For Muslims at the Pentagon, a Tough Election Year
What it’s like defending your country and your religion amid the looming prospect of a Trump presidency.
Last winter, after Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump delivered a landmark speech calling for a ban on all Muslims traveling to the United States, 9-year-old Jibran Ali came home from his Virginia school with an urgent question.
“Am I still going to be allowed to be friends with Axell?” he said, referring to his best friend.
For his mother, the Defense Department’s most senior Muslim American civilian, it was a disturbing moment.
As a special advisor to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, Iram Ali oversees the hundreds of White House political appointments to the Pentagon. Her mandate, as tasked by the Obama administration, is to recruit and attract people of all ethnic, educational, and religious backgrounds — a policy the White House believes will foster a better-informed and more effective class of national security leaders.
That commitment to inclusiveness is something she tells her son is a bedrock principle of the United States. But for Ali and other Muslim Americans working in U.S. defense jobs, such ideas are increasingly under assault in an election year when a major party nominee is calling for special ID cards and a database to register all Muslims, insulting the Muslim parents of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq, and castigating Islam as incompatible with Western society.
“My husband told our son there’s always been people who were viewed as the negative part of society,” Ali said during an interview at her office in the Pentagon. “It’s our turn now, and it’ll be OK.”
The Defense Department and other federal agencies don’t have an accurate breakdown of their civilian workforces based on employees’ religious beliefs. But as of June, almost 4,000 active-duty military service members voluntarily identified as Muslim. And at the State Department, CIA, and National Security Council, Muslim Americans hold senior and mid-level positions — although many of them declined to comment for this report.
Those who did speak to Foreign Policy pointed to an irony: The public discourse in America surrounding Islam has never been more disparaging, but due to concerted efforts by the Defense Department to accommodate a diverse workforce, there’s never been a better time to be a Muslim at the Pentagon.
“I cannot think of a single time at the Pentagon when I felt anything but completely supported by my leadership and peers,” said Jasmine El-Gamal, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who advised Carter and three previous Obama administration secretaries of defense on Middle East policy.
Carter said that’s exactly the type of culture the Pentagon needs if it’s going to recruit civilians and military personnel who are versed in the languages and religions of the Middle East and South Asia — where America fights its wars.
“Tolerance isn’t just a virtue for us; it’s a practical necessity,” Carter told FP.
During the Obama administration, that has meant scrubbing military training materials found to have anti-Islamic content, cracking down on service members who use demeaning cultural epithets, and punishing discriminatory hazing practices. A particularly embarrassing example of the latter surfaced this week when the Washington Post reported that a Marine drill instructor was accused of ordering a Muslim recruit into an industrial clothes dryer, turning it on, and calling him a “terrorist.”
Groups that monitor anti-Islamic discrimination, and that are often highly critical of U.S. policies, say the Defense Department has vastly improved the way it treats Muslims — and that instances of discrimination have become increasingly rare.
“The military has made great strides and become one of the most racially and religiously diverse institutions in the U.S.,” said Robert McCaw, the government affairs director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Although he said bigoted behavior continues to surface in the barracks, the Pentagon has cleaned up the anti-Islamic content in military training materials and allowed cadets to wear turbans in the ROTC program. “We’re encouraged by these continued positive changes,” he said.
The growing presence of Muslims at the Pentagon was on display at the Defense Department’s annual iftar dinner to celebrate the holy Islamic month of Ramadan. In July, about 200 Muslims and guests from the department and other branches of government attended the event, including Gold Star mother Elsheba Khan, Korean War veteran Ghayth Nur Kashif, and World War II veteran Sheikh Nazeem Abdul Karriem. Air Force Lt. Col. Jawad Farooq narrated the celebration.
“It was incredible to see all these people of diverse backgrounds,” said Ali, who also attended the event.
But amid this spirit of inclusiveness inside the Defense Department, many American Muslim communities remain skeptical of a Pentagon still associated with the excesses of the war on terrorism. That has put some American Muslims serving in the Defense Department in a difficult position, especially amid increasingly anti-Islamic campaign rhetoric this year.
Ali, whose parents lived in India and Pakistan before moving to the United States, said she’s had a number of arguments with her “large extended family back in Detroit” about the U.S. government.
“Usually I just end up keeping my mouth shut, because unfortunately some of my family, if they’ve been affected by something, they’re not going to [accept my] argument,” she said.
Before her current position as the White House liaison to the Defense Department, Ali worked as a subcommittee staff director on the House Intelligence Committee, focusing on terrorism and human intelligence. Born in Karachi, Pakistan, she became a naturalized citizen at the age of 4 in Buffalo, New York.
Her father immigrated to the United States in the 1960s for a Ph.D. in biology while her mother, a biochemist, followed soon after.
Growing up in the Detroit area, Ali’s parents made her take Urdu lessons and go to Sunday school. “At the time I hated it, but now I’m really grateful because I’m fluent in reading and writing Urdu and Arabic,” she said.
Working in the national security bureaucracy, Ali said her religion rarely comes up in conversation. But when it pertains to her work, she tries to offer a perspective her colleagues might not have. She recalled a classified briefing during her early years on the Intelligence Committee when an official briefed lawmakers on an individual suspected of “nefarious activity” because he prayed five times a day.
“I just turned to the chairman of the committee and said, ‘My dad prays five times, and he’s the most patriotic American you’ll ever meet.'”
“That was a different time, and things have evolved a lot since then,” she said.
Gamal, who served as the country director for Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria while at the Pentagon, said the Iraq War and the chaos that followed the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 remains a “sore spot” in her family, especially those living in Egypt.
“I try to explain my experience working at the Pentagon and how we have a massive humanitarian assistance component,” she said. “I talk about seeing firsthand our mobilization during the Ebola crisis, the typhoon in Thailand, etc.”
“I also tell stories about the individuals I work with, how they are hardworking and want to do good and often are trying to genuinely make a positive difference,” Gamal added. “It’s not just a 9-to-5 job for a paycheck for many of us.”
But Gamal said defending the U.S. government can be challenging when her fellow Muslims see Trump proclaim that “Islam hates us” and that Muslim Americans know about terrorists but don’t speak out.
Trump’s rhetoric on Islam has been conflicting and confusing at best. Last year, when asked by CNN whether Muslims pose a threat to the United States, Trump called the religion’s followers “great people” and said, “I love the Muslims.” Asked whether he would consider putting a Muslim in his cabinet, he said, “Absolutely,” adding, “No problem with that.”
His campaign spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, declined to elaborate in more detail for this story.
But the vitriol has taken its toll and spurred suspicions, among at least some of the defense experts who are in a uniquely valuable position to advise the government on issues in the Muslim world. Gamal, for example, said it would be very challenging for her to accept a job in a potential Trump administration in any capacity.
“As a civil servant, I have thought about that a lot,” she said. “I very much believe in working to fix things from the inside but only if the system allows you to do so.”
Trump’s claim last November that “thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey cheered the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11 — which he has been unable to substantiate — still stings Gamal.
“I would only work for him if he took back every damaging thing he has said about Muslims to date, to include correcting his statement that people in New Jersey were celebrating by the thousands after 9/11,” she said.
Perhaps Trump’s most infamous clash with the American Muslim community came in July after Khizr Khan, the father of an Army captain killed while serving in Iraq, questioned what the Republican front-runner had ever sacrificed for his country.
Holding up a pocket Constitution during a prime-time speech at the Democratic National Convention, Khan offered to lend it to Trump. “You have sacrificed nothing and no one,” he said.
Trump shot back in an interview with ABC News, saying his business successes amounted to sacrifices. “I think I’ve made a lot of sacrifices,” he said. “I work very, very hard.”
He also targeted Ghazala Khan, Khizr’s wife, who stood next to him during his speech without addressing the crowd. Trump implied that she was not allowed to speak because of her religion.
“She had nothing to say,” Trump told ABC News. “Maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say. You tell me.”
In subsequent interviews, Ghazala Khan said she was invited to speak but declined because she was too upset to talk.
Back at the Pentagon, Ali demurred from discussing the incident that for days afterward dominated the political campaign.
“But what I will say,” Ali said, “is that all Gold Star families are revered and appreciated, and their sacrifice cannot be talked about in any words.”
“It’s beyond the pale,” she added.
The wall-to-wall TV coverage of the 2016 campaign has not been lost on Ali’s son, who often comes home from school with questions about what Trump is saying. Her message to him is to take it in stride and that the ongoing angst the Trump movement has directed toward Muslim and Arab Americans in the United States eventually will pass.
“My husband and I really try to make him focus on being a Muslim and prayers,” she said. “This is going to go away.”
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