MLFA on Memorial Day
by Jeannine Sherman
Friday May 27, 2022
We talk a lot about the hijab. Among Muslims, we may talk about whether or not to wear them. In the larger American community, my hijab may make me feel like a target. Sometimes I feel like I’m supposed to represent all Muslims, that my behavior is being closely watched as an example of “what Muslims do”.
I spoke to a brother recently who expressed similar concerns about his beard. It marks him as more visibly Muslim, makes him “scary” for those who may assume that his beard indicates stronger religious convictions. He shared that at a previous job at a prominent university, a supervisor made comments about “proper grooming”. When the brother kept his long beard, he was demoted and transferred to a different department. He also worries when travelling, even to Muslim-majority countries. He knows fellow countrymen who’ve been targeted because of their beards.
This Monday is Memorial Day, the last Monday of the month of May. As a civilian, Memorial Day marks the beginning of summer. For some, it may have a Fourth-of-July flavor, with short family vacations or barbecues with friends. However, the intention of Memorial Day is more solemn than that. The tradition began after the Civil War as a day is to honor the men and women who died in war.
Let me be clear. I honor those people. I do not wish to use this day for fundraising or marketing. It takes courage to fight for what you believe in. I’ve never been in a war, and I don’t wish it on anyone. If you have lost someone in any war, you have my sincerest condolences and prayers.
My intention here is to connect the dots between American Muslims and an American holiday in a way that celebrates what I love about the United States.
In April of 2016, Ehsan Azzami, Specialist in the U.S. Army, reached out to the Constitutional Law Center for Muslims in America (CLCMA) because he wanted to keep his beard. He wasn’t shaving it, and there was a possibility he could be court-martialed because of this choice.
He had previously requested a religious accommodation to keep his beard in 2014, and informally he had been allowed to wear a beard during his service. Then, there was a change in command, and he was being required to shave the beard or face negative consequences.
Mr. Azzami appealed internally, with the help of our attorneys. They submitted a memorandum of law, under CLCMA’s signature. On December 13, 2016, we sent a letter and draft of Mr. Azzami’s complaint to Army Legal Counsel. We didn’t even have to formally file the complaint. They immediately replied that they were working on it and that it should be resolved shortly.
On January 3, 2017, only three weeks later, we received a new Army directive with detailed drawings of what would be considered acceptable. This inclusive document was official and widely distributed, allowing neatly trimmed beards, hijabs, turbans, and even dreadlocks.
This story makes me proud to be an American. I can’t imagine this sequence of events happening in any other country. Mr. Azzami sought legal support from his community. MLFA was able to empower Muslims and all kinds of Americans to be more fully themselves in American society and in military service of this country’s ideals.
On the other side of things, I also respect the Army’s response. They adopted their policies to be more inclusive of the whole human. Can you imagine a more uniquely American story? A soldier seeks help from a legal fund to support his constitutional rights, and the military cooperates. It’s beautiful.
As Muslims, it’s our job to be hopeful. I don’t believe that cynicism should be equated with intelligence. I know it’s been a tough couple of weeks with shootings, and I’m not trying to distract you. Grief and gratitude can occupy the same space.
Let’s be hopeful. Let’s dream an American dream. Let’s show up together and celebrate the strength in our diversity as Americans from so many different places.
We stand for equality and freedom as Muslims and as Americans. When we do this, it opens a space for all kinds of people to breathe easier and to be more fully who they are. This story makes me proud to be an American. It makes me proud to be a Muslim, too. This is the kind of work we can do when we struggle for truth and justice.