For Muslim mids, uniformity in duty - but not in beliefs


Before Maksudal Ali decided to attend the U.S. Naval Academy, he struggled with a few questions: If the time came, could he kill a fellow Muslim?

Would he be able to fit his faith's requirements into the rigid structure of a military academy? Would he face bigotry?

Eventually, he made his way to Annapolis and is now one of 10 Muslim midshipmen among 4,200 student officers.

Although Ali rates his experiences on campus as positive, he said there are pressures unique to Muslims at the academy. Chief among them is preparing for a military career at a time when the nation is suffering casualties at the hands of extremists who say they are acting in the name of Islam.

There are other challenges, such as the difficulty of fasting for Ramadan - which ended earlier this month - or meshing a Muslim's five-times-a-day prayer obligations with the busy schedule of a midshipman, or attending an institution where most of his peers have had little exposure to Islam.

Ali, who is president of the Muslim Midshipmen Club, said he hasn't faced any hostility because of his faith. Occasionally, he said, he was unable to conduct daily prayers because of his busy schedule, but academy officials respect Friday worship time for Muslims.

"I really appreciate the way the Naval Academy has treated me and all the Muslims here," Ali said. "I wasn't sure - because of the way the culture of the Naval Academy works - if the freedom of religion in America would be more like a freedom from religion. It's not like that at all. Faith is very much a part of our lives."

Civil-liberties groups have challenged the academy's mandatory lunchtime prayer tradition as a state endorsement of religion, but college officials have defended it as a practice that teaches midshipmen about different religions, because various kinds of prayers are offered.

Another Muslim midshipman, Chiraz Chakroun, said she and her family worried that ignorance of Islam in the United States would make an education at the academy a harsh and lonely experience.

She has had the opposite experience. Well into her second year here, her family is proud. Her father often wears a U.S. Naval Academy T-shirt.

Before he came to the academy, Ali said he had to search his soul to determine whether he could "push a button or pull the trigger on another Muslim." He said he decided he would do the "right thing" and defend himself or his men without hesitation.

In the run-up to war in Afghanistan, Maj. Abdul-Rasheed Muhammed, the most senior Muslim chaplain in the Army, asked the Fiqh Council of North America, a panel of Muslim scholars that issues fatwas, or decrees on Islamic law, for a ruling on whether Muslims can participate in a war against Muslims.

The council ruled that it was permissible, saying: "All Muslims ought to be united against all those who terrorize the innocents, and those who permit the killing of noncombatants without a justifiable reason."

The fatwa wasn't enough for some Muslims in the military. One Air Force sergeant spent about a year in prison after refusing to deploy to Iraq, noting his faith and prohibitions against fighting other Muslims.

During his court-martial, a Muslim Air Force chaplain defended the sergeant's decision, saying he had consulted several clerics where he was serving in Germany and believed it would be better to die than to bear arms against other Muslims, according to an account published in Stars and Stripes.

The religious environment at the Naval Academy has received scant attention compared with the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Last month a Jewish graduate of that academy and father of two cadets filed suit in federal court claiming that academy brass had illegally tried to impose Christianity on cadets at the school. In June, a Defense Department task force faulted Air Force Academy leaders for not doing enough to accommodate people of different religions.

Ali, 22, of Clarksburg, is a senior at the Naval Academy and one of the leading distance runners on Navy's cross country team. He fasted for Ramadan, which made his preparation for the Army meet in mid October especially challenging.

He had dreams of becoming a fighter pilot when he was in elementary school, something that led him to consider the Naval Academy, although after about a month on a submarine last summer, he chose to be a submarine officer instead.

"They were very professional and hospitable, and I realized that these were the people that I wanted to be among and that I wanted to lead," he said.

That experience led him to believe that being Muslim would not be an obstacle during his Navy career.

When he graduates, Ali will become one of about 15,000 Muslims in the U.S. military, about 1 percent of 1.4 million active-duty troops. Twenty-three self-identifying Muslim cadets are at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., and 13 are at the Air Force Academy, spokesmen at each school said.

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