Religious Discrimination in the Military (2004)

If President George Bush’s comment in Sept. 2001 that the War on Terror was an American “crusade” led to an international controversy on the possible anti-Islamic undertones of American foreign policy, then in 2003-2004 these concerns have only increased. This year three high profile scandals brought international attention to possible tensions between the U.S. military and Islam: the General Boykin controversy, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, and the arrest of prominent Muslim militairy chaplain Capt. James Yee.

The General Boykin Controversy

On October 15, NBC Nightly News released film footage of Deputy Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Lt. Gen. William Boykin speaking, often in uniform, at American evangelical churches and describing the U.S. led “war on terror” as a battle between Christ and Satan. Boykin, who as head of military intelligence is responsible for tracking high level figures such as Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, spoke to Christian groups around the country, and said that radical Muslims hate America because “we’re a Christian nation, because our foundation and roots are Judeo-Christian and the enemy is a guy named Satan.” Referring to a conversation he had with a Muslim warlord in Somalia in 1993, Boykin also said: “I knew that my god was a real god and his was an idol.” He also remarked that the fact that Al Gore received the majority of votes in the 2000 election and was nonetheless defeated is proof that the Bush election is divinely ordained.

Boykin’s remarks created a national and international scandal, receiving broad coverage in the American and Arab media. On October 16, the Council on American-Islamic relations called for Boykin’s resignation, and the Interfaith Alliance released a statement declaring that “General Boykin’s remarks are contrary to the very ideals we try to uphold.” President Bush responded to Boykin’s comments by insisting that Boykin’s views do not reflect his views, or that of the administration, though he stopped short of re-assigning him. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfield called Boykin’s service “outstanding” and noted that the “had a right to his views.” Howard Dean, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, and Sen. John Kerry all chastised Bush for failing to respond more forcefully to Boykin’s comments, a decision that has been been largely viewed as a reflection of Bush’s evangelical support base.

In August of 2004, the Pentagon released a long anticipated report on internal investigations to Boykin's behavior, finding that he violated official procedures by not clearing the content of his speeches.

The Abu Ghraib Prison Scandal

In May of 2004, a Senate hearing into the abuse of Iraqi prisoners was told that Gen. Boykin briefed top Pentagon officials on how military interrogators could gain intelligence from prisoners in Iraq. (Reuters), linking him to the recent scandal at Abu Ghraib. Experts are concerned that the linking of Boykin to the scandal, which involve photos of prisoners being physically, sexually, and psychologically abused, could lead to a massive backlash in the Middle East, as Arabs become convinced that prisoner abuse is simply part of a larger military culture that views Islam as inferior. While the Abu Ghraib prison scandal did not explicitly involve religion, the effects of the scandal hit both Muslim and non-Muslim communities hard. American Muslims voiced outrage at the photos of abused prisoners, and many said that they felt humiliated and would now find it difficult to defend their adopted country when they returned to visit back home (Associated Press, May 8). Faith leaders responded to the abuse by criticizing Pres. Bush’s use of religious language to describe the occupation of Iraq, noting that the prisoner abuse photos shatter the notion that “God is on our side.” (The San Francisco Chronicle, May 7).

Capt. James Yee

Perhaps the most high-profile example of possible U.S. military discrimination against Muslims came in the military investigation of Chaplain James Yee. On Sept. 10, 2003 Capt. Yee, a prominent Muslim chaplain and graduate of West Point, was arrested by the military without charges under suspicion of potentially aiding enemy prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Yee was held for 76 days in solitary confinement while the Army reviewed documents related to his suspected espionage activities and links to members of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Later, the military dropped the espionage charges but charged Yee instead with adultery and downloading pornography onto his computer, a move that critics charged as simply an attempt by the government to cover up their lack of evidence against him. On October 24, 2003 The Washington Post reported that military authorities had initially launched their investigation against Yee after he repeatedly complained about the mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo, a complaint that has been echoed by several Human Rights Organizations. In April, Chaplain Yee was cleared of all charges.

Selected Links

The General Boykin Controversy

Abu Ghraib

Capt. James Yee

  • "Why Capt. Yee Was Charged Remains a Mystery," The Olympian.
See also: Research Report