A Patriot Act: The Story of Kareem Khan

Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan was a Muslim-American U.S. Army Specialist who died in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He received a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for his service.

The words tall, dark, and handsome, come to mind as I flip through an online photo album of a stately, smiling young man fashioned in a military uniform. As I reach the last picture I feel a sharp pang in my stomach. In this album, put together for me by Kareem’s mother, Sheba Khan, is a headstone.

Located in Virginia’s Arlington Cemetery, where her son Kareem now rests, the epitaph gives a name, dates, and the military decorations Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

This is an epitaph which spells out a life of accomplishments, a life lived briefly from 1987 to 2007, a life which ended too soon.

Sheba vividly recalls the spicy shrimp her son made for her – for breakfast. Or the cake he baked for an elderly neighbor.

The anecdotes Sheba shares diffuse the chills brought on by Kareem’s photo album. Instead I am able to piece her words to form a picture of a loving son, brother, friend and soldier.

In his kindergarten class, Kareem would approach a young girl who’d been left in tears by a group of kids bullying her. He’d simply tell her she was in fact pretty and that was all it would take for the girl to stop crying.

Years later Kareem would give his own ticket money to his best friend who couldn’t afford a to go the prom. And on another occasion, Sheba remembers trying to reach Kareem on his cell phone for the longest time when she found out he’d lent his phone to a friend in trouble. 

“He was that sort of a friend” Sheba tells me “always thinking of others before himself… even at a very young age”.

Sheba moved to the U.S. in 1986 and now lives in Columbia, Maryland. When her son, at the age of 20, chose the army as an occupation, to Sheba it made all the sense in the world. He had always liked the army and what it represented. And though she was not pleased with his decision, she decided she would support her son.

“Once 9/11 happened, Kareem knew that he wanted to prove that not all Muslims are ‘bad,’” Sheba explains.

On the day 9/11 took place Kareem vowed to join the Army as soon as he was of age.

At the age of nineteen he would enlist and a little over a year later, Specialist Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, along with three other soldiers, was killed by an improvised explosive device while clearing a house in Baqubah, Iraq. 

Kareem’s story remains untold - with the exception of some news briefs and a photo montage in the New Yorker featuring a delicate Sheba with her head lightly resting on her son’s headstone.

But in October of 2008, during an NBC ”Meet the Press” interview, Gen. Colin Powell would refer to this young Muslim- American who lost his life in service to his country, while endorsing then-presidential candidate Barack Obama.

Like the present, in 2008 those who question the President’s religious and racial heritage were operating just as dexterously as they are today, which is why Gen. Powell’s endorsement had two roles.

First, Gen. Powell’s endorsement would skip the cotton-candy issues instead honing directly on the meat-and-potato topics by adding him to the list of prominent non-Muslims advancing the motion of ‘there’s nothing wrong with being Muslim in America’ dialogue.

And, by emphasizing that at the very top of Kareem’s headstone there is no Christian cross, no Star of David, but instead “a crescent and star of the Islamic faith,” Powell gave admission to a new territory: the world of those Muslims who have pledged allegiance to America, ready to serve and protect what is their homeland. 

A territory that, up until very recently, mainstream discourse had largely left uncharted.

A Portrait of Resiliency

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the fear, pain and anger which coursed through our cores rapidly jumping communities, cities and countries is something many still remember clearly.

To enumerate the thousand acts of heroism – the stories of first responders, survivors and victims –  would require volumes of ink and paper.

The first chapter that the 9/11 tragedy writes in our nation’s history is defined by this fear, pain and anger. The chapter to follow is of a shocked yet hopeful nation coalescing and coming to heal together. Today, 10 years later, a portrait of resiliency has shaped.

But running parallel to the chapter of resilient hope is a story with darker undertones. Those who orchestrated 9/11 are responsible for more than the murder of the 2996 innocent civilians of all faiths who would lose their lives on Sept. 11.

Ten years, two wars and the lost lives of thousands of countless civilian and military personnel who have been written off as collateral damage, a fear of the unknown and a persecution of the other has seeped into and stained the American social fabric.

What has been overlooked is the select individuals who have and continue to twist religious ideology to justify their hideous agendas. Overlooked is the fact that countless Muslim lives belong in the list of collateral damage in the post 9/11 era. And overlooked is the fact that millions of Muslims consider America the cynosure of their, family, work, loyalty and their home.

Hand-in-hand with the dynamic resiliency of a nation there is now a decade-long narrative of suspicion, paranoia and persecution which having nearly replaced 250 years of Muslim-American history has affected the lives of nearly two million Americans identifying as Muslim, leading to much social isolation of a group once recognized as the most civically engaged and diverse religious groups in America.

The Patriot Act

In order to defend and protect their rights many average Muslim-Americans have stepped to the figurative microphone.  Addressing negative stereotypes and calling for increased integration of the Muslim-American into all aspects of American society has become the rallying cry of many and a career for some.

Whether it is the civil lawyers from the Council of American-IslamicRelations (CAIR) relentlessly defending the civil rights of their chapter members, or a light hearted -- yet equally -- effective showcasing of Muslim-American diversity, seen through the lens of two friends on a countrywide Ramadan road trip - stories of pushback to the anti-Muslim hysteria are plenty.

But when it comes to participation in the armed forces, the idea of a Muslim serving in lands where the homes, livelihoods, and the lives of fellow Muslim brothers and sisters are at stake is a hot topic and a longstanding point of contention that has been debated publically and privately by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Pamela Gellar of “Stop the Islamisation” has said that “devout Muslims” be “prohibited from military service.” Gellar’s bias is just one example of many instances in which the participation of Muslims in the U.S. armed forces has been vehemently opposed, according to a recent report released by the Center for American Progress.

But finding acceptance and support within their own religious communities is not always easy for these individuals.

For Lt Col. Shareda Hosein, who has spent three decades in service, her vocation in the military was “known by those in her community but not something that was talked about”. Does this demand for detachment ever bother her? I wonder. Shareda tells me that after three decades of observation, she has deduced that the Muslim community’s reaction to Muslims in the army is a function of which decade we are in.

“Earlier on people would feel uncomfortable around me. They’d be afraid to say things because they thought I could go back and tell someone. Then came the 90s where my Masjid started opening up to the world outside. But when 9/11 happened there was an immediate sense that we need to lock down, and to protect the self, family, and the community, because these times were uncertain, and with the Patriot Act in place one never knew when one’s door would be banged on and loved ones taken away to some prison”.

What does the current phase of our decade look like, then? To which Shareda tells me she feels “ever since President Obama has been in office and the death of Bin Laden, a completion cycle has been completed. A sense of relief has descended on the American-Muslim community along with an opportunity to now share with the world what Islam truly is.”

But it is not always that simple.

What initially led Shareda to joining the army was love – a love for adventure which she would discover while living in Germany as an exchange student. So, looking forward to the opportunity to travel she committed to the army thinking it would be just for the three years, not knowing that after four years of active duty, she would spend twenty-seven years in the reserves.

Today, Shareda serves as the cultural advisor in her Special Operations Command in Tampa, Florida.

“There is this willingness to learn about Islam because of the regions we are currently in” Shareda points out matter-of-factly. In our recent past there have been instances during which this ‘willingness to learn’ has moved beyond a mere willingness to a necessity, the only means to move forward.

One such incident took place on November 5, 2009 at Fort Hood (a US military installation outside Killeen, Texas).

Major Nidal Malik Hassan would walk into the Soldier Readiness Centre, a space where army personnel receive medical treatment before and after deployment and also where Hassan served as a psychiatrist.

Hassan, an American-born Muslim of Palestinian descent, would then reportedly jump on a table screaming out “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) and open fire on his fellow comrades killing 13 people (not including an unborn child) and wounding 29 others.

“The repercussions of the Fort Hood shooting will be felt for quite some time,” a source who wished to remain anonymous told me, adding “whether we are saying it our loud or not it is true that every Muslim in the military will be watched much more closely. Combating terrorism has changed. The enemy is no longer in distant lands only. The enemy is within.”

Shareda, whose position as a cultural advisor means she witnesses firsthand the impact of an event like Fort Hood on military personnel, told me “that a year and some months is not enough time – the trust has been eroded.”

“Maybe it has happened in a covert way - everything in the military is covert because our laws and rules do not allow for discrimination – yet, still, it was done at home, by a military officer. How do you protect yourself from that?”

Combat Medicine Paramedic Fahad Kamal was a first responder on the day of the Fort Hood massacre. 

Describing the chaos and the confusion he witnessed that day Fahad confesses that when he first heard Hassan’s name he was angry.

“It was not something we needed. We’re trying to make positive statements about Islam. And then things like this happen,” said Fahad.

“As a Muslim and an American – one who loves this country and all that it has done and does for me – I was disappointed to hear that this man, fifteen years my senior, could destroy harmony that existed.  As a fellow Muslim you just get very frustrated about possibly becoming another stereotype.”

This threat to one’s Muslim identity is something that Shareda describes as one of her greatest struggles, the part in which one must “educate the military community on disaggregating bad Muslim actors from the 99% of the 1.5 billion Muslims.”

But both Fahad and Shareda show a distinct passion for sustained dialogue and the necessity of continued engagement through education.

For Fahad, this means of education manifests itself through daily interactions with fellow soldiers.

“I am very proud of my religion. And I tell other soldiers of the places I am from (he has lived in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) and I explain what Islam is. There is an advantage in knowing the religion and culture of the place you’re stationed in.”

Shareda, who has sat down with colleagues and went over verses of the Qu’ran that are oft misinterpreted, admits to a degree of difficulty in Islamic education.

“It is too difficult to haphazardly or intermittently educate. Every single thing is foreign terminology,” she says.

But that does not stop Shareda from continuous attempts, on some occasions even volunteering her services.

“It can be a basic about religion. The five pillars, say. Along with cultural etiquette and the history of the place. If military personnel will be interacting with the locals then maybe a course on the language. I have full autonomy and support of my command to do this,” she explains.

I can’t help but wonder whether there is a conflict of interest, or an internal rebellion, felt by individuals like Fahad and Shareda, when it comes to fighting an enemy that may share your religion, and maybe even your skin color, language, and, culture.

“When Desert Storm came about I remember thinking ‘Ok, they are Muslims. How could I go and kill Muslims?’” Shareda tells me. “But I have given my word. There is a bad actor invading an innocent country. And we have been called upon to help. It was a no brainer for me."

But what about participation in the post 9/11 zeitgeist and the subsequent ‘War on Terror?’

For Shareda, this was a time when she really questioned just how they [America] could justify this.

“That was different for me. I did not have access to classified information. When you have information you make different decisions. I had to trust my chain of command and at the time everyone was abiding by it as being a legal, lawful act…unfortunately you receive information after the fact.”

Varied Perspectives

Speaking with Shareda also sheds light on the lesser known story of life for Muslim women in the military.

A few years ago the New York Times featured Fadwa Hamdan, a Muslim woman, who after a divorce found herself serving as an Arabic linguist in the army, leaving “one male dominated culture for another”.

Hamdan’s story is an example of the army - a vocation based on structure and uniformity – clashing with the apparel required of Muslim women. At age 39, Hamdan ended her longstanding relationship with the hijab and donned shorts for training – though after ridicule and judgment from fellow Muslim soldier she would opt for sweatpants (however other Muslim women have reported that their fellow male comrades are generally open-minded and possess a legacy of understanding due to the fact that many are converts are ‘born-again into Islam’).

Though Shareda has been largely accommodated by her command (they’ve permitted sweatpants and allow concessions during the month of Ramadan on training rules) she’s heard of many Muslim women in active duty who struggle with this conflict between their occupation and faith.

She recounts one incident in particular that left her disturbed; the story of a young African-American Muslim who was “harassed so much by a drill sergeant to the point she had a miscarriage”.

A Soldier’s Jihad

The Pentagon graciously provided estimates stating that nearly 20,000 Muslims are serving in the 1.4 million-strong U.S. armed forces – a legacy which is traceable back to the First World War. However, when taken in the context of approximately 5.65 million Muslims living in America, this number is hardly overwhelming.

Even though I spoke to many Muslim-Americans in the U.S. army for the purposes of this story, I was able to feature just a few. But after each and every interview I found myself replaying the words of scholar Tariq Ramadan in my head.

Ramadan has defined the highly misinterpreted notion of jihad as a stirring form, a rising up and defeat of one’s own state of passivity. And for Ramadan, it becomes every Muslim’s duty to engage in this internal battle in order to better one self.

Stories like that of the young martyr, Kareem Khan, or noble service(wo)men like Shareda and Fahad are stories which not only are a rising against  passivity but also an epigraph of our times. These individuals have stepped out the bubble of their cultural and religious comfort zones. For them complacency and panic is not the right response. Instead, they have chosen to stir, guide, and dictate what they deem true, what they wish to give back to their homeland, America.

In an NBC ‘Meet the Press’ interview General Casey said that “our diversity, not only in our Army but in our country, is our strength”. Though the relationship between military personnel Muslims and their community can, at times be best described as a galling, upstream battle, the truth remains that, Muslims in the army – with their skill sets, their backgrounds, and their perspectives – are more than just a complicated relationship. They are an invaluable necessity, a demonstrable force.

*Numbers are rough estimates since listing religious affiliation is not made mandatory.