WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Desperately short of soldiers who speak Arabic and understand Islam, the U.S. military is quietly courting American Muslims. But they show little enthusiasm for an institution many say is prejudiced against them.
"The military have the same problem as civilian government agencies, such as the FBI," said Ibrahim Hooper of the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an advocacy group. "There is a general reluctance to join because Muslims think there is bias against them and career prospects are limited."
Pentagon statistics show there are more Jews and Buddhists than Muslims serving in the 1.4 million strong, overwhelmingly Christian armed forces.
In the Marine Corps, there are only slightly more Muslims than Wiccans, who practice witchcraft. And in the Air Force, Wiccans outnumber Muslims by more than two to one.
The Pentagon lists 3,386 Muslims in active service, compared with 1.22 million Christians of a wide array of denominations, including little-known groups such as the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel or the Pentecostal Holiness Church International.
The statistics are drawn from personnel records that include a "religious faith code," a rubric soldiers are asked, but not obliged, to complete. Some Muslims in the military say their real number is higher, and estimates go up to 10,000.
Whatever the figures on religion, it is a lack of Arabic-speaking officers and soldiers steeped in Islamic culture that is so striking, a subject that comes up in most conversations with people returning from duty in Iraq.
While there is no specific recruitment drive aimed at Arab and Muslim communities in the United States, the Pentagon has made well publicized moves to show that the military does not equate Islam with terrorism and is making efforts to accommodate Muslim Americans who want to serve both God and their country.
For example: Last July, the Marine Corps dedicated a new Muslim prayer center at its base in Quantico, Virginia. A month later, the Air Force Academy commissioned its first Muslim chaplain. And in September, the U.S. military academy at West Point inaugurated its first Muslim prayer room.
West Point is the oldest military academy in the country and reaction to its move highlighted a general climate of suspicion and distrust of Muslims in America since the attacks on New York and Washington of September 11, 2001.
LOYALTY QUESTIONED, SUSPICIONS RAISED
"A chief concern of the U.S. military is Islamist infiltration," the conservative Investor's Business Daily said in an editorial. "Yet the Army, in a show of blind tolerance, just made that easier with the dedication of a new mosque at West point.
"Erecting mosques at our military bases and academies ... gives berth to erect a Fifth Column inside our military."
Warnings of fifth columnists, a staple of right-wing bloggers since September 11, 2001, gathered momentum after an Army sergeant who converted to Islam, Hasan Akbar, rolled grenades into the tents of sleeping soldiers at a base in Kuwait and opened fire on those who ran out.
Two officers died and 14 soldiers were wounded in the attack, shortly before the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. The military lawyers who defended Akbar argued he had snapped after fellow soldiers relentlessly ridiculed his faith. Akbar was sentenced to death and is awaiting execution.
Public opinion polls show that negative views of Muslims are not restricted to a fringe minority. In a Gallup poll taken around the time the West Point prayer room opened, a third of those surveyed thought Muslims living in the United States sympathized with al Qaeda, the group behind the attacks of September 11, 2001.
"This is a big problem," said Hossam Ahmed, a retired Air Force Reserve colonel who leads prayer meetings for the small Muslim congregation that meets at the Pentagon prayer room every Friday afternoon. "I never had anyone question my loyalty until September 11. After that, yes, it has happened."
Ahmed, who was born in the United States of Egyptian parents, said that while he had at times encountered prejudice and hostility, his faith had not been an obstacle in his career, a frequent observation by Muslims in the military.
"I've run into lack of understanding and ignorance but I don't have problems practicing my faith," said Lt. Col. Tim Oldenburg, a flight test engineer attached to the Pentagon. "What I get constantly is reactions of surprise when people hear I'm a Muslim." Unlike most Muslims in the military, Oldenburg is white and grew up on an Illinois farm.
Black Americans make up for the majority of Muslims serving in the U.S. armed forces.
In the U.S. population as a whole, people of South Asian origin make up the biggest proportion of Muslims, accounting for 33 percent, according to estimates by community groups. Black Americans come second, with 30 percent, followed by Arabs with around 25 percent.
By some estimates, Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the United States, driven by conversions and immigration.
"There's a large pool of expertise," said an officer involved in recruiting matters. "People who know the languages, people who are familiar with the culture. We just haven't found the right way to draw from that pool."
(For an interview with Muslim former chaplain James Yee, see "Former Guantanamo chaplain wants U.S. Army apology")