Answer Man

Number of non-Christians in the military may surprise you

Khizr Khan, father of fallen US Army Capt. Humayun S. M. Khan speaks as his wife Ghazala listens during the final day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia
Khizr Khan, father of fallen US Army Capt. Humayun S. M. Khan speaks as his wife Ghazala listens during the final day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia AP

Q: When I watched the Democratic National Convention, I was utterly sick at heart when the father of Capt. Humayun Khan, who was killed in Iraq, spoke. With so much talk about how America is a “Christian-only” country, is there any way to find out how many non-Christian men and women serve in our armed forces?

Cathy Stoltz, of Belleville

A: This may come as a shock to some, but a Department of Defense survey taken in 2009 found that just over a third of those who agreed to be questioned (more than 6,000) said they either were not Christian or had no religious preference.

Of those, the vast majority chose “none of the above” — about 25 percent. But nearly 4 percent identified with humanism (the belief in critical thinking and evidence over dogma and superstition) while Jews, pagans, Eastern religions and “less common” religions came in at about 1 percent each. Roman Catholics topped the Christian faiths with 20 percent followed by Baptists with nearly 18 percent. Muslims numbered about a half percent.

Of course, it’s Muslims who have been drawing all the attention ever since Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump began calling for stringent restrictions on Muslim immigration and Khizr Khan’s powerful speech at the convention. Here again, the numbers might surprise. Despite the fears of terrorist attacks by renegade soldiers loyal to ISIS, there were 5,896 self-identified Muslims serving peacefully in the U.S. military, according to a Defense Department census released last December. This is out of 1,313,490 active-duty and 826,106 guard and reserve members.

The number of active-duty members has been climbing, from about 3,500 in 2011 to 3,939 as of June 30. As some might remind you, three times more innocent Muslims (60) died on Sept. 11 than were involved in carrying out the horrific attacks, so they do have a stake in protecting the country’s security.

Believe it or not, it’s been that way since the American Revolution. Many historians, for example, cite Peter Buckminster as the first Muslim who fought for this country’s independence. A slave, Buckminster fired the shot that killed British Maj. Gen. John Pitcairn at the Battle of Bunker Hill. According to one account, Salem drew a bead on the major and killed him with one shot from his musket. After being freed and changing his name to Salem (a possible derivative of Saleem), he voluntarily re-enlisted and fought for George Washington at Saratoga and Stony Hill.

He wasn’t the only one. Others include Bampett Muhammad, who fought for the Virginia Line Militia between 1775 and 1783. Another of Washington’s soldiers was Yusuf Ben Ali, a North African Arab who worked as an aide to General Thomas Sumter of South Carolina.

According to Precious Rasheeda Muhammad, a Harvard scholar, Muslims also played historic roles during the Civil War. She points to Nicholas Said, a Muslim American soldier born in Africa who served in the Union Army and became a political and civic activist after the war. He “had an intellect so profound that an 1867 Nation article described him as worthy of at least the position of vice president,” Muhammad noted. She insists that such soldiers are obeying the Quran, which calls on followers to defend their communities and respect the law.

In World War II, at least 15,000 Americans of Arab heritage defended the cause of freedom against the Axis powers. Notable among these are Brig. Gen. Elias Stevens, the first American-Arab graduate of West Point,who served on the staff of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, and Navy Lt. Alfred Naifeh, of Oklahoma. While serving on the USS Meredith in the Solomon Islands, Naifeh’s ship was hit by a massive Japanese air raid and quickly sank.

Naifeh reportedly battled sharks for two days and nights to locate wounded shipmates and place them aboard life rafts before he died of exhaustion on the third day. For his heroics, he was posthumously awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal and the Purple Heart. In 1944, the Navy christened the USS Naifeh, a destroyer escort, in his honor.

And so we come to Capt. Humayun Kahn, whose life and grave at Arlington National Cemetery have commanded so much attention in the past two weeks.

“Humayun was a wonderful person, liked and respected by all who knew him,” Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard (retired), Humayun’s combat brigade commander, wrote in the Washington Post. “Humayun was a great officer. The 201st Forward Support Battalion, Humayun’s unit, was the most motivated and combat-oriented logistics unit I had ever seen.”

As another Washington Post story noted, Kahn didn’t have to be on duty on that tragic day in 2004. He was scheduled to have June 8 off, and a colleague, Crystal Selby, urged the 27-year-old naturalized American to take it easy. But Khan insisted on being driven to the base’s gate to see how that day’s guard detail was doing.

“I dropped him off there, and it wasn’t five minutes after that, it happened,” Selby recalled.

Standing with other troops outside the gate, he saw an orange taxi speeding toward them. Ordering the other soldiers to get down, Khan walked toward the vehicle and motioned it to stop. Before he could even reach it, the two suicide bombers set off their IED, killing themselves, two Iraqi civilians — and Khan, one of at least 14 Muslims to have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. Near his grave at Arlington is buried the remains of Ayman Abdelrahman Taha, another Purple Heart recipient of Arab background.

“We live in a dangerous and complex world,” Pittard concluded. “We need leaders who are steady, patient and empathetic, especially at the national level, during this troubled time. We need somebody who has respect for our Gold Star families. Any politically or racially motivated attack on the Khans is despicable and un-American. But, above all, our country needs more men and women like Humayun Khan and the countless others who willingly and humbly served this great nation of ours without reservation or recognition.”

Today’s trivia

At what age did Lucille Ball become a redhead?

Answer to Saturday’s trivia: To look at it today, you’d never know it, but the first stadium with a retractable roof may have been the Colosseum in Rome, which was built between 70 and 80 A.D. In Latin, this novel roof was called a velarium, and it provided shade for the spectators who watched the gladiatorial games in the scorching summer sun and heat of the ancient city. The huge awning likely was fashioned from sailcloth — either canvas, linen or cotton — attached to spokes of rope. This velarium then could be extended or retracted with ropes and pulleys depending on the position of the sun. Two hundred and forty brackets were positioned around the top of the Colosseum to support the awning, and the sockets where they stood can still be seen, according to The velarium covered more than one third of the arena. It was likely operated by Roman sailors, who probably saw it as a plum military assignment.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer