As American troops battle Islamic extremists in Iraq and Afghanistan and try to bring stability to the region, here at home the Pentagon is reaching out to Arab and Muslim Americans, trying to interest them in joining the U.S. military. At least 15,000 Muslims, including about 3,500 Arab-Americans, are already in uniform. In fact, Arab-Americans have been fighting, and dying, for this country since 1776. The Pentagon regards Arab-Americans as especially valued members of the U.S. military because of their important language skills and their understanding of the cultures of the Middle East. The armed services make efforts to accommodate their religious needs on base, such as building Islamic prayer rooms and hiring Muslim chaplains. But many Arab American soldiers say, 5 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, they still feel they need to prove both their worth as soldiers, and their loyalty to the United States.
That sentiment prompted Marine Gunnery Sergeant Jamal Baadani to establish the Association of Patriotic Arab-Americans in the Military, or APAAM. The organization serves to empower Arab Americans "to stand up and say 'We are patriots.'" In reaching out to the American community at large, Baadani says, APAAM's goal is "to bridge the gap of misunderstanding" between Arab Americans and mainstream culture "so we can be united as Americans no matter where we come from."
Baadani says because so many people looked at the Arab American community with suspicion after 9/11, it was necessary to present solid proof that Arab Americans are no less patriotic than any other group in the society. So, Baadani says, APAAM documented a long history of Arab American military contributions to America.
"What we found was that the first Arab American to die for America was Private Nathan Badeen, a Syrian immigrant who died for this country on May 23rd, 1776, a month and half before the independence of this country." Baadani says Arab Americans have fought in every war the U.S. participated in since then. "In World War II there were over 15,000 Arab Americans who served this country to free the world of the German Nazi tyranny and Japanese imperialism."
Jamal Baadani says his group is trying to educate the American people, through appearances on TV and radio talk shows, at public events, and on the group's website, about the continuous military service and sacrifices of Arab Americans in all ranks of the military. That includes everyone from ordinary soldiers on the ground in Iraq to General John Abizaid, who for the past four years directed American military operations from the Horn of Africa, across the Middle East, to South and Central Asia.
Individual soldiers are also doing their part to educate Americans about Arab Americans military service. Mahmoud El-Yousef, a retired technical Sergeant with the Ohio Air National Guard, sent an open letter to American news outlets. "Dear America, I am an Arab American, but a proud American just like you," El-Yousef wrote. "Like anybody else, I don't always agree with our government polices, but don't be quick to judge me and call me names. On that dreadful day, September 11th, my duffel bag was already packed and I was waiting to answer the call of duty. Why was I ready? I also want a better and safer America just like you. When it comes to patriotism and loyalty, I am red, white and blue, just like you."
El-Youssef recalls how his life totally changed after he came to America as a Palestinian refugee in 1977. He says he was treated with dignity and respect and felt he had to show his gratitude to his new country.
He fought a legal battle to join the U.S. military in 1984 after an argument with an Army recruiter. When El-Youssef told the recruiter he was a U.S. citizen, but was born in Palestine, "He said, 'I am sorry, you have to be born in the U.S.'" El-Youssef recalls the recruiter told him to ask his representative in Congress, so he did. "I phoned my congressman and filed a complaint, demanded an apology, and let me tell you, within one hour I had a navy officer call me for an hour pleading and begging me."
El-Youssef, who speaks fluent German, English, and Arabic, served for ten years before joining the Ohio National Guard. Two years ago, shortly before he retired from the Guard, his eldest son enlisted in the U.S Army and served in Iraq.
The retired sergeant points out there are historical precedents for Arab Americans' struggle to win the public's trust. He notes that African Americans fought hard for their civil rights, and Japanese Americans worked tirelessly against official discrimination after Tokyo's attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II, and their own community under public suspicion. He says it is now time for Arab Americans, in the U.S. military as in civilian life, to stand up proudly and be counted as loyal and patriotic citizens.