Edward E. Curtis IV is editor of the Bloomsbury Reader on Islam in the West.
On Oct. 19, 2008, former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman and secretary of state Colin Powell went on NBC’s “Meet the Press” to endorse Barack Obama for president. Troubled by accusations that Obama was secretly a Muslim, Powell asked the obvious question: “What if he is?”
One reason Powell was so bothered by the suggestion that a Muslim could not become president was, he said, because he had recently seen a photograph of a mother leaning on the gravestone of her fallen son at Arlington National Cemetery. The soldier was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, a New Jersey native and Muslim American recipient of a Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
Though terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe get far more attention, the fact is that Cpl. Khan’s service in the military represents, by far, the vast majority of political violence carried out by Muslims in the West.
True, this Muslim war-making is state-sponsored violence, not terrorism. But it is political violence all the same, and it is committed by religious Muslims, most of whom are also deeply loyal to their Western nation-states.
Tens of thousands of Muslims serve in the U.S. military and in the military forces of countries across Europe. And they always have.
From the time they began arriving in the 8th century, when the military leader Tariq ibn Ziyad conquered Gibraltar, Muslims have been part of the multi-religious military forces of the West.
One reason we think of Muslim warriors as foreign to the West rather than part of it is because much of Western identity has been built on an imaginary conflict between the Christian West and the Muslim East, as so poetically rendered in the French national epic, “The Song of Roland.”
The historical record contradicts that mythology. During the Middle Ages in Iberia, Southern Italy and Anatolia, Muslims and Christians were as likely to fight on the same side as they were to oppose each other.
As Muslims disappeared from Spain after Ferdinand and Isabella’s conquest of Granada in 1492, they continued to make their mark on Western military history in Ottoman Hungary and in the Battle of Warsaw in 1656, when indigenous Tatar Muslims fought bravely for Poland.
During the Crimean War of 1853 to 1856, sometimes called the first modern war, Muslims could be found on all sides.
American Muslims, both slaves and freedmen, served in the American War of Independence and the War of 1812, and with both the Union Army and the Confederacy during the Civil War.
According to Department of Veterans Affairs burial and memorial records, about 5,470 people with possible Muslim names — there are numerous spellings of Muhammad — served in World War I.
In Europe, the numbers were much higher. Perhaps 400,000 Muslims from the British Empire fought on the Allied side. Tens of thousands fought in the French armed forces, and in 1926, the Grand Mosque in Paris was dedicated in their honor.
Muslims also served Allied forces during World War II. One typical serviceman was John R. Omar, a native of Quincy, Mass., who was a turret gunner on a B-24 Liberator. Assigned to the Eighth Air Force in Europe, Omar was part of 29 missions, including the Battle of the Bulge. Awarded the Purple Heart after he was hit by shrapnel in his right leg, Omar went on to run his own body shop and later performed the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca.
Muslims also served in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War of 1991 and in post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Perhaps the most decorated Muslim soldier in U.S. military history was Maj. James Ahearn, who converted to Islam while serving in Iraq. He received two Bronze Stars, two Meritorious Service Medals, five Army Commendation Medals and several other honors. He was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad in 2007.
Ahearn’s sacrifice and that of hundreds of thousands of Muslims who have served in Western armies remind us that, as dangerous and frightening as Muslim terrorist attacks have been, there are far more Muslims ready to lay down their lives for the West than to attack it.