In the wake of the horror in Orlando, discussion has once again focused on the idea of placing a ‘ban’ on all Muslims entering the United States. The idea is to keep Muslims out of America and to go further by banning all entrants from countries with a “proven history of terrorism” against this country.
Some of the Republican Party’s most prominent leaders have understandably taken issue with the idea.
“I do not think a Muslim ban is in our country’s interest,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said at a press conference at the Republican National Committee. “I do not think it is reflective of our principles, not just as a party, but as a country. And I think the smarter way to go in all respects is to have a security test, not a religious test.” Those advocating a security test might take note of the fact that in every case of a major domestic terror attack since 9/11, the perpetrator has either been American or someone who is here in this country legally.
But that debate misses the point. The idea of banning native or foreign members of any religion that has been part of the fabric of the United States as long as Islam has ignores our basic identity as a nation. More than that, it also ignores reality. The fact is that Muslims have been a critical part of what President George W. Bush termed the “war on terror.” And when the United States placed the call for Afghan- and Iraqi-Americans to help U.S. forces and to serve as eyes and ears — translators and development workers and local go-betweens — they answered.
I have written about the post-9/11 wars and about Afghanistan in particular for the past decade from the American and the Afghan perspectives. And what I have seen time and again over the past decade are Muslim-Americans who are part of the U.S. effort and who have answered the call to serve in uniform or as civilians. You may take issue with the war in Afghanistan and the fight in Iraq. But this is not a political question. The fact is that Muslim-Americans — some of them new Americans — are assisting U.S. troops with language skills and cultural knowledge as civilians and are serving across the armed forces. Some I have met in a decade of reporting have been gravely injured in the process. Others have given their lives.
Yet most Americans remain unaware of their sacrifice, a product of the reality that less than 1 percent of this nation has fought 100 percent of its wars for 15 years. And that is on all of us as a nation to change.
Talk to Afghan-Americans who served on the battlefield alongside U.S. forces on conventional and special operations missions. I have. They tell me they are frightened and shocked by the language they hear about people like them in the American media.
“I never thought it would get this far,” one young woman who served in Afghanistan told me this week. There was a sense of shared mission in war. Now, she and other Afghan-Americans who served their country want to know why their fellow citizens now see them as a threat.
Or you could talk to Muslims who are part of America’s fighting forces. Close to 6,000 Americans in uniform are Muslim, most of them in the Army and Navy, according to the Pentagon. They have served with honor and distinction. And if you go to Arlington Cemetery, you will see a testament to their service. Take Kareem Khan, who lost his life at the age of 20 “of wounds suffered from an improvised explosive device.” He and four of his fellow soldiers died while on foot patrol in Baquba, Iraq.
As his stepmother said, “From a boy, that’s all he wanted to be. A soldier.”
Khan gave his life for his country. And his family gave their son to the nation. And this young man’s sacrifice must not be lost in the din of fear.
Just listen to what those charged with securing our country have to say.
“There are Muslims serving patriotically in the U.S. military today, as there are people of many faiths,” said Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook last December at a press briefing “Anything that tries to challenge American values on this would be certainly something of concern to the Department of Defense, as it would be across the country.”
The contributions of U.S. and foreign Muslims to American military efforts don’t begin to include the contributions made by the large number of Muslim-American civilians who have also been out there risking their lives and safety each day and night alongside their fellow Americans in uniform. Some of them have come home with grave injuries.
One translator I know and consider a dear friend grew up in an Afghan-American community in California and planned to do humanitarian work after school. She did not sign up for the military. But she felt that she would answer her country’s call to serve and do something that might make a difference for Americans and Afghans alike by serving as a translator. Five years ago she was blown up by an improvised explosive device alongside special operations forces and she continues to suffer from her injuries. Her next surgery is expected to come later this year.
Her service and sacrifice should not be met with fear or mistrust, but with appreciation. She does not want to be known. She does not seek credit or gratitude or recognition. Nor does she think she has done anything at all exceptional.
But as a nation we can do better for her and her fellow Muslim-Americans. This young woman deserves to be able to practice her faith without worrying about her safety. She should not have to tell her mother not to wear her headscarf in public for fear of dirty looks or worse. And she should not have to worry that a nation for which she nearly died will come to see her as the enemy.
The distance Americans have from their country’s wars in the post-9/11 era shows up in the conversation about Muslim-Americans. This discussion has ignored what this same community has contributed to this nation. Muslim-Americans have contributed skills and shown grit, making a difference on a battlefield from which most Americans are far too detached. And they have answered the call to serve when their country asked. The least we can do is to treat them with respect and consideration. They are us. And that is who we are as Americans.