An open house was held recently at the Islam Dawah Center and mosque in downtown Pensacola, where most of the members now wear, or have worn, the uniform of this nation.
On a sunny, warm early spring Saturday the Center on Barrancas Avenue was a flurry of activity. Among those greeting visitors was Ronald Jacobs, an inactive president of the center and a retired Navy Senior Chief. His 24 years’ service included duty at Corry Station. Jacobs says there was little if any thought about Islam during his time in the Navy.
“There was never that feeling, because we were a tight unit; everyone works for each other,” said Jacobs. “There were people that would look at you kind of ‘side-eyed’ because you did something different – you washed your feet before you pray or you clean yourself, or whatever. We did have some of that, but aside from that we were all one.”
Jacobs became a practicing Muslim while in the Navy, after his daughter began following Islam. Unlike other places around the U.S after September 11, 2001, he says the reaction in Pensacola to its Islamic community was largely positive.
“One lady showed up at our door one day with a yellow rose,” Jacobs said. “And she just said ‘I’m sorry’ and handed us the rose and left. The people of Pensacola are very religious, very spiritual. So we treat each other with respect.”
As of December 2015, only about 5,900 of the 1.3 million active members of the U.S. military self-identify as Muslim. But Muslims fought in the American Revolution, Civil War, both World Wars, and in Vietnam. After 9/11, just over 6,000 Muslims served in Iraq and Afghanistan, with at least 14 being killed overseas.
Zhan Gracier served for nine years in the Army. He joined and his first day as a hometown recruiter in Pensacola was 9/11.
“I was in the car driving to the recruiting station when the first plane hit,” he said.
In the days and weeks after the attacks Gracier saw a discernable change in attitudes toward Muslims by non-Muslims – thanks in large part he believes, to the national media, both then and now.
While he didn’t convert to Islam until after his Army days, Gracier says that when his artillery unit was deployed to Afghanistan, many non-Muslims were angered by their working with the locals.
“But it only made a lot of people angry for a short amount of time,” Gracier said. “After working with them, you could kind of see it wasn’t everybody [fighting Americans]. That kind of eased everybody’s mind, as least as far as my unit was concerned.”
Vietnam veteran Mamun Rashied, who served in the Air Force, says there weren’t any real issues with Islam in the military during the 1960s and 70s. Back then, the main challenge for American Muslims was separating mainstream Islam from the more extreme branches.
“Because the familiarity with Muslims was based on the Nation of Islam, and they thought Muslims didn’t like white people,” said Rashied. “But for the most part, the people in the military knew who you were as a person and didn’t judge your religion.”
There were certain rules set forth by the armed forces when it came to associating with certain groups, which remain in effect today.
“The Nation of Islam is still listed as a hate group; and you can’t be in the military if you belong to a hate group,” Rashied said. “The apprehension at that time was particularly toward African-Americans who were converts. Once that was clarified, I didn’t see any problem.”
Islamic clergy have served in the U.S. military for decades, but recognition of Islam in uniform was a long time coming. In 1993 the Army Chief of Chaplains requested that an insignia be created to represent Muslim chaplains. The design -- a crescent -- was completed the following year. Imams in the other branches have similar insignia, to show that they serve both Allah and Country.