His call sign is “Hadji,” meaning “one who has made a pilgrimage to Mecca.”
“It’s a pilot thing,” explains Colonel Douglas Burpee, the highest ranking Muslim officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. Now in his 23rd year of military service, Colonel Burpee recently returned from flying helicopters in Afghanistan.
“Everyone knows I’m a Muslim. When I fly, attached to my dog tags, I wear a pendant with a passage from the Koran,” he says. “I try to set a good example based upon what I believe…. I can be a soldier and a Muslim at the same time. I have no problem with that.”
In the era of the war on terror, the example of a devout Muslim serving in the American Military is a heartening sign that highlights the difference between America and its self-appointed enemies in this conflict. This is not a clash of civilizations, but a fight between a modern pluralistic democracy and intolerant murders who have hijacked one of the world’s great faiths.
Certainly that’s Colonel Burpee’s view. “These people who commit terrorism have just adopted the face of Islam – nothing they say or do have anything to do with Islam,” he says. “The Taliban is a terrorist organization – they are bad people doing bad things and they’ve attached religion to it. They are ruthless when it comes to killing people, but that’s how you move helpless people around – you use fear.”
Out of the 1.4 million service men and women serving actively in the American military, an estimated 3,700 are Muslim, according to the Department of Defense.
Colonel Burpee’s path to both Islam and the military is not necessarily typical. With blond hair that is now going gray, he was born in America and raised Episcopalian. He converted to Islam when he was 19 for a very American reason: “I met a pretty girl” – an Egyptian woman named Hala who was a fellow student at the University of Southern California in the late 1970s. Three years later he was accepted at the Officers Candidates’ School in Quantico, Va. Now he and Hala and their five sons live in Glendale, Calif.
“We believe in god and family and prayer – the same things as everyone who believes in religion,” he says. But his reaction to September 11th fit a less typical script. “I watched the attacks on TV, like everybody else. The first thing we did afterwards was go to the mosque because people were concerned about a backlash. On the other hand, I had to call into my squadron and ask, ‘Hey, are we being activated?'” Colonel Burpee straddles his two worlds, but he is not typical of Islam or the military.
Perhaps a more typical portrait of a Muslim soldier in the U.S. military comes from Sergeant Youseff Mandour of the U.S. Army. He immigrated to America from Morocco at the age of 17 and joined the army at age 22. Now 25, he just returned from 12 months in Iraq. Like Colonel Burpee, he aspires to a lifelong career in the military. “I’m fighting for a better life and a belief in freedom,” he says. “I had a chance to get involved. I learned the English language and appreciate everything this country has given to me. That’s why I joined the Army. The U.S. is doing great things.”
Sergeant Mandour takes special offense at the terrorists who murder in the name of his faith. “The war on terror is not about Islam. This is a war against criminals who use religion to say they are good people, but they’re no better than the Mafia. They’re just common criminals, many with criminal records … It was great that I got to use my training against people who tried to kill us and who tried to give a wrong idea about my religion.”
Nor is Sergeant Mandour agnostic about the war in Iraq. “We are not there to fight Islam but spread democracy. I feel very ashamed for those like Osama Bin Laden who use the religion of Islam and call for a jihad. You can’t call a jihad against people trying to help, and I believe we are helping people in Iraq. I helped more people in Iraq than I ever did in my life as a soldier and as a Muslim.”
Few people in the world can view the war on terror with more clarity than Muslim soldiers serving in the U.S. military. While figures like Osama Bin Laden and his henchmen try to divide the world by arguing that the war on terror is really a war between Islam and the west, our Islamic soldiers’ example exposes their rhetoric for the lie that it is. The west is not a religion. It is instead a pluralistic place that opens its arms to all people of good faith regardless of race, nationality, or religion. And if soldiers who are proud to be American and Muslim at the same time can help heal some of the existing divides by the strength of their example, so much the better.
These Muslim U.S. soldiers are, in some ways, the point men in this moment in our history, exemplifying the new edge of a far older trend. As Colonel Burpee says, “My family first came here as French Huguenots a few hundred years ago. They were oppressed and they came to America because it allowed them to practice their religion and live in freedom. That is the same reason that the Muslims have come here … So is there a clash of civilizations? I don’t think so. I think you have an old world and a new world. And we are the new world.”
That is exactly where I would want us to be.