Muslims In The U.S. Military: An Overview

Religion has never been any kind of obstacle or prerequisite for service in the U.S. military. Whether you are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, atheist, Hindu – if you feel a calling to sacrifice for the freedoms the rest of us enjoy, you have that right and privilege as an American.

While religious faith plays a role in case a soldier, airman, marine or sailor is killed in combat (to know the right burial rituals to follow at Arlington National Cemetery), generally a person’s religious affiliation plays no role in a person’s assignment either on the front lines or in support of the combat forces. You serve where you are sent.

Because religion is never an issue in military service, it is often difficult to actually know much about the history of a particular religion within the military without people overtly stating or sharing their beliefs. It is believed, however, that Muslims have a long history of service in the armed forces, believed to go back as far as the Revolutionary War, fighting for the rebels.

Is it true? There is some reason to believe that it’s possible, but as we can often note, a person’s last name doesn’t always give away their religious affiliation, only their ethnic background. But the history of Muslims in the military has come to the forefront in recent months, due to comments made by then-presidential candidate Donald Trump about Muslim-American parents of Army Capt. Humayun Khan, who was killed in Iraq in 2004, comments which disparaged them after they were presented on stage during the 2016 Democrat national convention.

There is a book out now that discusses the history of Muslims in the military, and there is a Wikipedia page dedicated to the subject, as questions about the honor and sacrifice of Muslims have risen to the fore because of the comments made by Mr. Trump during the campaign. It wasn’t until Trump brought up the subject that anyone had even questioned the courage of sacrifice of Muslims in the military as any different than the sacrifice by Christian, Jewish and atheist servicemen and women.

And it is certainly not to say that any sacrifice should be questioned based on any religious or cultural grounds. Sacrifice is sacrifice for one’s country, regardless of background, talk about your workplace injuries.

It is believed, however, that one of the earliest Muslim soldiers in the U.S. military was Cpl. Bampett Muhamed, who served in Virginia back in 1775. The truth is we do not know unequivocally that Muhamed was a Muslim; he was certain to be of Arab descent. Much of the history is based on guesses – not necessarily informed hypotheses, but rather from some blind bigotry based on a name.

However, it is noted that an estimated 15,000 Muslims fought for the United States in World War II, focused in the North African theater, and at least a dozen known Muslims died in the Vietnam Conflict. Nearly 300 Muslims are confirmed to have served in the Civil War for one side or the other.

Perhaps the most noteworthy Muslim service member was Marine Col. Douglas Burpee, who was a 27-year veteran helicopter pilot who converted to Islam while a student at USC in the late 1970s. When he retired he was the highest-ranking Muslim to serve in the Marine Corps.

Thanks to Donald Trump, the role and value of Muslims in the military is being explored with more vigor and interest than perhaps at any other time, and those who did serve with distinction need to be honored not only by all Americans but also by the Muslim brethren who have unfailing loyalty to their brothers and sisters in arms as well as to their country.