Protecting religious freedom in the military should be an imperative

The military is pretty strict about uniform and appearance standards, but it makes certain allowances: Primarily for religious garb, on the grounds that anyone who wants to serve should be able to do so. Some of those people belong to faiths where religious garments and practices like prayer are an integral part of their religious practices, and where failing to adhere to religious behavioural expectations feels like a violation of their faith and traditions. It should perhaps not come as a huge surprise that while the military has always been welcoming to Christians, it wasn’t as quick to get on board with Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and people of other faiths.

Especially since some of those people wear religious garb like turbans and headscarves, or follow religious beliefs like not cutting their hair because it is part of the form that G-d gave them. Accommodating these beliefs is an important part of building a fully integrated military that incorporates people of many traditions and backgrounds who have much to add — so of course conservatives have absolute kittens over it, insisting that ‘compromising’ the uniform will somehow cause the ranks to disintegrate or give people ‘special treatment.’

This issue recently arose at the Citadel, when an incoming cadet requested permission to wear hijab, and another cadet pitched a big hissy about it on Facebook. There are layers and layers of problems with what was expressed through this incident: Islamophobia, of course, as the hijab is a component of Islam for some Muslims and has become a flashpoint symbol of Islam across the West. The hijab has also been repeatedly targeted as something that Muslimahs need to be ‘freed’ from by Westerners who are convinced that they’re acting in the best interests of Muslim women — or who want to use that as a smokescreen for Islamophobic behaviour, humiliating Muslimahs by insisting that they remove the veil for ID photos, attending school, and engaging in other activities.

There’s also misogyny — rage at a woman daring to request religious accommodations, rage that she’s a woman, and rage that the Citadel accepts female candidates at all. Military academies are still heavily slanted male, and they cultivate a boys’ club atmosphere. Women like this one, who are seeking a military education and are willing to serve a country that often reacts to them with extreme hatred, deserve some considerable applause.

In the military itself, there’s a growing understanding of the need for freedom of expression and freedom of religion, and adjustments to the uniform code allow men and women of faith to adopt religious garb in accordance with their beliefs. There are a lot of reasons why this is important, but one of the most common and irritating responses I encounter is that religious people are demanding ‘special treatment’ and that allowing people to express their faith somehow infringes upon the free speech rights of others, which is deeply perplexing and wrongheaded.

Serving alongside someone who wears hijab does not interfere with someone’s freedom of expression or religious freedom. A Muslim servicemember’s presence doesn’t mean that everyone in a 50 mile radius is automatically expected to convert to Islam, or adhere to Muslim practices like refraining from the consumption of pork. All it means is that people should respect that person’s faith, just as people should respect each other in general — no one should be permitted to evangelise or pressure other people, but wearing a headscarf or turban, or going to chapel to pray, doesn’t infringe upon the religious and free speech rights of others.

If you don’t practice Islam and aren’t interested in converting, then…don’t? Being around a Muslim doesn’t infringe upon your right to practice your own faith, or nonfaith, in the case of atheists. Religious diversity, on the other hand, adds a depth of experience and a wealth of resources to the armed services that should not be underestimated. For example, Muslims can be incredibly valuable tools when forces are deployed in majority Muslim countries, because some of them can bring their insights and experience to bear when working with civilians, and can educate fellow servicemembers about how to communicate effectively with civilians.

Similarly, diverse forces can offer insights into working cooperatively together when on joint exercises and projects with allied forces or organisations, where religious diversity may also be the norm — and when it’s not, seeing an integrated force of people who work together and set aside religious differences to focus on their jobs is a powerful role model. The United States may have been founded by Christians and as a Christian nation, and it still very much is one, but it has a chance to look forward and become a place of true religious diversity where people stand on equal footing with each other. The military has a chance to play a pivotal role in that, as military values are often considered both highly conservative and highly traditional — if the military promotes full religious integration and mutual respect, it sends a sharp message to conservatives who believe it’s appropriate or even necessary to oppress people on the basis of their faith.

A Muslimah who wants to cover while in military academy, training, active duty, or in the reserves should be allowed to do so without question or reservation, just as her cohorts from other faiths should be allowed to express their own religious beliefs. Doing so does not harm unit cohesion, but in fact builds stronger, more effective military forces and a pluralistic society — something the United States claims to have already, but still largely fails to build and support.

The fact that the Citadel didn’t recognise this, and refused her request, is shameful.

Image: Stewart James Bim-Merle, Flickr