Islamic scholars debate whether Muslims should serve in non-Muslim armies

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WASHINGTON (RNS)—As investigators seek to uncover what motivated Maj. Nidal M. Hasan to kill 13 fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, one lead they are exploring is his apparent worry that serving in the U.S. Army compromised his Muslim faith.

As his deployment to Afghanistan loomed, Hasan faced the possibility of killing Muslims, or at least abetting an army responsible for killing thousands of fellow Muslims.

Atif Qarni, a Sunni Muslim, and his wife Fatima Pashaei, a Shiite Muslim, sit with their 3-year-old son Zane Qarni, in their home in Manassas, Va. Qarni said he had no qualms about being a Muslim serving in the U.S. military. (RNS PHOTO/Christopher Rossi)

In a presentation to soldiers in 2007, Hasan theorized that Islam prohibits Muslims from serving in a military force attacking Islamic populations, as he perceived the U.S. military to be doing.

To support his argument, he cited a verse from the Quran: “And whoever kills a believer intentionally, his punishment is hell,” according to The Washington Post, which obtained a copy of the presentation.

The solution, Hasan concluded, was for the military to discharge Muslim-American soldiers as conscientious objectors.

In the wake of the Fort Hood shooting, a number of leading Muslim-American soldiers and scholars are debating Hasan’s interpretation of Islamic teachings on serving in non-Muslim armies.

More than 3,500 servicemen and servicewomen identify themselves as Muslim, although the actual number probably is higher, observers say.

No Muslim scholars condoned Hasan’s violent actions, but some say his military arguments have merit. But others say Hasan misread the Quran and the U.S. military’s actions.

A wide variety of fatwas—interpretations of Islamic law—on this issue are available on the Internet, but Islam’s lack of a centralized authority makes it difficult to say which opinions hold the most sway.

For instance, many Muslims in the U.S. military see themselves not as waging war against fellow Muslims, but protecting them from enemies who claim to be Muslim, like the Taliban and al-Qaida.

Muzammil Siddiqi, an imam in Orange County, Calif., and member of the North American Fiqh Council, which issues rulings on issues of concern to Muslims, said Islam in no way prohibits Muslims from serving in the U.S. or other non-Muslim militaries, and they may even participate in war.

“If the war fought by non-Muslims is a just war, then they can participate,” Siddiqi said. This would include wars fought in self-defense, or fighting against oppressors. “Otherwise, fighting is not allowed.”

When asked how he would counsel a Muslim soldier who asked his guidance on whether serving in Afghanistan or Iraq would compromise his faith, Siddiqi said it was a “difficult question” that depends on many factors.

For example, Siddiqi would ask what role the person would have. Would he be a medic, or a gunman? And what toll would the war take on innocent Muslims? “I would ask him to think about it,” said Siddiqi.

Muzammil Siddiqi is chairman of the North American Fiqh Council and director of the Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove, Calif. (RNS PHOTO/Courtesy of Muzammil Siddiqi

Atif Qarni, a Marine reservist from 1996 to 2005, saw active duty in Iraq as a platoon leader in 2003.

“I didn’t have any hesitation,” Qarni said. He regrets Muslim civilian deaths caused by U.S. forces but said the Taliban, al-Qaida and Iraqi insurgents are oppressors who violate Islamic principles; therefore, serving against them is justified.

“Even though they claim to be Muslims, they are enemies to Islamic principles,” said Qarni, now a junior high school history teacher in Northern Virginia. “They’re outside the realm of Islam.”

Qarni met a handful of Muslim soldiers during his tenure and said most think along similar lines.

But one soldier he knew did not want to deploy to Iraq because of concerns about harming Muslims and requested a hearing for a discharge, which was granted, Qarni said.

Ali Jum’ah, a professor of Islamic jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, wrote in 2002: “It is not allowed for a Muslim who is currently recruited in the American army to fight against Muslims, neither in Afghanistan nor anywhere else. It is better that those Muslim soldiers exercise their right and excuse for not participating in the war.”

Scholars at have said Muslim-American soldiers should not fight against other Muslims, but that if they had no choice and risked harming their community by not participating, then they should find a limited way to participate.

“If there is no way but to participate, then a Muslim can join the rear to help in military service.” The scholars added, however: “After striking the balance between the two difficult choices, the American Muslim soldier should reach a final decision by himself. … We cannot give a general fatwa that will suit the situation of all American Muslim soldiers.”


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