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Saturday, September 29, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Islam gains place in U.S. military as ranks of Muslims grow

Seattle Times staff reporter

FORT LEWIS — Air Force Master Sgt. Tony Muhammad Langley kneels, bows his head to the east and prays to Allah.

It is the weekly Friday Islamic worship service in a small chapel that serves as a mosque for Muslim soldiers here and at nearby McChord Air Force Base. Ten years ago, such a service would have been unheard of on a U.S. military base. There were no mosques. No Muslim chaplains. And little consideration for devotees of Islam.

"I think things really started changing after the Gulf War," said Langley. "A lot of soldiers who went there came back Muslim."

Now the military, which a decade ago barely acknowledged Muslims in its ranks, finds itself defending the faith — even as it prepares for war against radical Islamic terrorists.

In the weeks since the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, military bases have launched Islamic sensitivity classes. Armed-forces newspapers have published articles explaining the tenets of Islam and pleading for tolerance.

And the handful of Muslim chaplains that serve the four branches have been hit with questions about a religion that they say is often misunderstood in this country.

"I've had people that have been very blunt in how they ask questions," said James Yee, a West Point graduate and Muslim chaplain at Fort Lewis. "People will ask, 'What does a Muslim believe?' "

Yee, who converted in 1991, patiently explains that Islam is a straightforward religion: "That's probably the biggest misunderstanding, its simplicity," he says. "We believe in one God, we believe in the prophets and we respect life."

The Defense Department estimates at least 4,000 Muslims serve in the armed forces.

For some of them, the past two weeks have meant not only preparing for war, but defending their patriotism.

At Tinker Air Force Base in Texas, a Muslim woman reported finding the computer in her cubicle vandalized.

Muslim Marines at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, Calif., have complained of having to endure slurs about their religion.

Fort Lewis, home to about 90 Muslim soldiers, has had no reports of backlash. But the terrorist attacks have affected worship in other ways.

The numerous civilians from neighboring communities who regularly attend worship here can't now because of tighter security at the gates.

"Before, they could just drive up and get a pass," said Yee. The next closest mosque is in Tacoma.

Many Muslims serving in the military say they have found comfort among their fellow soldiers, Islamic or not.

"I wish everybody could look at the Army and see how we treat each other," said Staff Sgt. Ousseynou Kamar, 33, after yesterday's worship service. "We're brothers."

The soldiers here and at McChord say they are ready to do whatever their country asks of them, even if it means war against other Muslims.

"If I gotta go, I'll go do my job," said senior airmen Ishmail Taylor-Kamara.

The military began taking notice of its Muslim ranks during Desert Storm. U.S. officers and soldiers stationed in Saudi Arabia had open access to an Islamic cultural center operated by the Saudi government.

"What it did was allow soldiers to come in and ask questions about it and to socialize with Saudi soldiers," said Yee. "So a lot of soldiers began to learn and read about Islam."

Other soldiers who were already Muslim found themselves educating their commanders about Muslim holy months like Ramadan, and dietary requirements for Muslim soldiers.

Yee, who was a lieutenant in a Patriot Missile battery before becoming a chaplain in 1999, was sent to Saudi Arabia shortly after the war as America planned new strikes on Baghdad for failing to comply with U.N. sanctions.

It was in the months after the war, as soldiers waited to return home, that they began converting in droves, he said.

"They didn't have anything to do, so they learned about Islam," Yee said. "I've heard anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 converted."

The Army ordained the military's first Muslim chaplain in 1993. There are now 15 scattered throughout the branches.

And perhaps the biggest sign that times have changed: The branches not only allow their Muslim soldiers to attend worship, they provide them with Halal rations in the field that meet Islamic dietary restrictions.

"It's a different military," said Langley. "They even have special programs to take soldiers to Mecca."

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