Service, Sacrifice, and Citizenship: The Experiences of Muslims Serving in the U.S. Military

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The events of 9/11 and the subsequent "War on Terror" activated long standing stereotypes in the United States that portrayed Muslims as fundamentally different from other Americans. In this project, I interview 15 Muslims who have served in the U.S. military since 9/11 to determine if and how the activation of this us/them boundary shaped their military experiences.

I find that the us/them atmosphere that characterizes civilian discourse about Muslims is present in the military. However, most of my respondents felt that it had little practical effect on them. I discuss this in terms of the presence but irrelevance of this boundary. I connect this finding to the history of racial integration in the U.S. military, arguing that characteristics of the military, including an emphasis on policies of equal opportunity, the ability to compel certain behaviors, and the nature of military service, which promotes close contact among diverse individuals, can mitigate some of the negatives effects of being othered. While most of my respondents had positive experiences, in some units the us/them discourse was exacerbated, creating atmospheres of distrust and suspicion which led to negative outcomes including harassment, accusations, and decisions by Muslim service members to leave the military.

A theme that emerged in exploring this dichotomy of experience among my respondents was the role of leadership. Leadership that saw value in diversity and was invested in supporting it, mitigated negative effects of othering, making this an irrelevant frame. However, leadership that repeated stereotypes or fears reinforced this tension, creating toxic environments in which Muslim service members felt excluded.

I began this project with the expectation that citizenship would be a central narrative for Muslim service members, as it was for Japanese Americans in World War II. However, the respondents in my sample rarely use their military service to directly make claims on citizenship. They do however express institutional motivations to serve and engage in dialogue, bridge building, and other aspects of everyday citizenship.