Since the Revolutionary War, Muslim Americans have served in the United States military, risking their lives to defend a country that increasingly looks at them with suspicion and fear. In Muslim Americans in the Military: Centuries of Service, Edward E. Curtis illuminates the long history of Muslim service members who have defended their country and struggled to practice their faith.
With profiles of soldiers, marines, airmen, and sailors since the dawn of our country, Curtis showcases the real stories of Muslim Americans, from Omer Otmen, who fought fiercely against German forces during World War I, to Captain Humayun Khan, who gave his life in Iraq in 2004. These true stories contradict the narratives of hate and fear that have dominated recent headlines, revealing the contributions and sacrifices that these soldiers have made to the United States.
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Muslim Americans in the Military
Centuries of Service
By Edward E. Curtis IV
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2016 Edward E. Curtis IV
All rights reserved.
TWO FALLEN SOLDIERS NAMED KHAN
Army Reserves Captain Humayun Khan, twenty-seven years old, knew that sacrifice might be required.
Could he know how symbolic that sacrifice would become?
It was his day off, but Khan wanted to check on the troops under his command. His mission, according to Khan's senior officer, retired Maj. Gen. Dana J. H. Pitard, was to protect wheeled convoys and guard the gates of Forward Operating Base Warhorse in eastern Iraq. "The 201st Forward Support Battalion, Humayun's unit," later wrote Pitard, "was the most motivated and combat-oriented logistics unit I had ever seen."
More than one thousand Iraqis worked at Camp Warhorse, and Khan's unit was responsible for inspecting their cars. According to Pitard, "We had killed or wounded several innocent Iraqi drivers at our gates over the previous month for failing to heed our warning signs and our gate guards' instructions." But Khan consistently worked to improve relations with the Iraqi workers and would do everything possible to prevent further accidents.
Khan worked from midnight to noon on June 7, 2004, and he was tired. Sgt. Crystal Shelby spoke freely with him, telling him that he needed to get some rest before working further.
But Khan insisted, as he was worried. Shelby drove him to the base entrance.
Khan was well-liked among his troops in the 201st Forward Support Battalion, First Infantry. According to S.Sgt. Marie Legros, he was a "soldier's soldier ... just that type of person, wanting to make sure his soldiers were okay."
Sgt. Laci Walker said that he "never put his rank about his care for his soldiers and comrades." Khan would throw an extra towel to someone in need, and he made sure that everyone knew they could steal sandwich condiments from his personal stash.
He tried to protect troops in harm's way, putting himself between those under his command and the danger.
Soon after arriving at the base entrance on June 8, 2004, he saw an orange taxi winding its way through the gate's serpentine barriers. This was during "the morning rush" at Camp Warhorse, when Iraqi workers would enter the base. Khan ordered his solders to get down. He walked toward the vehicle and gestured to the driver, indicating that he should stop. "Humayun probably moved toward the suspicious vehicle to avoid killing the driver unnecessarily," reasoned Pitard.
A bomb detonated.
It killed Khan, two Iraqi civilians, and two insurgents.
Khan was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors and Islamic funeral prayers. He was awarded a Bronze Star, a military medal for heroism, and a Purple Heart, the medal given to armed service members who were killed or injured in the line of duty.
Capt. Humayun Saqib Muazzam Khan (1976–2004) was one of three to six million Americans who identify as Muslim, followers of the religion of Islam. Born in the United Arab Emirates, where his family was living at the time, he traced his roots to Pakistan, a country inhabited by about 10 percent of all the world's Muslims, around 167 million people. About one quarter of all Muslims in the United States have ethnic roots in South Asia, which includes the countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, and depending on who is counting, Afghanistan.
South Asian American Muslims are among the approximately four thousand active duty military members — and a perhaps a couple thousand more in the reserves — who identify themselves officially on Department of Defense documents as Muslims.
Khan was also one of over a dozen Muslims who gave his life in the post–9/11 era as a member of the armed forces.
He came to the United States as a little boy and grew up around the Greater Washington, DC, area. Khan graduated from John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring, Maryland, in 1996, and went to college at the University of Virginia. He enrolled in the US Army's Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC), which trains future officers while they are still in college. He wanted to become a lawyer.
Khan graduated from the University of Virginia in 2000 and was planning on attending law school.
And then came the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and subsequent wars in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003).
Khan had to delay his plans for law school. In 2002, he was posted to Vilseck, Germany, and during a visit to a local Bavarian café, he struck up a conversation with a German woman named Irene Auer. "He had a beautiful voice," she remembered.
Khan and Auer began dating, spending weekends together in his apartment, which was located outside the base. They enjoyed debating everything from the meaning of life to the war in Iraq. Auer was opposed to the US invasion; Khan said that he would do his duty. "You know that I am married," he said jokingly to Auer. "I am married to the US Army."
When his mother, Ghazala Khan, visited him in 2003, he introduced his girlfriend to her. Then, Auer flew to the United States to meet his father, Khizr Khan. By the time Khan had to leave for Iraq on February 9, 2004, they had decided to get married. An email from Iraq encouraged Auer to pick out her engagement ring.
Shortly after, Khan was killed.
A dozen years later, this soldier's sacrifice was transformed into a political symbol during the US presidential contest between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump. Capt. Humayun Khan's story became a debate over what it means to be an American.
On the final night of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Khizr Khan gave a speech immediately before Chelsea Clinton, who introduced her mother, Hillary Clinton. The fact that the speech was given so close to the candidate's acceptance speech itself shows just how important the message was to the candidate's campaign.
Ghazala Khan stood next to her husband. She was wearing a blue, loose-fitting headscarf that partially covered her hair — a typical Pakistani style also worn by former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto. Khizr Khan wore a dark suit and blue necktie. (Blue is the color of the Democratic Party.)
He began his speech by acknowledging the service of all veterans and all those still in military uniform, saying that he and his wife were "patriotic American Muslims with undivided loyalty to our country." His meaning was clear: some Americans may think you cannot be Muslim and American, and he wanted to correct that.
He went on to identify himself with other important American symbols — immigrant success, democracy, and hard work. Then came praise of Hillary Clinton and criticism of Donald Trump. In an earlier speech, Clinton had called Capt. Khan "the best of America."
But if it were up to Donald Trump, Khizr Khan said, his son would never have been permitted to immigrate to the United States, referring to Trump's proposal to ban Muslims from entering the country.
In one of the most dramatic gestures of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Khizr Khan reached into his pocket to grab a small copy of the US Constitution. He was known to carry them around with him at all times, offering a copy to people who visited him.
"Let me ask you," he challenged Trump, "have you ever read the US Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy."
He continued his attack on Trump, saying, "Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery?" He described the diversity of people who had sacrificed their lives for the United States. "You have sacrificed nothing and no one," he said.
Interviewed by George Stephanopoulos of ABC News two days afterward, Trump responded to a question about Khizr Khan's speech by referring to Ghazala Khan. "If you look at his wife," Trump commented, "she was standing there. She had nothing to say. She probably — maybe she wasn't allowed to say. You tell me. But plenty of people have written that. She was extremely quiet. And it looked like she had nothing to say."
In Trump's formulation, the mother of a fallen soldier, standing next to her husband, became another kind of symbol. A symbol of the oppressed, silent Muslim woman. That stereotype continues to resound in US politics and is often an effective appeal — used by both conservatives and liberals — on behalf of US foreign policy in Muslim-majority countries. The Muslim woman in need of saving has been offered more than once as a reason to go to war.
In this case, however, it not only offended Muslims and those sympathetic to their plight, but it also awoke conservative voices who saw Ghazala Khan not so much as an oppressed Muslim woman but instead as the mother of a soldier killed while serving his country.
"My family has been Republican ever since my maternal grandparents migrated from Jim Crow South Carolina to Philadelphia in the late 1920s," wrote Maj. Gen. Pitard. But for Pitard, a lack of respect for Khan's family was a matter that transcended political party: "I join all those who stand in support of the Khan family. This family is our family, and any attack on this wonderful American Gold Star family is an attack on all patriotic and loyal Americans who have sacrificed to make our country great."
Without ever mentioning Donald Trump by name, the general made clear Trump had gone too far. He even turned Trump's campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again," against Trump, echoing the claim from Khizr Khan's speech that Trump had not worn the uniform in defending the United States. Just in case his meaning was unclear, Pitard concluded, "Any politically or racially motivated attack on the Khans is despicable and un-American."
Ghazala Khan had her own response to Trump. "Donald Trump said I had nothing to say," she wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. "I do." She lovingly eulogized her son and explained why she did not speak at the Democratic National Convention:
Every day I feel the pain of his loss. It has been 12 years, but you know hearts of pain can never heal as long as we live. Just talking about it is hard for me all the time. Every day, whenever I pray, I have to pray for him, and I cry. The place that emptied will always be empty. I cannot walk into a room with pictures of Humayun. For all these years, I haven't been able to clean the closet where his things are — I had to ask my daughter-in-law to do it. Walking onto the convention stage, with a huge picture of my son behind me, I could hardly control myself. What mother could? Donald Trump has children whom he loves. Does he really need to wonder why I did not speak?
She said that she had been offered the podium but declined to speak. She was utterly unable to do so because of her grief.
Trump stopped talking about the incident. What more could he say? But in the aftermath of Trump's criticism, social and traditional media were abuzz as ordinary citizens and politicians alike sought to weigh in, duck out, and manage what became a public relations problem for the Republican nominee. While many of Trump's supporters came to his aid and kept up both personal and political attacks on the Khan family and Clinton's pro-Muslim stance, they seemed to be in the minority. The decision by Clinton's campaign to feature the Khans prominently at the convention was a smart move. It had enormous political payoff because it helped make Clinton's case that her opponent's ideas were un-American.
On this issue, at least, Clinton had found the political center. She did so by uplifting the fallen Muslim American soldier as a symbol of a "good Muslim" who can also be American. In addition, Clinton regularly denounced anti-Muslim prejudice in her campaign. Once again, the issue was what it meant to be an American. Clinton did so out of her commitment to religious freedom, a most American idea.
The difference between Clinton and her Republican rival was that she was willing to include Muslim Americans in her vision of US national identity. She echoed what historians call the "liberal consensus" during the Cold War that was supported by Republican President and former Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. This consensus offered Jews, Muslims, and other religious minorities a pact: if you believe in God — however you conceive of God — and are willing to defend the flag against communism and other security threats, then you, too, are American and are entitled to the accompanying rights and privileges.
It is not an accident that Eisenhower was the first US president to laud the opening of a mosque in the United States. His 1957 visit to the Islamic Center on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, DC, was a powerful symbol of the bargain that the United States was willing to make with religious minorities — but not yet racial or sexual minorities. "I should like to assure you, my Islamic [Muslim] friends, that under the American Constitution, under American tradition, and in American hearts," Eisenhower said, "this Center, this place of worship is just as welcome as could be a similar edifice of any other religion." Eisenhower made clear in other settings that he wanted Muslim allies in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. That meant including them in the notion of American national identity. "Indeed," he continued, "America would fight with her whole strength for your right to have here your own church [religious congregation] and worship according to your own conscience. This concept is indeed part of America, and without that concept we would be something else than what we are."
But with the onset of the post–9/11 wars on terrorism — also called Islamic radicalism by some — US politicians such as former speaker of the house Newt Gingrich and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump abandoned Eisenhower's religious bargain. For them, the enemy was not someone who happened to be Muslim, but instead, it was radical Islamic religion itself. Therefore, defeating the enemy meant protecting the borders of the country from the presence of what Trump considered to be a foreign and dangerous ideology. One way to do that was to effectively ban Muslims from visiting or immigrating to the United States through "extreme vetting."
But when Trump attacked the family of a fallen soldier, and did so in a personal way, he fell into the trap that Clinton's campaign had set for him. This attack went too far for many fellow Republicans. Many of them spoke out against Trump or offered words of sympathy and appreciation for the sacrifice of the Khan family.
What was little noticed at the time was that most Muslims disagreed heartily with Clinton's foreign policy positions toward various countries with Muslim-majority populations. As a US senator and then as secretary of state, Clinton had been a voice for aggressive military intervention in the Muslim world. She supported the 2003 war in Iraq, a war that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Muslims. As secretary of state, she urged President Barack Obama to join with NATO in toppling Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, and she forcefully argued for more US involvement in the Syrian civil war. Her hawkish positions were opposed by the vast majority of Muslims both at home and abroad.
But for Clinton, one issue had nothing to do with the other. The fallen Muslim American soldier was a Muslim who helped protect America. He was not the same as those foreign Muslims who had been killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He was an American. It was such a powerful symbol that it had already been used in another presidential election after 9/11 — the election of Barack Hussein Obama in 2008.
Corporal Kareem Khan and the Election of 2008
Cpl. Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan — no relation to Humayun Khan — grew up in Manahawkin, New Jersey. His dad, Feroze Khan, said he was a "total goofball." Khan was known, for example, to consume only the orange-flavored Starburst candies, leaving the rest for others to eat. He went to Disney World on an annual basis, and his father's home became a shrine to Disney characters. The split-level house featured "a wall hanging of Cinderella, figurines of Mickey Mouse, and Disney-themed snow globes." Khan was a Dallas Cowboys fan and a lover of video games — he would sit on the living room floor and play with his stepsister, Aliya, for hours. But Khan also had a serious side. When al-Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center on 9/11, he was determined to show the world that "not all Muslims were fanatics and that many, like him, were willing to lay down their lives for their country." He signed up for the Air Force Junior ROTC as a high school freshman, and after graduating from Southern Regional High School in 2005, he enlisted in the US Army.
Khan attended basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, and was assigned to the First Battalion, Twenty-Third Infantry Regiment, Third Brigade, Second Infantry Division, known as the "Stryker Brigade Combat Team." He spent a few months at the team's home base, Fort Lewis, Washington, and then shipped out to Iraq. Specialist Khan's emails to his family were upbeat. He believed in the mission. Even his choice of Hollywood movies indicated as much. He loved watching Saving Private Ryan and Letters from Iwo Jima. He sent photographs of himself playing soccer with Iraqi kids. One boy took a special liking to him and followed him around wherever he went.
Excerpted from Muslim Americans in the Military by Edward E. Curtis IV. Copyright © 2016 Edward E. Curtis IV. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents<P>Acknowledgments<BR>1. Two Fallen Soldiers Named Khan<BR>2. The Long History of Muslim American Warriors: From the Revolution to World War II<BR>3. Patriotism and Protest: From World War II to the Gulf War<BR>4. After 9/11: Suspicion, Tragedy, Duty, and Love in an Age of Terror<BR>5. Today's Muslim Americans in Uniform</P>
What People are Saying About This
I recommend Muslim Americans in the Military: Centuries of Service as required reading for anyone connected or involved in the military of the United States or abroad. My hope is that this book will serve as a catalyst to assist people with becoming more appreciative, discerning, and value more thoroughly the great opportunity they have been blessed with by the Creator to reside in a land that promotes and supports their highest ambitions based upon pristine ideas, concepts, and thinking that has made America looked to as a great leader at home and abroad.
Muslim Americans in the Military is a short but engaging history of Muslims in the US military from the US Civil War until today. It is an honest and straightforward look at the experiences and contributions, some heroic, of Muslim men and women who served. It also describes episodes when things went wrong. It is a necessary read for anyone who doubts that Muslim Americans have sacrificed for the United States over the centuries, and speaks in particular to political debates about the place of Muslims in American society.