Local Muslim vet hopes for understanding, not hate

Ex-navy counselor urges fellows to public service

11/14/2009 12:28 AM

11/14/2009 1:14 PM

Mohamad Samir "Sam" Alsabagh, a retired 20-year Navy veteran, doesn't understand why a fellow Muslim, Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, allegedly opened fire with two handguns at Fort Hood, Texas, last week.

Malik, a psychiatrist, was charged Thursday with 13 counts of premeditated murder.

"The media said he was an extremist Muslim. I don't know," said Alsabagh, a member of the Modesto Islamic Center's board who works as a benefits counselor for veterans.

The Manteca resident works mainly out of the Stockton Veterans Affairs clinic in French Camp but is in the Modesto office on Fridays.

"Here's an example right here," Alsabagh said. "I served 20 years honorably in the U.S. Navy. I'm still serving. Did I commit any terrorist acts? No. Would I? God, no. Because our religion is against terrorist acts. There are a lot of Muslims in the U.S. military these days. They're serving honorably."

According to the Defense Department, Muslims make up less than 0.3 percent of America's active-duty military forces. Of the roughly 548,000 soldiers in the Army, there are 2,500 Muslims, 1,500 of them on active duty. By comparison, 105,000 are Catholic and 99,000 are Baptists. More than 101,000, including Hasan, list no religious affiliation.

"Maybe being a psychiatrist, (Hasan) hit bottom," Alsabagh said. "Personally, dealing with Vietnam veterans, they come to me for help. They tell me about their problems and the horrible things they've done or seen or were forced to do. I've heard a lot of soldiers saying, 'I had no choice. I had to do what I was told to do.' You feel sorry. It's difficult and sad, hearing them."

Born in Damascus, Syria, Alsabagh came to the United States at age 20. He said he enjoyed his military service, despite occasional problems.

"This country provided me with a lot of opportunities," said Alsabagh, 49. "Being grateful, I wanted to serve this country in the best way I could. I had a hard time with some people who didn't like Muslims, didn't like Arabs. They used to mess with me and tease me. You get used to it and let it slide off your back. Most people weren't like that. And in any society, you've got the lows and the highs. If I would go back in time, I would never change anything I did."

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Alsabagh understands the anger toward Hasan, who reportedly shouted "Allahu Akbar," or "God is great," in Arabic as he allegedly opened fire, apparently upset over an upcoming deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. But Alsabagh said the anger shouldn't be directed at all Muslims.

"We're all American citizens," he said. "I've raised my children to be good citizens. My son was born and raised here, and he works for Homeland Security in Washington, D.C. My daughter is attending (California State University, Stanislaus).

"I would advise people, yes, join the military. You're giving service and you're learning something, too -- not just how to fight, but how to be a human being. We (military personnel) don't just go to war; we also help. Look at New Orleans (after Hurricane Katrina)."

Alsabagh never faced overseas deployment, based instead in San Diego, the Bay Area and New Orleans. Fighting with the U.S. military in predominately Muslim countries could be a problem for Muslims, said Ahmad Kayello, imam of Modesto's Islamic Center.

"I have some people ask if they can join the police, highway patrol, firefighters," he said. "I highly recommend they do so and be part of bringing peace to the community.

"The problem is in joining the Army and fighting Muslims in other countries; that's the big question mark. In Islam, it's highly prohibited for Muslims killing other Muslims."

He said there's no problem if one Islamic country attacks another country or the United States. In that case, he said, the attackers are the oppressors and as such, it becomes a "valid reason" to engage in war against them. But if innocent Muslim citizens are killed by a U.S. Muslim soldier, that soldier could face an Islamic court to determine "if this crime was done by mistake or on purpose," Kayello said. "And then they have to pay some money to help the family (of the deceased)."

So serving in the U.S. military when deployed to the Middle East likely raises religious questions for Muslims. "It's not as easy as people think," Kayello said.

Which is why Alsabagh hopes people will learn more about Islam rather than simply having a knee-jerk reaction to stories.

"Study (Islam). Learn it. Ask questions from people who really know about it," he said. "Just like you don't want people to misunderstand Christianity by seeing and hearing the wrong things in the media. After all, we all believe in God. We call him by an Arabic name, but he's the same God."

Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at snowicki@modbee.com or 578-2012.

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