Netherlands: Interview with a Muslim soldier

Netherlands: Interview with a Muslim soldier

Their integration is still behind the rest of society, but Muslims are no longer a rarity in the Dutch armed forces.  How does a Muslim soldier see a mission to a Muslim country such as Afghanistan?  Buddy Masfirdaus, a sergeant in the signal corps: "I'm first and foremost a soldier, and afterward a Muslim."

Once he walked through Rotterdam in his desert-colored camouflage uniform when several Moroccan street-kids stepped up to him.  "Traitor!" they shouted.  Sergeant Buddy Masfirdaus (29) somehow understands it.  "They thought: Ah, this guy is brown, he doesn't belong to the Dutch army.  Those kids are brought up like that.  I walked up to them and explained that I'm just trying to contribute my part to a better world.  It says nowhere in the Koran that you're a traitor if you do what you believe in. But they didn't understand it and began to curse.  I continued walking then."

Why is Masfirdaus, with his Indonesian appearance, characterized as a traitor anyway?  The young sergeant shrugs.  "There's in particular a lot of ignorance hiding behind their response.  They see somebody who's not white, but who does wear a uniform that stands for Western values.  That doesn't go down well."

Ignorance or not, in England in 2007 the police arrested terrorists who had a list of British Muslim soldiers they saw as traitors.  Masfirdaus answers fiercely that it's strange those people can attack Muslims who interpret the Koran differently, while the same Koran forbids killing fellow Muslims.  Terrorists give their own twist to the Koran to justify their actions.

The same holds, according to the Rotterdam solider who's already been twice to Uruzgan on missions - for the rebellion in Afghanistan.  "They turn against Western powers, but they apparently have no difficulty murdering coreligionists in the same land in order to achieve heir goals."

The incident that Masfirdaus had with Moroccan coreligionists in Rotterdam indicates that a job in the army is not obvious for every Muslim, in any case.  And the current contribution of the Netherlands to Islamic Afghanistan, doesn't really lessen those feelings.

Masfirdaus doesn't recognize such hostile feelings towards the West in any way.  Admittedly, the sergeant is also not a Muslim of the most orthodox type.  He defines himself as a "Western Muslim'.  "I take the prescriptions from the Koran somewhat more freely.  I was brought up this way too.  Just at about seven I went to the mosque.  Moreover, I didn't go every Friday.  My parents - an Indonesian father and Surinamese mother - never pressured me about it."  [Ed: By being a mosque-goer, he's already quite religious compared to most European Muslims]

Masfirdaus doesn't pray five times a day.  "I've also never seen the three Muslims in my group do that."  He says that's also not a problem since in Islam you can catch up with prayers in the evenings, if you don't manage to do them during the day.

Masfirdaus doesn't broadcast that he's a Muslim in the army.  His subordinates don't know of it.  He says that the culture in the army is also not to continuously stress your life convictions.

And all religions are welcome in the army, the sergeant stresses.  So the soldiers stand a moment at attention in the mess-room at Kamp Holland in Uruzgan before eating if somebody wants to start the meal with a prayer.  And if a soldier wants to follow the rules of Ramadan, they are not thwarted in any way.  He says he himself did not do Ramadan, but colleagues of his did.  Due to their reduced physical condition they were spared certain tasks.

According to Masfirdaus, Muslims soldiers deployed to Afghanistan have great added value.  He says that during his stay there people in the area treated him differently.  They automatically saw he was Muslim, by the way he looked and behaved.  For example, he greeted them in the Islamic way, and that broke the ice.

As a signal-corpsman Masfirdaus didn't often leave the camp, apart from a couple of times that he joined as a marksman on an armored vehicle. But he says that in the camp he regularly met local Afghans who did the laundry.  And he had good contacts with the translators who traveled with the army from the Netherlands to Uruzgan.  He saw them at the Eindhoven field looking quite uncertain, civilians who were called into the army.  He says that he noticed his faith was a great starting point for them and seeing another Muslim in the army made it easier for them.

A study shows that the local population tried once to get something by intervention of a Muslim soldier.  Masfirdaus hasn't gone through that, would it have caused him a loyalty conflict: Am I now a soldier or a Muslim? "It's very simple.  Together with colleagues I bring peace and security to a country like Afghanistan.  If local Afghans come to me, I truly don't give them preference since we're all Muslims.  We are there for the entire population.  Not only I as a Muslim, but also my Christian, Jewish or Humanist colleagues.  As soldiers we all serve the same goal."

Can Masfirdaus imagine that a more orthodox Muslim would sometimes see that as a conflict?  "Yes.  But then I assume that he places his loyalty by the group; that he won't endanger his own people."

A month ago 20 year old private Azdin Chadli, who just like Masfirdaus has a Muslim father, was killed.  Chadli, who did not call himself a Muslim, did not ask for a Muslim funeral.  As much as the army also tries to meet religious requests, it was impossible here.

Masfirdaus thinks it's logical.  The Islamic prescription that somebody should be buried within 24 hours after his death is already an impossibility.  If somebody is killed in Afghanistan, there's an autopsy and then a farewell ceremony in the camp and so it's impossible to bring the body to the Netherlands within 24 hours.

Masfirdaus as well as his family do not keep the ritual Islamic customs of death.  He says that if he would be killed, he just wants to be buried with military honors, and that's what he wrote in the forms he had to sign before his mission.  He laughs, the 'booklet', as it is called, is a whole pile of forms, and if he is killed unexpectedly, the army would know everything about him.

If the soldier needs spiritual guidance, he would soon be able to go to a real army imam.  The appointment of the first two Muslim spiritual advisers was concluded last month.  For one, Ali Edaoudi, the appointment hang on a very thin thread.  Eddauoudi criticized the mission in Afghanistan in the past.

Can somebody like that really have the interests of Masfirdaus at heart, who worked in Afghanistan without a single reservation?  "it's a pity Eddoudi began wrong," says the Rotterdam sergeant.  "Fortunately he distanced himself from his harsh criticism."  Masfirdaus says he has no problems with him specifically becoming an army chaplain.

Masfirdaus doesn't rule out that he'll use the services of an army imam.  "I would help me to admit more actively that I'm a Muslim.  Not that I'm ashamed of it, but I'm almost the only one in my division. In the ten years that I'm i the army, I've met in total just three other Muslims."

For some - mostly young - immigrants it's a favorite activity: calling an integrated Muslim a traitor.  It's not always clear which leand they're precisely betraying, but for them it's crystal clear that a Muslim should not have anything to do with the Dutch state.

Betraying your country can apparently occur in various ways.  Mayor Aboutaleb of Rotterdam can speak about it.  When at the beginning of January he became the first citizen of Roterdam, he was called a traitor various times by Moroccan coreligionists.  He supposedly knowingly renounced his Moroccan origin in his aspiration to be mayor in a Western country.  But when Aboutaleb was on vacation in Morocco and was unexpectedly decorated by the king, he also looked like a traitor.  The accusers were then of Dutch original and the betrayed land was not Morocco in this case, but the Netherlands.  They thought Aboutaleb should have broken off more radically with his land of origin.

It indicates the troublesome position of integrated immigrant Muslims in high social positions.  It's less true for the army, since of the estimated 2000 Muslims in the Dutch army, none have been advanced to a high rank.  But they might find themselves in a difficult situation if they're deployed to Muslim country, such as currently to Uruzgan.

According to Dr. Femke Bosman, who last year presented her thesis at the University of Tilburg on the cultural diversity in the army, some soldiers keep their Muslim background a secret, because otherwise they would be victims of jokes or stereotypical remarks.  Bosman wrote in her thesis that those who couldn't cope with it have meanwhile left the organization.  Those who cope well with it come up with different strategies, from putting things into perspective and accepting it to responding sharply and bitingly.  There is a sort of selection process, resulting in so-called survivors staying in the organization.

Dutch defense workers tend to negative attitudes towards multiculturalism in the army, concludes Bosman.  "Compared with five years ago it seems that these attitudes have mainly become more negative."

There are no indications that Muslim soldiers are seen as less reliable by their colleagues when on a mission in a Muslim country.  Most experiences are positive, especially since Muslim soldiers are more accepted by the local population.  Bosman says there was talk of encounters in which the local population exerted pressure, and additionally there were encounters in which the Muslim soldiers had the feeling they must mask their ethnic identity.  In a single case, there was a hostile encounter.

Source: Reformatorisch Dagblad (Dutch)

See also:
* Netherlands: Muslims in the armed forces
* Netherlands: Muslim soldiers valuable resource
* Netherlands: Army employs two imams
* Netherlands: Parliament questions Muslim chaplain appointment
* Netherlands: Soldier killed in Afghanistan

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