I’m a Muslim US Marine and I served on 9/11 (Opinion)

As footage of the Twin Towers started to roll in, I, like any other American, sat horrified, confused and frustrated. None of us Marines could figure out what was going on. But as the minutes and hours continued to pass, our base leadership on Camp Johnson in North Carolina decided to go into lockdown mode. I even recall one of our NCOs (non-commissioned officers) being asked to report to the armory to get his M16 rifle and stand guard at the base entrance. All nonessential entrance into the base was halted. No Marine could leave the base either. I’d only been in the Marine Corps for a year, and I had never witnessed anything like this.

As the days went on, we would come to find out the attacks originated from Afghanistan, which borders Pakistan, the country I was born in. It was heart wrenching, painful to say the least. Deep down I began wondering why did it have to be the people with whom I shared a heritage, and, worse, the same faith. Why not someone else? Why not some other group? Why did the terrorists have to be people who claimed to follow my beautiful Islam? In hindsight it probably wasn’t the right sort of thinking.

Although the Marine Corps is a unique breed of brotherhood which prides itself on certain core values like honor, courage and commitment, I started to experience a level of discrimination I could never have imagined.

I had heard of stories of discrimination taking place in civilian America, but in the Marines? I wouldn’t have imagined it happening among the group that had become in many ways my brothers.

I remember certain Marines giving me weird looks while some others, half jokingly and openly, even called me things like Taliban, terrorist and Osama bin Laden. In the beginning, I’d either try to ignore it or just laugh it off — but as time went on, I could feel things starting to get to me. I made complaints to my leadership, but they did little to intervene. Sadly, sometimes they were part of the problem.

I even remember the time when my warrant officer denied my request to hold off on a physical fitness test (which included a three mile timed run, pull ups and maximum crunches in two minutes) until the end of the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunup to sundown every day for a month. The armed forces does make reasonable accommodations as needed, so I felt that the denial was part of the discrimination I was facing. Luckily, I passed my physical fitness test successfully without passing out.

Adjusting to the Marine Corps way of life up until that point had been hard enough. Now, I was dealing with a new environment that was more intimidating. Months later, I was moved to a different unit on base and able to start over, earning a Marine of the Quarter award and later a meritorious promotion to Corporal.

To be absolutely clear, I’m not saying the Marine Corps is full of racist and bigots. I’m just saying, unfortunately, racism and bigotry also exists within the armed forces.

As all the chaos was going on, I still somehow managed to remain true to who I was and the oath I had taken as a US Marine. I reached out to my leadership to make them aware of my unique background: my ability to speak the languages of Urdu, Punjabi, Hindi, my familiarity with cultures and traditions in that part of the world, and even my Muslim faith since Afghanistan is a Muslim majority country.

In short, I was asking my leadership to use me in any way that could be helpful, even if that meant sending me into the heat of battle. I was ready to die for my country. This was my mindset. This was the level of love and dedication I had for America. In many ways, what I was doing was Islam in action, because love and service to country of residence is part of my Islamic faith as taught by the founder of Islam, Prophet Muhammad.

Fast forward to today, if you aren’t tanned skinned, don’t don a black beard like I do or wear a hijab as many of my sisters in the Muslim community do, you likely won’t understand the Muslim experience.

Nineteen years have passed since 9/11 and yet every time we commemorate the victims of 9/11 through various programs, there are certain groups, organizations, people (including politicians) who intently and cleverly work to make 9/11 about the Muslim faith.

As hashtags like #NeverForget trend, it not only serves as a reminder to keep the memory of those 3,000 lives that were so viciously taken, but I’ve seen how for some it’s also a way to remind Americans the terrorists were Muslim. Just go through your social media and read some of the comments. You’ll see exactly what I’m talking about.

It’s gotten to the point that some of us Muslims have to almost go into hiding on this day for fear of association and undeserved repercussion. Some of us feel as if we aren’t even allowed to grieve or honor those innocent lives lost.

And sometimes it feels like we aren’t allowed to talk about what happened at all. Last year during an event, Democratic Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar received heat because she said that for “Far too long we have lived with the discomfort of being a second class citizen. And frankly, I’m tired of it. And every single Muslim in this country should be tired of it.” Omar went on to talk about Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which she said “recognized that some people did something, and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.”

Instead of looking at her comments from the lens of an American she was berated.

Of course President Donald Trump wasted little time in taking Omar’s comments out of context, falsely claiming that she praised al Qaeda.
Remember this was the same man who in 2017 issued a travel ban on countries, most of which are predominately Muslim and said “I think Islam hates us” on live television when he was a presidential candidate.
To be absolutely clear, I not only agree with Congresswoman Omar’s full statement in context, I particularly agree with the part that seemed to rile many people across America: “some people did something.”

For far too long (almost two decades now), Muslims have had to bear dreadful discrimination, persecution, hate and bigotry because of the actions of 19 terrorists who claimed the peaceful religion of Islam. So yes, “some people did something” and it’s unfair to associate all Muslims with the atrocity.

It’s the same sort of battle Black America faces today, if one black person does something wrong, thousands of African Americans are now automatically seen as criminal. And what about mass shootings in America? An overwhelming majority of mass shootings are conducted by young White men. Now imagine if I applied the same formula to all White Americans as some Americans apply to Muslims — assuming every White person I saw was a mass shooter.

I’m asking my fellow Americans who may still hold some sort of anti-Muslim discrimination in their hearts because of 9/11 to take a moment to think and to understand that Muslims were also among the victims of the attack.
Muslims have served and died for this nation since the days of George Washington.

In fact, there has never been an America without Muslims. So as you commemorate 9/11 this year, let’s honor those innocent lives lost, together, hand in hand, in solidarity as Americans. But whatever you do, please don’t bring our Muslim faith into it. Because if you do, you are not only disrespecting my honorable service to this nation but every Muslim American living or dead who has given their all (whether in uniform or without) to this America. I’m not asking for a special favor. All I’m asking is see us Muslims as humans, as your fellow Americans without prejudice. That’s all.

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