“Islamophobia”: Lessons from a Former U.S. Army Muslim Chaplain

“Islamophobia” is an irrational fear and hostility toward Islam and Muslims,” explained James “Yusuf” Yee, once a U.S. Army Muslim Chaplain at Guantanamo Bay Prison, who spoke at Hamilton on Sept. 20. 


It’s one thing, in the wake of the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, that has been hard for America to get past.  Most Americans don’t associate terms such as “patriotism” and “America” with words like “Islam and Muslim.”  For any evidence of overt discrimination and anti-Muslim rhetoric from both politicians and civilians alike, Yee claims the proof is in the pudding; Islamophobia is rampant and it needs to stop.


Chief Diversity Officer Donald Carter prefaced Yee’s presentation with some background on Mr. Yee. Yee was a Muslim convert who was raised Lutheran until his conversion after graduating from West Point.  Prior to becoming a chaplain in 2001, he was a U.S. Air Force Artillery Officer.  Carter explained that the “Islamophobia” lecture was the first in a line of programs set to examine diversity in different institutions, such as in the military.


For the past decade, followers of the Muslim faith have been subject to discrimination and profiling that is in many cases, irrational.  Yee, whose background includes informing U.S. soldiers about Islam ever since 2001, stated that much of this harassment is born out of plain ignorance.  While working at Guantanamo Bay, Yee advocated for hospitable treatment of Muslim prisoners, who were subject to both physical and mental torture. 


Eventually Yee himself became a target for persecution simply for trying to help the prisoners; he incarcerated for 76 days.  He remembers clearly: “I was referred to the “Chinese Taliban.  Not only was I categorized by my religious beliefs, but also my ethnicity.”


The concept of “Islamophobia” has been lingering for a while, but it has recently re-entered the national spotlight with issues of Time Magazine, as noted by Yee.  Last year on August 30, the magazine published an article titled “Is America Islamophobic?”  According to Yee, yes, we are very much so.  Yee was also honored to have his profile featured in the Time 10th anniversary of 9/11 issue, where he got to share his testimony.


Yee noted that Islam has long been associated with acts of terrorism in the minds of Americans even before the 9/11 events.  In 1995 when terrorists bombed the Federal Building in Oklahoma, the first suspicions were that Muslim extremists were responsible.   Yee countered by stating, “perhaps 60 percent of possible terrorist threats were thwarted because of information or assistance from Muslim sources.” 


He was particularly perturbed by anti-Muslim rhetoric by prominent politicians, especially after Keith Ellison became the first Muslim elected to Congress in 2006.  Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann was quoted as saying that the crowds at Ellison’s election were “shouting anti-Bush and anti-American sentiments.”  Glenn Beck openly asked Ellison on public television, “Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.”  Former Congressman Allen West stated, “Keith Ellison represents the antithesis of the principles of the United States of America.” 


The former chaplain emphasized the extra measures people fitting a Muslim profile have to go through at airports.  The Transportation Security System mandated heightened security for passengers from countries including but not limited to Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan and Syria.  Security officers have long targeted individuals who fit the “Muslim profile” for more detailed screenings.


Yee urged the audience to take action to increase awareness of what the Muslim faith stands for.  Yee said, “A lot of people focus on the differences between them and Muslims, but Muslims and Christians believe in several of the same ideals, such as Jesus Christ, David, and Noah.”  He emphasized that being Muslim isn’t unpatriotic, but the refusal to accept people of all faiths and backgrounds is. 


Yee stressed that presenting accurate information about Muslim faith can help decrease Islamophobia.  By increasing aware about correct customs and culture of Muslims, discrimination may potentially be reduced, he concluded.


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