Sunday, May 23, 2004

Mirza Mahmood Ahmad of Great Falls, Va., recalls his uneasy feelings about his son’s deployment to Iraq in January, though he is proud of the young man’s service in the Virginia National Guard.

“I said, ‘Bashir, you want to go? There is no confusion in your mind? You are a Muslim. You may have to fight against other Muslims.’ ”

His son was annoyed by the question, Mr. Ahmad says.

“He said, ‘First of all, I’m a medic. I won’t be fighting.’ ‘Second,’ he said, ‘I can’t back out’ — because of his loyalty to his fellow soldiers,” says Mr. Ahmad, 47, a Pakistani-born U.S. citizen who owns his own international wireless company.

Muslims make up a small minority in the U.S. military and have been regarded with suspicion by other Muslims at home and abroad, as well as by fellow members of the armed services of different faiths who question their enthusiasm for fighting fellow Muslims.

According to the Pentagon’s most recent statistics, 4,154 of the 1,399,751 active-duty members of the armed forces, or 0.3 percent, identified themselves as Muslims.

Mr. Ahmad says he must defend his son’s presence in Iraq to some at his mosque who question how a Muslim can go to an Islamic country and fight against members of his own religion.

“I have had to explain why Bashir is doing this,” he says.

“He’s an extremely smart kid,” Mr. Ahmad says. “People like Bashir should be in the Army. I think he’s making a major contribution.”

His son — Pfc. Mirza Bashir Ahmad, 21, a political science student at Radford University — serves as a Virginia National Guard medic with the 276th Engineer Battalion out of Richmond.

In an e-mail from Iraq, Pfc. Ahmad said American Muslim soldiers in Iraq must walk a fine line to maintain the trust of their comrades while not offending other Muslims.

“Sometimes … I get the feeling I am being watched with an evil eye” by other soldiers, Pfc. Ahmad wrote.

“I do often feel like I am viewed with suspicion, but that is always from soldiers who don’t know me,” he said. “There are always jokes about me helping the terrorists and being a spy, but I shrug it off as humor in bad taste at the wrong time.”

Pfc. Ahmad said other soldiers in his unit look to him for leadership in situations with Muslims that require diplomacy.

“People often come to me as an authoritative figure on the politics, religion and culture of the region, and if there requires … a representative to talk to locals, I will be asked to do so because … I may be more welcomed,” he said.

Mr. Ahmad immigrated to the United States in 1977 and belongs to a Muslim minority that interprets the Koran — and specifically the idea of jihad, or holy war — differently from many other Muslims.

“We are not against jihad,” he says. “The ignorant majority of Muslims have a wrong interpretation of jihad, which is to fight against non-Muslims. The true interpretation is that any struggle for good — it could be against yourself — is jihad.”

Mr. Ahmad’s brother, a George Mason University graduate and computer expert, was assassinated by Islamic extremists in Pakistan in 1999 because of his views.

Mr. Ahmad does not think his family’s situation is particularly noteworthy, he says, and asked not to be photographed. “It’s unusual for us, a first-generation American family, in a very awkward time. [September 11] has changed a lot of things.”

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