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Monday, August 07, 2006

Muslim in the Marines

Home From Iraq, and Sorting Out Life as Muslims and Marines

Few people ever see Ismile Althaibani’s Purple Heart. He keeps the medal tucked away in a dresser. His Marine uniform is stored in a closet. His hair is no longer shaved to the scalp.

It has been 20 months since he returned from Iraq after a roadside explosion shattered his left foot. He never expected a hero’s welcome, and it never came — none of the balloons or hand-written signs that greeted another man from his unit who lived blocks away.

Mr. Althaibani, 23, was the last of five young marines to come home to an extended family of Yemeni immigrants in Brooklyn. Like the others, he grew accustomed to the uneasy stares and prying questions. He learned not to talk about his service in the company of Muslim neighbors and relatives.

“I try not to let people know I’m in the military,” said Mr. Althaibani, a lance corporal in the Marine Corps Reserve.

The passage home from Iraq has been difficult for many American troops. They have struggled to recover from the shocking intensity of the war. They have faced the country’s ambivalence about a conflict in which thousands of their fellow soldiers have been killed or maimed.

But for Muslim Americans like Mr. Althaibani, the experience has been especially fraught.

They were called upon to fight a Muslim enemy, alongside comrades who sometimes questioned their loyalty. They returned home to neighborhoods where the occupation is commonly dismissed as an imperialist crusade, and where Muslims who serve in Iraq are often disparaged as traitors.

Some 3,500 Muslims have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan with the United States armed forces, military figures show. Seven of them have been killed, and 212 have been awarded Combat Action Ribbons.

More than half these troops are African-American. But little else is known about Muslims in the military. There is no count of those who are immigrants or of Middle Eastern descent. There is no full measure of their honors or injuries, their struggle overseas and at home.

A piece of the story is found near Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, where two sets of brothers and a young cousin share a singular kinship. They grew up blocks apart, in the cradle of a large Muslim family. They joined the Marines, passing from one fraternity to another. Within the span of a year and a half, they had all gone to Iraq and come home.

Ismile’s cousin Ace Montaser sensed a new distance among the men at his mosque on State Street. He described it as “the awkward eye.”

Ismile’s older brother Abe, a burly New York City police officer, learned to avoid political debates.

Their cousin Abdulbasset Montaser took a different approach. He answered questions about whether he served in Iraq with a feisty, “Yeah, we’re going to Yemen next!” He has helped recruit for the Marines and boasts about his cousin’s medal to the neighbors.

“I want every Muslim in the military to be recognized,” said Mr. Montaser, a corporal. “If not, people will feel they’re not doing their part.”

Their service bears some resemblance to that of Japanese and German immigrants who fought for the United States in World War II. But for Muslims of Arab descent, the call to serve in Iraq is complicated not only by ethnic ties, but by religion.

Islamic scholars have long debated the circumstances under which it is permissible for Muslims to fight one another. The arguments are intricate, centering on the question of what constitutes a just war.

In Brooklyn, those fine points are easily lost. Here, many immigrants say that killing Muslims is simply wrong, and they cite the Koran as proof. Their opposition to the war is rooted as much in religion, they say, as in Arab solidarity.

The same week that Abe Althaibani headed to Iraq with the 25th Marine Regiment, his wife joined thousands of antiwar protesters in Manhattan, shouting, “No blood for oil!”

“It was my people,” said his wife, Esmihan Althaibani, a regal woman with luminous green eyes. “I went because it was Arabs.”

Yet the American military desperately needs people like her husband: Arabic speakers with a religious and cultural understanding of the Middle East. They have become crucial figures in Iraq, serving as interpreters, conduits and even buffers between soldiers and civilians.

The Althaibanis and Montasers knew they would be useful. They wanted to help bring change to Iraq. They did not know how much the war would change them.

Brooklyn to Yemen and Back

As boys, the Althaibanis and Montasers lived in two worlds. They took summer trips to the pastoral villages of their Yemeni ancestors, and spent winters shoveling snow off Brooklyn stoops. They attended Koran classes, and rooted passionately for the Knicks.

They saw themselves as both American and Arab, as brash Brooklyn kids in the halls of John Dewey High School, and respectful Yemeni sons at the dinner table.

One by one, they graduated from high school and joined the Marine Corps Reserve. Some of their parents found it odd, even disappointing. The sons of other Yemeni immigrants tended to follow their fathers into commerce, or better yet, studied law and medicine.

But for the young men of this family, the first to be born in America, military service became an honorable rite. It offered discipline and adventure. It also promised a new kind of respect from other Americans. Starting in 1992, eight of the family’s young men enlisted, almost all of them before Sept. 11.

The prospect of fighting in a Muslim country unsettled the five cousins who were deployed to Iraq, recalled an uncle, Naji Almontaser.

“It was very heavy on their conscience,” said Mr. Almontaser, 47, a banquet captain at the New York Hilton. “I kept pounding on them that when you go there you have to do good.”

It helped that four of them went to Iraq together, with the same two units. Still, they found themselves thrust into a daunting role. Their fluency in Arabic made them invaluable. But it also laid bare the horrors of war. They heard what their comrades could not. A frantic sequence of foreign words was, they knew, a girl crying out that her father was dead.

“It’s like you’re part of two different worlds,” Abe Althaibani said. “You’re part of the military thing, yet you totally relate to this country you just invaded. You’re not as foreign as everyone else.”

posted by Steve @ 12:32:00 AM

12:32:00 AM

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