more at Fort Hood in 2009 is sorely lacking. Curtis writes that Hasan “became so opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and … feared being posted to Afghanistan so much, that he lashed out violently” (59). Yet Curtis never notes that officers can refuse to follow orders they perceive as unlawful (although they may have to face a court-martial), or that prior to the attacks Hasan was in contact with Anwar Al-Awlaki, a radical American Islamic cleric who was killed in Yemen by a drone strike in 2011. I left this section of the book deeply puzzled. Curtis states that Hasan’s story “has resonance because it confirms the prejudicial and powerful notion that Muslims are somehow inherently un-American” (61). This is no doubt true, and Hasan’s act ought not to justify “Islamophobia” on the part of service members. But what is one to say to the survivors when Hasan’s understanding of Islam was a factor in his rampage? Why include Major Hasan alongside Staff Sergeant Jibril Smythe?

The rest of Muslim Americans in the Military must serve as a partial response: Muslims can, and do, serve honorably, and Curtis provides many examples of this. A Nidal Hasan should not outweigh the thousands of Muslims who have served honorably in the military, just as a Timothy McVeigh, a veteran who was convicted and executed for the 1995 Oklahoma City federal building bombing, should not outweigh the thousands of Christians who have served honorably. Within the military, our best hope of eradicating service members’ fears of Islam will not come from books or lectures or mandatory annual training, but from personal interactions. It is my hope that Curtis’s book will not only be read by members of the military who are interested in or concerned about Muslims, but by American Muslims who are concerned about or interested in the military. American Muslims have much to offer our military. I hope to see more of them among our ranks.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Major Brandon Colas is Instructor of International Affairs at the United States Military Academy at West Point.  This review does not represent the views of the United States Army or the United States Military Academy.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Edward E. Curtis, IV is the author of several books, including Muslims in America: A Short History.

Keywords: 

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