Muslim Americans have served in the U.S. Armed Forces since the days of George Washington. They have fought and died alongside Americans of all religions, races and creeds, yet Islamophobes like Donald Trump continue to question their patriotism.
It’s high time America heard their stories.
An upcoming documentary, titled “Muslim Military Stories,” highlights Muslim Americans who have served in the military in the years since September 11, 2001. Director David Washburn combined two interests he had previously worked on ― veterans and Muslim Americans ― to capture this unique subset of the Armed Forces.
“The thinking was that Muslim American veterans and service members occupy a really powerful space and can speak to issues ― like shared sacrifice, discrimination, religious freedom ― in ways non-Muslims will really tune in to,” Washburn told The Huffington Post.
Case in point, he said, is the Khans’ story, which has dominated much of American news media over the last week since Khizr Khan’s powerful DNC speech about his son, Humayun, and Donald Trump’s unflattering response.
“Through [Muslim veterans’] stories, we witness how the altruistic values we hold are starkly contrasted with the dark tones and fear that others speak of, like Trump,” Washburn said. “The two come together and make such a clear choice, that it can’t be ignored.”
“So with this project,” he added, “I aim to amplify the voices of Muslim Americans vets and service members, so we meet more characters like the Khans.”
Nearly 6,000 Muslims currently serve in the U.S. military, according to the Department of Defense. That number could be much higher, though, taking into account the 400,000 service members who have not reported their faith.
Muslim troops have cause to be wary of coming forward about their faith. The country has witnessed an increasing culture of Islamophobia, spurred on by public figures like Trump who have helped push the needle on mainstream anti-Muslim sentiment.
In November, Trump suggested that Muslims should be registered in a database and carry special identification cards. He has also called for a “complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States.
Sadly, more than half of Americans share Trump’s negative view of Islam. “Muslim Military Stories” aims to aptly address the question: “How can we ask Muslim Americans to fight for freedom abroad while their rights are abused at home?”
Many Republicans and service members denounced Trump’s response to the Khan family and praised the sacrifice of Humayun, who was killed while serving in the Army in Iraq ― but day to day life for Muslims in the military is still complicated.
The military prohibits troops from sporting facial hair (except on a case by case basis) which many Muslim men do to honor the Prophet Muhammad. Then there’s the difficulty of finding halal food in military facilities, and the fact that, according to The New York Times, only five out of roughly 2,900 Army chaplains are imams.
For Tian Soepangat, a Muslim Navy veteran featured in a clip on the “Muslim Military Stories” website, the uncertainty over how his faith would be received led him to hide it from his fellow sailors for years.
“I didn’t want them to treat me any different than how they would treat anyone else,” Soepangat says in the clip. Watch his story below:
Washburn aims to complete the feature documentary by late 2017, he said, and will be releasing more short clips on the website in the coming months. The director added that, in addition to wide release in the U.S., he hopes to screen the documentary in Muslim-majority countries, “so audiences can hear from Muslim American veterans that we are not at war with Islam,” he said.
The stories of Muslim American veterans and service members could be a powerful antidote to bigotry at home, as well.
Craig Considine, a sociologist and researcher of Islam, says that spreading awareness of Muslim Americans’ contributions to the Armed Forces may help diminish anti-Muslim attitudes and put the brakes on the mainstreaming of Islamophobia.
“If more people knew about the history of Muslims who have served in the U.S. military, perhaps non-Muslim Americans would have more respect and appreciation for Islam and their fellow Muslim citizens,” Considine wrote in a HuffPost blog last year.
After all, he noted, nothing is “more unpatriotic” than “dishonoring soldiers who have fought and died for their country.”
Watch a clip from “Muslim Military Stories” above.