By Mikey Weinstein
President and Founder, Military Religious Freedom Foundation
As we turn our collective eyes to the tragedies of Fort Hood this week, we mourn the men and women who offered themselves up to serve our country overseas, only to make the ultimate sacrifice in a senseless act of violence back home.
But the shootings at Fort Hood should be an important wake up call to the continuing religious intolerance that has been allowed to blatantly and systemically manifest in our nation’s armed forces. Too often, honorable men and women who have joined our military are comprehensively denigrated and made to feel worthless because, although they wear the same uniform, they do not pray in the “approved” church or to the “correct” God or to no God at all.
Let me be clear, there is absolutely no excuse for the alleged actions of Nidal Malik Hasan. What he did is reprehensible, and goes against everything the American military stands for.
But we must realize that the alleged mistreatment Hasan received in the American military almost certainly played a key role in his disaffection. Reliable reports indicate that fellow soldiers gave him a diaper to wear on his head, mocking Islamic headdresses. His car was keyed by an Iraq veteran because he had an “Allah is Love” bumper sticker, and others suggested he should ride a camel instead.
Unfortunately, Hasan’s alleged mistreatment is not uncommon. Muslims, Jews and other religious minorities in the armed forces are regularly made sport of and subjected to taunts and derisions, and face repeated proselytizing from their fundamentalist Christian peers and superiors. They are made to feel subhuman because they do not pray in Jesus’ name. Amazingly, the same merciless scorn and shame is levied upon non-fundamentalist Christian military members because they are judged by their superiors as not being “Christian enough.”
This problem has been horrifically exacerbated as military and political leaders have painted the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as conflicts between Christianity and Islam. It is a blood libel assessment that paints all Muslims as terrorists, and suggests that no followers of Islam can be loyal Americans, not even the brave soldiers by their side. This vile mentality feeds unbridled fear, bigotry and bloodlust.
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) has 18 active cases at Fort Hood involving soldiers who allege they have been subjected to non-stop fundamentalist Christian proselytization. In fact, Fort Hood is one of the worst of the nearly 1,000 U.S. military installations around the world when it comes to the proselytizing of both non-fundamentalist Christian and non-Christian soldiers. Even elementary school students, the children of soldiers, on the base have been subjected to repeated proselytizing.
Both Congress and the Pentagon have largely turned a blind eye to or been explicitly complicit in this expanding internal national security threat. MRFF has over 15,000 cases world wide which more than testify to the veracity of the existence of this dangerous, growing plague.
It is illegal and immoral for non-fundamentalist Christian and non-Christian service members to be treated differently than their colleagues. And it is particularly incumbent on our military leaders to set standards that protect religious minorities and ensure their equal treatment in accordance with the solemn oaths they all swore to support and defend the United States Constitution. Pentagon policies should explicitly forbid prayer in Jesus’ name at mandatory formations on military bases, and all military men and women should be allowed to choose when, where and if to participate in religious observance.
These policies must be fortified with education for our soldiers that teaches religious tolerance and respect. The scope of this education must incorporate both those our servicemen and women will encounter overseas and the men and women who have their backs. All members of the military must see their colleagues as Americans and brothers and sisters in arms first and foremost, and not allow personal religious and cultural differences to get in the way of shared goals.
As we investigate the brutal, inexcusable murders at Fort Hood, we are compelled to assiduously examine how Muslim members of the armed services are treated. All armed forces members deserve to be treated fairly and with respect. When a military member is told by his or her superiors that they lack courage, intelligence, honor, trust, character and integrity because of their chosen religious faith (or no faith), that is no different then telling someone that they are “stupid” because of the color of their skin. America is better than that.
Mikey Weinstein is President and Founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.