Respect healthy for different faithsBy Erik Holmes - Staff writer
A predominance of Christians in the Air Force creates an atmosphere that assumes all airmen are Christians, allowing prayers and other religious displays at everything from football games and holiday parties to commander’s calls and change-of-command ceremonies, according to non-Christian airmen interviewed by Air Force Times.
Still, the instances of overt religious intolerance are few, and the general acceptance of those who practice other faiths is good, the airmen agreed.
Religion in the service attracted renewed attention in November after an Army psychiatrist allegedly opened fire inside a soldier readiness center at Fort Hood, Texas, killing 13 and wounding 32. The suspected shooter, Maj. Nidal Hasan, is a Muslim and had made it known that he was disturbed by the wars being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the vast majority of the populations practice Islam.
“I really believe that the Air Force and the military generally do a very good job of fostering tolerance,” said Capt. Omar Ashmawy, a judge advocate in the Air Force Reserve and one of about 700 self-identified Muslims in the service.
Hostility, though, is “right below the surface,” Ashmawy said. “And [after] an event like Fort Hood ... people who are inclined to discriminate against Muslims will do it.”
The subject of religious bias came to the forefront for the Air Force five years ago when non-Christian cadets at the Air Force Academy reported being harassed by Christian counterparts and feeling ostracized because they were not religious.
Last month, the academy superintendent, Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, issued a positive progress report — endorsed by one of its most vocal critics — citing the creation of a Cadet Interfaith Council, which helps identify upcoming religious holidays so scheduling conflicts can be avoided and meets with chaplains monthly to discuss the religious climate.
“This is the first time we feel positive about things there,” said Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which battled the academy in court over claims that evangelicals at the school were imposing their views on others.
Servicewide, about 80 percent of airmen in 2008 identified themselves as Christians to the Defense Manpower Data Center. Nearly 17 percent gave no religious preference, and about 3 percent listed non-Christian faiths. Less than 1 percent — 0.68 — said they considered themselves atheists, those who do not believe in God or any deity.
By comparison, 76 percent of the U.S. population told the Census Bureau that they practice Christianity. Roughly 13 percent stated no religious preference, and about 10 percent identified themselves as religious but not Christian. Again, less than 1 percent — 0.71 — listed themselves as nonbelievers.
In the Air Force, Wicca — witchcraft — is the largest non-Christian faith, with 1,434 followers. The breakdown of other religious minorities: 1,271 Buddhists, 1,148 Jews, 678 Muslims and 190 Hindus.
The atmosphere that non-Christian airmen mentioned to Air Force Times manifests itself most often at public events — invocations, Christmas carols and the like.
“The Air Force is laced with inappropriate religious display at commander’s calls, military formations and holiday gatherings,” according to an e-mail from a former airman and current civilian employee at McChord Air Force Base, Wash., who did not want to be identified for privacy reasons. “Airmen are force-fed religious jargon.
“I had many superiors over the years that were religious, and a few openly carried Bibles at work,” the former airman said. “Had they known I am agnostic, it would, I am sure, have affected their views of my annual performance ratings.”
A Wiccan airman said the displays are a tacit endorsement of Christianity and a subtle form of intolerance and exclusion.
“I don’t find the Air Force to have any improved tolerance of non-Christian religions,” said the airman, who also did not want to talk on the record. “What you practice on your own time is your business, but to have your nose constantly rubbed in one religion is getting plain ridiculous.”
For Ashmawy, the Reserve judge advocate, the issue isn’t overt discrimination or proselytizing, but the lack of inclusion of non-Christians.
“God in the military is almost exclusively Jesus,” he said.
Despite the public events, the non-Christian airmen reported they seldom come across overt intolerance one-on-one. Those rare occasions shock and hurt, nonetheless.
Ashmawy wrote a commentary for Air Force News shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks and received a deluge of e-mails and letters about it.
“The response to that piece was about 90 percent overwhelmingly positive, from all over the Air Force,” he said. But “10 percent, ranging from airmen to colonels, sent me hate mail — e-mails telling me I’m deluded, I’m against God, I’m not an American, I’m a traitor. ... That was my first real bad experience in the military.”
Another Muslim airman reported generally being treated well but occasionally experiencing hostility.
“There are always those that hear ‘Muslim’ and instantly go rigid,” said the staff sergeant, who also asked to not be identified for privacy reasons. “I mean, it’s a visible, physical reaction. ... The spine turns into a fence post, and you get the double take. ... [But] these are just personal reactions from individuals, [and] I can honestly say that I have never been impacted professionally because of my religion.”
The Wiccan airman has stopped talking to other airmen about religion because of the negative reactions.
“The most common inconsiderate comment I get is that I must worship the devil or that I must be a hippie tree-hugger,” the airman said. “Now, I just don’t say anything. It gets old listening to the ignorance that spews from people’s mouths.”