'Who are we as a people?'
November 8, 2016
The author of a new book on Muslim Americans in the United States military hopes it will lead U.S. readers to ask this question: "Who are we as a people, and who do we want to become?"
In "Muslim Americans in the Military: Centuries of Service," Edward E. Curtis IV, professor of religious studies and Millennium Chair of the Liberal Arts in the School of Liberal Arts, profiles Muslim soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen who have served in this country's armed services since the Revolutionary War.
Among the stories told in the book are those of Bilali Mahomet of Sapelo Island, Georgia, who stood ready to repel the British in the War of 1812, and of John Omar of Quincy, Massachusetts, who was awarded a Purple Heart after being injured in a bombing campaign thousands of feet above German territory in World War II.
The first chapter of the book focuses on two fallen soldiers named Kareem Khan and Humayun Khan, why their images became part of the presidential elections of 2016 and 2008, and how the Muslim solider sits at the symbolic center of what it means to be an American today.
Kareem Khan, a Muslim soldier who was killed with three other soldiers in Iraq in 2007 after a bomb detonated while they were checking abandoned houses for explosives, entered the 2008 presidential election when Republican Colin Powell concluded his endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama by referring to him.
Curtis explains that moment, saying Powell had been deeply troubled by anti-Arab, anti-Muslim rhetoric by Republicans as well as personal attacks by Republicans on Obama, intimating that he was Muslim.
"Of course Obama is not a Muslim," Curtis said. "But Powell said the real question to ask about Obama was not whether he is a Muslim, but so what if he is? Do we want a boy like Kareem Khan who is willing to sacrifice his blood for his nation to grow up thinking he can't be president?"
Powell answered that question, saying, "No, that's not what America is."
Humayun Kahn was killed in 2004 in a suicide attack near Baqubah, Iraq, and was posthumously awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. He became part of the 2016 election when Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump derided his parents for their appearance at the Democratic National Convention.
In the book, Curtis examines why some African-American Muslims, such as Muhammad Ali, refused military service in the Vietnam War and how many of these same Muslims became the military's strongest supporters after 1975. He also takes a close look at the controversial cases of James Yee, falsely accused of treason, and Nidal Hasan, who murdered 12 soldiers and one civilian.
"America is split about Muslims in general, and that split plays out in how Americans view Muslims in the military, with half of the country thinking Muslim soldiers are a fifth column of enemies inside our walls," Curtis said.
Much of the book is composed of vignettes and stories that give readers real pictures of Muslims who have served their country over the last 200 years, Curtis said.
Curtis hopes readers will realize that Muslims are human beings who are complicated: "They are not all good and not all bad; they're normal human beings.
"Once they've read this book, I'd like for them to search their hearts and ask whether the fact that Muslims have always served the country in uniform gives them a different image of Muslims in America," he said.