By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Nov. 19, 2009 - The director of a Muslim veterans organization said he welcomes Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates' announcement today of a Pentagon probe into the attacks at Fort Hood, Texas, calling it a matter of national security. Qaseem Ali Uqdah, executive director of the American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council, and a retired Marine gunnery sergeant, credits military leaders with establishing a climate that's prevented any backlash against Muslims servicemembers since the Nov. 5 shooting.
Gates announced a sweeping review today that will look into events leading up to the rampage that left 13 people dead, and whether military officials should have been more aggressive in raising a red flag about the accused shooter, Army Maj. Nidal M. Hasan.
"This is not about Muslim," Uqdah said of the probe. "This is about national security. This is about an incident in which an individual committed a criminal act."
The fact that Hasan is Muslim, he said, doesn't matter. A review would have been necessary whatever the perpetrator's religion, as a "preventative measure" to prevent a similar incident from ever happening again, he said.
And to be truly effective, he said, the review should go beyond Muslims, to help identify and weed out zealots of any kind who could become potential threats. "It would be most prudent to go across the military and leave no stone unturned," Uqdah said.
The world situation demands it, he said. "We have to recognize this for what it is: a war on several fronts, with no boundaries, and here on our own shores," he said. "So we have to be vigilant. If that requires all of us being examined, then so be it," as long as it doesn't overstep civil liberty boundaries.
"So long as it is not prejudicious, a review right now is necessary," Uqdah said.
While providing an important "litmus test," the Pentagon review will also help highlight the contributions Muslim servicemembers make to the U.S. military, and the sacrifices they have made, he said.
More than 3,500 active-duty troops identify themselves as Muslim, with about half of them serving in the Army, Defense Department officials said.
"I think the takeaway [of t he review] will be that there are a lot of servicemembers, men and women, across the board, serving very honorably," Uqdah said.
The Fort Hood incident was an isolated incident that casts an unfortunate shadow on the entire Muslim community, he said.
Uqdah's organization wasted no time in condemning the attack, extending condolences to the victims and their families, as well as the local community, in a statement posted on its Web site within hours of the incident.
"Islam holds the human soul in high esteem, and considers the attack against innocent human beings a grave sin," the statement said. "This is a criminal act that is now best dealt with by the law enforcement community."
Ugdah serves as an ecclesiastical endorser, vetting Muslim chaplains in the Defense Department to ensure they meet religious standards. In that capacity, he communicates regularly with seven Muslim chaplains serving on active duty, in the Air Force Reserve or in seminary preparing to go into the military.
With his finger on the pulse of the Muslim military community, Ugdah reported he has yet to hear of a single incident of backlash against Muslim servicemembers that some had predicted after the Fort Hood incident.
"I attribute that to strong leadership positions, starting from the commander in chief on down, with establishing a 'zero tolerance' climate," he said.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey Jr. set the tone quickly after the incident. "Speculation could potentially heighten backlash against some of our Muslim soldiers," he said. "What happened at Fort Hood was a tragedy, but I believe it would be an even greater tragedy is our diversity becomes a casualty here."
"By saying that," Ugdah said, "he made certain to his commanders and everyone else that he wasn't going to tolerate [a backlash]. I think it's been a key factor in preventing it."
Ugdah said he's always experienced a climate of relative tolerance within the military. He recalled back to the mid-1990s, when he was assigned to Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., and overheard an allied officer attending classes there ask a U.S. field grade officer if he suspected the loyalty of Muslims serving in the military.
The officer responded that Muslims are no different than any other troops, and serve just as courageously and with the same dedication, he recalled. "Then he asked him, "'Is there any reason we should suspect them?'"
The events of 9/11 increased scrutiny of Muslims across the board, including in the military, he conceded.
But Ugdah said Hasan's alleged proselytizing while in uniform – if proven true – should never have been tolerated. Other questionable behavior should have been identified and reported, he said.
"This was a failure in terms of us as a whole,' he said, clarifying that all servicemembers, not just Muslims, share the blame. "We saw something suspicious and really didn't report it. It really wasn't taken seriously. As a whole, we have to get better at being vigilant in terms of our security."