It takes a lot of work to marginalize 3.5 million Americans at once.
But the ROTC did just that when it stereotyped Muslims to portray enemy combatants.
During a training held by UCLA’s and California State University, Fresno’s Army ROTCs in early April, students acting as enemy soldiers in combat simulations wore clothing commonly worn by civilians in Arab countries. The clothing included kufiyyas and iqals, which are better known as the flowing scarves Arab men traditionally wear on their heads.
At one point in the training, Maj. Tyrone Vargas, the executive officer of the battalion and a UCLA assistant adjunct professor of military science, held a rocket-propelled grenade above his head and said “Allahu akbar” in the presence of cadets. Vargas later told The Bruin that this had been a way to teach cadets how they would need to decide whether people approach them as combatants or in celebration.
“Allahu akbar,” which means “God is greater,” is a large part of daily Muslim worship and life, including the formal prayer done five times a day. Imam Omar Suleiman, an adjunct professor of Islamic studies at Southern Methodist University, wrote in a CNN article that the phrase is used to indicate gratitude “when God bestows something upon you that you would have been incapable of attaining were it not for divine benevolence.” Notwithstanding, “Allahu akbar” has become a common element in Islamophobic jokes and stereotypes about terrorists.
ROTC’s cavalier attitude about Islamic ideas is damaging to Muslim Americans, and to the Muslim and Southwest Asian and North African students studying at UCLA. The university cannot expect these students on campus to feel safe or comfortable knowing that all it takes for them to be labeled an enemy combatant is to say an often used phrase or wear an outfit common in their country.
Training future military combatants is one thing; perpetuating discriminatory stereotypes is another. ROTC can certainly try to make amends for its actions during the spring cadet training, but the fact remains that it has only played into the continuing narrative of Islamophobia in the United States.
“This training negligently promotes an image of Muslims as dangerous,” said Marwa Rifahie, a civil rights attorney for the Los Angeles chapter of Council on American-Islamic Relations, in a statement released by CAIR-LA.
Rifahie added that CAIR has seen a deterioration in the welcoming climate for Muslim students in the U.S., and that ROTC’s training is likely to contribute to it.
And Muslim students are already living in a hostile world. The federal government has made it all but clear that people like them are not welcome here, with not one but two attempted travel bans primarily affecting Muslims within the last year. Looking at ROTC’s actions in context of the rampant Islamophobia that is embraced by our government only makes them seem more threatening.
Lt. Col. Shannon Stambersky, a professor of military science at UCLA and a member of ROTC leadership, defended ROTC by saying that officers wanted to be as realistic as possible in the training exercise. Stambersky added that in the ’90s, the program trained by using simulated combatants dressed up as Soviet troops.
But these excuses don’t hold up to expert scrutiny. Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor of Islamic law in the UCLA School of Law and a leading authority on Islam, said enemies in the field don’t look nearly as stereotypical as ROTC portrayed them. Abou El Fadl said enemies in places like Iraq and Syria usually wear jeans and a shirt.
“These kids who put on the kufiyyas and tried to look like Muslim enemies didn’t think very hard about what they were doing,” Abou El Fadl said. “That TV stereotype is a completely cultural stereotype that has nothing to do with the reality in the military field.”
Moreover, dressing like Soviet troops, who had a uniform that wasn’t worn by anyone else, is different from dressing and behaving in a way you believe the members of an entire religion do. Soviet Russia was a nation – one that we were actively in conflict with. Islam is a religion – one whose 1.8 billion members make up one-fourth of Earth’s population.
And Islam is not fighting anyone.
Aya Elarid, a second-year biology student and a member of UCLA’s Muslim Student Association, said she thinks it’s sad that ROTC played into common inaccurate stereotypes about Muslim clothing and phrases.
“This week we’re having an Islam awareness week. Students who see stuff like this will say, ‘Well, why would I want to know more about Islam?’” Elarid said. “Already when people hear about Islam, they assume the worst, and things like this don’t help at all.”
Katherine Knobloch, a fourth-year biology student and a UCLA ROTC cadet, said the program is working to organize a forum with MSA to discuss the behavior in question and to break down barriers that have previously existed between ROTC and the Muslim community on campus. Ramadan, a Muslim holy month during which Muslims fast from dawn until dusk each day, abstaining from food and drink of all kinds, is starting next week. Knobloch said that while plans for the forum are still tentative, the forum may be held during Iftar – the breaking of the fast at sundown each night.
But this forum won’t change what happened or what caused it. The fact that military authorities thought it was alright – even beneficial – for cadets to perpetuate Islamophobic stereotypes means UCLA has a lot of work to do to address discrimination on this campus.
Speaking out against ROTC’s behavior is a start. Holding events at which qualified experts on Islam dispel common stereotypes to dismantle the mindset that permitted the discriminatory behavior is better.
Forgiveness is a big part of Islam, but at the end of the day, Muslim Bruins have to walk around this campus knowing even UCLA’s reserve officers might be harboring Islamophobic thoughts.