Sunday Forum: Islam, in service to our country

Muslim soldiers and civilians put their faith in action every day to advance American ideals, says Iraq veteran HELEN GERHARDT

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New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman recently addressed Muslims in response to the Fort Hood shootings:

"But you keep telling us what Islam isn't. You need to tell us what it is and show us how its positive interpretations are being promoted in your schools and mosques."

I have heard many Muslim leaders, teachers, imams and scholars do just that over the years in many public forums. Even more important, I have seen Muslim neighbors feed the hungry, care for the sick of all faiths and teach their fellow citizens to read. I have heard them pray with grief for all innocents who suffer from senseless violence. I have been inspired by the Muslim men and women who have served our military with honor and courage.

My fellow Pittsburgher Aisha and I both served in the U.S. military and crossed the border of Iraq within a few weeks of each other in the summer of 2003, although we didn't know each other then. She wanted to help build peace after the dictator Saddam Hussein had been toppled. She wanted to help bring to Iraq the freedoms that she had enjoyed for 26 years in America. She offered her services to the United States, convinced that she might save lives on both sides.

Like many of the thousands of Muslim soldiers and civilians who have served our country, Aisha sometimes has faced open hostility from the fellow soldiers for whom she risks her life, a blurred hatred and fear of the accent that marks her as Arabic and of the religion that helps motivate her daily courage and compassion. I, too, have heard soldiers speak the names she is sometimes called: "hajji," "towel-head," "terrorist."

"But then they call me 'Mom,' " Aisha told me.

She paused, taking in my surprise with a strange mix of seriousness and amusement.

"Yes, just about everybody, when they know me. If somebody gives me a hard time, sometimes now when a new soldier will join the unit -- he will ask why he has to serve with somebody who could be the enemy. Sometimes that soldier will tell me to my face that he thinks I will betray them to my people."

Aisha's eyes flashed as she quoted her own reply to such a soldier, "Hey, you are my people. I am an American. Here I am with you. Flesh and blood. Right beside you. Here in these streets. Why would you hurt my feelings like that? Here I am."

But the dark gravity of her challenge gleamed at the edges with beckoning sparks of humor, of kindness.

"And then I keep on walking with them and we will begin to talk. I tell them about Islam, I hear their stories of their Bible. They are surprised that so many of the stories are the same. I tell them about Abraham and Isaac and Ishmael and all the same people they have heard of since they were children. I tell them we are all brothers of the Book."

Aisha paused again.

"And these soldiers, so many of them are so young -- so far away from home. I listen to them. They can tell that I care about them."

In the Quran, when God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, this father of Islamic and Judaic and Christian nations addressed the young man he loved: "O my son! I see in a vision that I offer thee in sacrifice: Now see what is thy view!"

The son replied, "O my Father! Do as thou art commanded: Thou will find me, if God so wills, one practicing patience and constancy!"

Abraham's son offered to lay down his own life. He, along with his father, freely chose to obey. That is what soldiers swear to do when they volunteer to take the oath of military service.

As an Army National Guard truck driver, I might have driven past Aisha on the dusty, crowded streets of Baghdad as she walked through the most dangerous markets and neighborhoods translating for U.S. engineering companies tasked with rebuilding schools. I might have sat near her at a chow hall in the Baghdad International Airport a few months later, listening to small arms fire or mortars in the distance.

Aisha, a civilian, 54 years old, has freely served in Iraq longer than any soldier I have known, for more than six years. The last time I saw her, she was home in Pittsburgh for a 10-day leave, visiting her sons.

We shared coffee over a table covered with medals and glowing letters of thanks for her service, signed by colonels, captains and first sergeants who have commanded her services in Baghdad. She had been working an average of 80 hours a week.

My transportation company came home a few months after the news that innocent civilians had been abused at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and Bagram reignited violence across all sectarian and ideological lines in Iraq. Insurgents were then called liberators, even by Iraqis who had originally hoped we would free them from the cruelties of Saddam Hussein. And we were called tyrants.

Still, Aisha continued to faithfully build bridges, seeing everyone as human, "practicing patience and constancy." She is inspired by the example of Abraham and his son as they are portrayed in her holy book, the Quran.

Aisha treats the young soldiers with whom she serves as though they were her sons. And the young soldiers honor and care for her like a second mother. She takes to heart the words recited by Muhammad:

"O People! We have created all of you out of male and female, and we have made you into different nations and tribes so you might come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him, not one belonging to this or that race or nation." (Surah 49, verse 13)

Those words have inspired me to better know my Muslim neighbors in Pittsburgh, to learn more about the amazing variety of Muslim cultures in the United States and around the world. And I am inspired by the words recited by a kind and quiet Muslim man, Murat, a fellow soldier, as we drove across many miles of empty desert in southern Iraq.

"But indeed, if any

"Show patience and forgive

"That would truly be

"An exercise of courageous will

"And resolution in the conduct of affairs." (Surah 5, verse 42)

Thousands of Muslim Americans who serve our military and hundreds of thousands of Muslim neighbors who contribute their skills and arts and hard work to our country and communities live up to those words of Muhammad, even when the going gets very rough.

I keep a copy of the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions at my bedside. My fellow Muslim citizens inspire me to honor the Bill of Rights, and all human rights, through my own actions. We do not share the same religion, but they give me hope that together we can follow the example of the Founders, those rocks upon whom we build both our different faiths and our shared service.

Helen Gerhardt served in Iraq with the 1221st Missouri Army National Guard transportation company from June 2003 to July 2004. Her essays have been featured in The New York Times, on National Public Radio and in the National Endowment for the Arts anthology "Operation Homecoming." She is pursuing an MFA in the Creative Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Pittsburgh and writing a book about her company's deployment to Iraq, the consequences of the War on Terror and intercultural understanding ( ).


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