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U.S. military cultural awareness: I was a pro-Saddam protestor, was called a ‘camel jockey,’ but I AM an American soldier

An account of three tours in the Middle East.

Iraq Security Forces Conduct Operations in Lead-up to US Drawdown
Iraq Security Forces Conduct Operations in Lead-up to US Drawdown
AL HAMDANIYAH, IRAQ - JUNE 03: An interpreter speaks with Kurdish villagers during a tri-partite humanitarian mission involving US, Iraqi and Kurdish forces on June 3 , 2010 in Al Hamdaniyah, east of Mosul, Iraq. Iraq faces multiple challenges in the lead-up to the draw down of US forces in Iraq, with many observers claiming that while they have the capablities of handling home-grown problems, they are far from being able to tackle external threats. Political wrangling has reportedly fostered greater instability throughout the country with fears of renewed sectarian violence breaking out as insurgents set-up attacks in an attempt to exploit vulnerabilities amongst the populace. (Photo by Warrick Page/Getty Images)



By CW2 Rachid Akhrid, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest columnist

I used to work in a convenience store in Texas owned by a Palestinian immigrant. On the day of the 9/11 attacks, I noticed a number of changes in our neighborhood almost immediately. While some of our customers maintained the same attitude as before, many others became very cruel. Threats were made against my boss while names like “Sand Nigger” and “Camel Jockey” were uttered with a surprising frequency against both of us. My supervisor told me to open the store by myself the following day, something he rarely allowed me to do. But things had changed for him, for me, and for every American citizen.

I joined the U.S. Army. On November 11, 2001, I traveled to Fort Jackson. I went on to serve three tours in the Middle East. The irony of my situation is that in 1992, when I was still a high school student in North Africa, I had protested American military action against Iraq. During the protests, I even remember uttering, “With our spirits and blood, we will protect you Saddam.”

Nonetheless, in 2003, eleven years later, with my boots firmly placed in the sand of Iraq, I fought against Saddam Hussein’s regime with my fellow American soldiers, liberating Baghdad from his dictatorship. During this period, I remember how my ability to speak Arabic, which I learned as a result of my Islamic heritage and ancestry, became of great assistance in navigating my unit through this new and strange land.

At one point during my first tour in Iraq, my unit became lost while moving from Baghdad to Balad. My company First Sergeant and I drove through the region, moving from door to door asking for directions to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Anaconda. It was my ability to speak Arabic which allowed us to communicate with the local people and helped my unit reach its destination safely. This was a moment of great pride for me, but also an early lesson that the American Muslim community can offer great assistance in the battle against terrorism.

I departed for my second tour to Balad, Iraq, in 2005. While there, I was able to provide linguistic support to my unit, teaching basic Arabic skills to my fellow soldiers while also providing cultural awareness classes. I noticed during this period that the cultural awareness classes offered to American soldiers by civilian contractors were largely insufficient. In my experience, the instructors knew almost nothing about the Iraqi culture. Some instructors called the Iraqis “hajis,” and argued that it was actually an honorary title of some sort. I tried to explain that the use of this term is disrespectful, but none of the instructors seemed to care and my efforts were ignored.

For that reason, I was very happy to use my personal experience and knowledge to help develop a new cultural awareness class that was far more culturally sensitive and accurate. This type of information is vital to American military personnel operating in any country, but particularly in a Muslim country where a soldier’s innocent mistake can insult a large segment of the population and have a negative impact on operations.

In 2009, I departed for my third tour in Iraq. I spent a year in Mosul, as an advisor to the Iraqi Army 2nd Division, again using my knowledge of the Arabic language, Islam, and the Arabic culture to further assist my fellow soldiers and our unit. During this tour, I collected intelligence, contributed in developing targets, and also assisted in joint U.S/Iraqi raids, sometimes using two radios in order to talk to both U.S Soldiers and the Iraqis throughout missions. For my efforts during this tour, I was awarded the Bronze Star Medal.

Today, as I reflect on these experience in Iraq, it is clear to me that my intimate knowledge of Islam and Arabic culture enabled me to stand out and offer vital assistance to my unit. I am proud of my service with the United States Army and feel a sense of profound awe when I hear The Star Spangled Banner or patriotic songs like Toby Keith’s Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue. While I do not regret my decision to serve in Iraq, I do have concerns over how the United States has chosen to engage radical Islam in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Looking back on my time in that store and my younger years, I never really paid attention to racism or prejudice, though these things were probably always present. When I lived in North Africa as a child, I regularly heard that the Prophet Muhammad in his Last Sermon in Minâ, said: “O people! Your Lord is one Lord, and you all share the same father. There is no preference for Arabs over non-Arabs, nor for non-Arabs over Arabs. Neither is their preference for white people over black people, nor for black people over white people. Preference is only through righteousness.” Nonetheless, though these words were readily spoken, almost everyone in my native country was prejudiced against black Africans and had been for several centuries. In the late 17th century the Moroccan sultan, Mawlay Ismail, commanded his officials to enslave all blacks including the Haratin, that is, the black slaves who had already been set free. He even commanded the enslavement of black Muslims, a violation of one of the most significant Islamic legal code regarding the institution of slavery which holds that it is illegal to enslave fellow Muslims.

It was only when I joined the military did prejudice and racism begin to personally impact and upset me. I think this is because as a soldier, my ethnicity has sometimes became a target of derision. At one point when I was boarding a plane to Kuwait, a Sergeant requested that I refrain from blowing up the aircraft. He was probably joking, but I took that comment to heart. While taking cover from incoming Scud missiles in Kuwait, I was told that there was no room for me in a bunker filled with American personnel. Although there was obviously room in the bunker, my fellow soldier was not going to allow me the safety provided to him. Frequently, I would be referred to as a “Hajji” or “Taliban” while serving in Iraq, while other soldiers would jokingly ask, “Are you wearing a bomb?” When I expressed an opinion about the enemy, they would observe, “You should know, since you trained with them.” Once when I called home and was speaking to my mother in Arabic, I was interrupted by my company commander, who asked if I was giving instructions to my cousins. Although I was his driver, and he was only joking, his comments have always lingered in my mind.

Although these comments may seem trivial, they were inappropriate and caused me great pain. Fortunately, these attitudes and behaviors have made me a stronger and better soldier, prepared to prove to everyone else my worth, no matter what racism or prejudice I might face. During my second deployment I was prepared to sacrifice my life for my first Sergeant and my commander because they made me feel part of the unit. In my fourteen years of service these two gentlemen became more than just work colleagues, they became mentors and ultimately, family.

Certainly growing up in North of Africa I saw a number of individuals who became radical Muslims. My friends and I, however, never strayed into the radical branches of Islam. At times, it was very difficult for me to remain devoted to my faith while in Iraq as I witnessed many horrors done in the name of Islam. However, I have always recognized that my strength came from our family back at home. Though many of us were concerned our families would worry if they knew we were deployed to a Muslim country, this fear never stopped me from giving my all in defense of my country. I immediately spoke with my parents about my deployment because I knew I could not succeed in my mission without their support. Though I know my mother still worries about my safety, I have never regretted my decision to serve as a soldier. While serving in Iraq, I wrote several letters to my parents to ensure they understood how much I appreciated their support.  Knowing that they had put aside their own dreams to support me pushed me towards a sense of duty towards the land I grew to call home.

My feelings towards America involve more than merely my gratitude on my parents’ behalf. Though I have certainly faced prejudice, racism, and ridicule at times, I have also encountered men who have been inspirational role models to follow. These men include a soldier who served as a 09L Arabic translator at the National Training Center. Though Iraqi insurgents massacred his entire family, he had the courage to make his way to America in order to begin a new life. He joined the US Army and now fights against the same forces of hatred and ignorance that took his family from him. Men like him remind me why I continue to serve.

The friends I encountered while growing up who were radicalized also made a significant impact on me. I remember when I first met a young man named Khaled, a very devout Muslim. He prayed five times a day and would come to visit us every day, asking us to accompany him to the mosque. Most of us would laugh and wink to each other, joking about seventy virgins and giving him a hard time. Eventually, he began to pray obsessively, until he had a dark spot in the middle of his forehead from excessive prostration. He grew a beard and became a Daawa, believing that the Mujahedeen had witnessed miracles in Afghanistan. Eventually, he stopped visiting us.

Another friend I met was Aziz, who always played soccer with us until he also disappeared. Several years later, I met him again and asked what had happened. I cannot forget his response, “Islam is like karate and the belts.” He explained that when he first joined a Salafi group, he was a white belt. However, as he grew older, he was pressured to reach a higher level and become more extreme like Khaled. This made me realize what a tragedy it was that we had not tried to engage Khaled as an equal, respecting him and showing that he did not have to earn our respect.

Ultimately, as evidenced by the resurgence of radical Islam throughout the Middle East, it seems clear that the United States has failed to win over their hearts and minds in Iraq. Unfortunately, some Americans have ignored this result. Prejudice and racism in the Middle East existed for years and does not seem to be stop anytime soon. The Sunnis and Shias remain divided all across the Middle East while the Christians, Jews, and Muslims all seem to continue trying to destroy one another. To some extent, the U.S. has failed at abating the racism and prejudice in Iraq and I think that this is because there is already so much racism and prejudice at home. Truly, until the United States eliminates racism and prejudice at home and in our military, we will never be able to eliminate it abroad or win the hearts and minds of our adversaries. Nonetheless, even if racism and prejudice continue, we must discover a new and better way to engage and integrate the Muslim community at home and in foreign lands.

It is of utmost importance that we learn to listen and take into consideration what prominent Muslim professors are saying. Two such professors are Shaykh Hamza Yussef and Tariq Ramadan, both of whom have advised that Islam cannot and should not be reformed, but instead the West must integrate the Muslims into their societies.

The truth is that the Muslim community can offer much in the fight against terrorism and can assist the American military in many ways. Muslims can serve the American military extremely well and they can excel but only if given the chance to do so and are protected from prejudice and racial comments. Muslim Americans must stop being regarded with derision or suspicion. They must be looked upon as Americans with unique skills and talents that can serve their country with honor. Throughout my career in the Army I met many Arabic- and Persian-speaking soldiers who have incredible potential to serve in intelligence or linguistic jobs, but instead have been relegated to menial jobs in the Army because they are not trusted.

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu states, “Know your enemy and know yourself, find naught in fear of 100 battles. Know yourself but not your enemy, find level of loss and victory. Know thy enemy but not yourself, wallow in defeat every time.” Until U.S. military forces and U.S. citizens understand and respect the cultures of others, many of whom are U.S. citizens and serve in the U.S. military, we will wallow in defeat.

CW2 Rachid Akhrid is a Military Intelligence Officer with 14 years of service in the United States Army. CW2 Akhrid immigrated to the United States from North Africa and subsequently served three tours in Iraq. The ideas expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of the Army, the U.S. Department of Defense or the United States Government.

Warrick Page/Getty Images

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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