Last month, the United States military approved to better accommodate religious minorities by easing its uniform rules. The measure is designed to reduce discrimination and allow those of different faiths such as Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, and Wiccans to openly express their religion. As long as it does not interfere with military readiness, service members can now request to don religious wear such as turbans, facial hair, skullcaps, and tattoos while in uniform.
Unsurprisingly, the news raised the ire of nativists and anti-Muslim activists alike. Dr. Zhudi Jasser went on Fox News to say the rule change was the work of “pseudo-civil rights groups” attempting to weaken unit cohesion. Jasser also warned this would attract more individuals like Nidal Hasan. Pamela Geller took to her blog to say the Pentagon had capitulated to Sharia. Former congressman Allen West called this another example of the “fundamental transformation of America.” Although parodying President Obama, his statement reflects the fears these individuals have that burgeoning ethnic and religious demographics will radically change the nation’s character. However, their tactics to exclude demographics based on race and creed only reflects what has been occurring since the military’s inception.
Soldiers of different races and ethnicities have long found themselves fighting battles on two fronts: both in the trenches and in their own ranks with discrimination and segregation. Dating back to the colonial era, African Americans fought on both sides of the American Revolution in order to gain their freedom. However, they found themselves in regiments segregated from their white counterparts. Despite fighting in the revolution and the War of 1812, African Americans were still unable to join the military until 1862 when Congress passed the Second Confiscation and Militia Act. Even then, prejudice was still prevalent and regiments were segregated based on race and were under the command of white officers.
This was the case for both World War I & II where African American soldiers still were not given the same opportunities as whites. This included the continuation of all-black regiments under the supervision of white commanders, as well as being barred from serving in actual combat. This later changed during WWII when the need for troops led to all-black regiments joining the battles both in the sky and on land. Eventually in 1948, Executive Order 9981 was signed, desegregating the military.
Exclusion and prejudice was not limited to race, but also included sexuality, gender, and religion. Up until 2010, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” restricted gays, lesbians, and bisexuals from serving openly in the military. Also, just last year it was ruled enlisted women can now serve in combat roles.
Up until last month, the military’s 1986 ban on religious garb, while in uniform, turned many away because of the need to don certain apparel. Sikhs, who had a long history of serving, were among those affected by these policies. And although cases such Capt. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi has helped move the issue forward, there is still work to be done.
According to BBC News, Sikh Coalition co-founder Amardeep Singh called the new measure “progress,’ but said “it’s clear that we have a long way to go.” This is because there is no guarantee an individual will be granted the right to wear religious items and each request is evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The military still reserves the right to deny certain items based on different disciplines and positions within the military.
The military’s decision to include religious wear is a step in the right direction for an institution that has lagged in its inclusion of all people. And should one decide to pursue a career in the armed forces, they should be able do so with confidence knowing that their race or religion will not hinder their chances. Because contrary to nativists’ beliefs, the United States is celebrated for its diverse population and our military should be a reflection of that.