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Duty, Honor and Allah

6 minute read
Jeff Chu/Fort A.P. Hill

What’s up, Jihad?” Shamez Hemani was waiting in line to try out the shotguns at the National Scout Jamboree earlier this month when, he says, a white kid behind him asked that question. Shamez, 14, and four fellow scouts–all sons of Pakistani immigrants and members of all-Muslim Troop 797 in Houston–stood frozen for a couple of seconds. “Then we asked him what he said,” Shamez says. “We were like, ‘Do you know what it means?’ And he was like, ‘No.’ He apologized. After you talk to them, you realize that it’s not intentional–just ignorance.” Not that it makes such jibes easier to take. “But the pressure is something you have to live with,” Shamez says, “if you want to change the way people think about you.”

Most people probably think of the Boy Scouts of America as a Christian group–and not a particularly inclusive one, a reputation earned in part through its efforts to keep out gays, atheists and agnostics. But the Scouts insists it is open and diverse, especially in matters of faith. The Boy Scout oath includes a pledge to “do my best to do my duty to God and my country” but doesn’t specify which god. There are Jewish, Hindu, Mormon and Baha’i scouts. There are Muslim scouts too, and for at least 20 years there have been all-Muslim troops in the U.S. Like boys in most other troops, Muslim scouts camp and plan badge-earning activities together, but over the past four years, those boys have also had to negotiate a different kind of obstacle course, one for which there is no official award. “We’re just average American boys doing average American activities,” says Troop 797 scout Rehman Muhammad, 13. “But after Sept. 11, we also have to be ambassadors of our faith.”

Both Muslim scouts in non-Muslim troops and those in the growing number of troops sponsored by Islamic schools and mosques say negative comments from other kids about Islam are routine. “Someone called me Saddam yesterday,” says Omar Abbasi, 13, of Totowa, N.J., the only Muslim in his troop. Salman Mukhi, 13, of Troop 797 says that on the bus to the jamboree, some non-Muslims “copied us when we prayed and were sort of jeering at us. It wasn’t serious. We explained to them that they shouldn’t do that. But sometimes it’s just easier to hang out with each other.”

There are now all-Muslim scout packs and troops in at least 22 states, involving more than 2,000 scouts and leaders. They can be found in big cities like Chicago and Atlanta, centers of the Arab-American community such as Dearborn, Mich., and smaller towns like Pottsville, Pa., and Rochester, Minn. Khadija Fuad started a troop last fall at the Islamic School of Louisville, Ky., even though her son Hussein also belongs to what she describes as a “very inclusive” troop at a Baptist church. “I wanted to get more people involved,” she says of the new all-Muslim troop. “I thought we could concentrate on Islamic issues and do things our own way.”

In addition to the merit badges that all scouts can earn in such areas as cooking and plumbing, Muslim scouts can pursue special emblems by studying Islamic history and theology and performing faith-related community service. When the National Islamic Committee on Scouting began awarding emblems about 15 years ago, it gave out two or three a year; now it averages 75 to 80.

Siraj Narsi, whose son Shahmeer is in Troop 797, believes that their faith and scouting are mutually reinforcing. “The values of scouting are so similar to what we learn in Islam,” says Narsi, who was a scout in Pakistan. He recites the 12 virtues in Scout law, which defines a scout as trustworthy, clean, obedient and helpful, as principles particularly prized by Muslims.

There are times, though, when differences between the worlds are jarringly apparent. Boy Scout officials proudly proclaim the group’s commitment to pluralism–“We have a duty to God in our oath,” says spokesman Robert Bork, “but not a Christian God.” Yet that ideal is not always put into practice. Rehman, a jamboree chaplain’s aide, recalls how, as he and the other chaplain’s aides left a meeting, “everyone was handed a Bible. For a second, I thought it was a one-religion organization.” Similarly, although halal meals were requested for Muslim scouts attending the jamboree, no one seems to have ascertained whether the salami in the sandwiches contained pork; bacon was a staple on the breakfast menu. Omar ended up eating meal after meal of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, shared by a Jewish patrol leader who, suspecting it might be tough to keep kosher, had brought enough for others. And no Muslim chaplain was on site to lead Friday services, so Asad Shahid, 15, of Naugatuck, Conn., nervously guided his fellow scouts to a spot in the shade of a big oak tree, turned to face Mecca and led the prayers for the first time in his life.

Still, the more the Muslim boys are set apart, the more they want to be thought of– and treated–the same as other scouts. “We’re the same. We’re the same,” insists Ali Raza Jiwani, 14. “We’re the same as everyone else: humans made by God.” Ali Raza and his buddies talk basketball. They tease one another about girls. They swear. And they are fervently patriotic. “We’re proud to be Asian American,” says Amin Ali, 15, who has thought about becoming a military pilot. “I love my country,” says Salman. “My religion doesn’t interfere with that.” Some even became scouts in the belief that it would make them seem more American. Auri Moaven, 15, of Short Hills, N.J., says his Iranian-born parents encouraged him to be a scout in part because it would distinguish him from other Muslim kids: “When someone sees me, they will say I’ve done something extraordinary that most Muslims in America don’t do.”

At the jamboree, the 13 scouts from Troop 797 camped with troops from the Houston area, and the Muslims’ very presence provided a learning experience for the others. “I always thought most Boy Scouts were white, Christian boys,” said Jim Scofield, 13, a lanky scout with a quick giggle whose troop is sponsored by a Catholic church. Matthew Griffin, 13, a Mormon scout, says he didn’t know that “there are lots of different kinds of Muslims.” The Troop 797 scouts are Ismailis, whose practices differ from those of other Muslims; for instance, they pray three times a day instead of five as Sunnis or Shi’ites do. “I’ve only met two other Muslims in my life, and they both smelled like incense,” says Alan Albrecht, 12. “But these guys are just like us.”

Being a living lesson in tolerance–countering stereotypes, representing an entire religion–can be a heavy burden for such young shoulders to bear. “I guess I might respond that it’s Allah’s will what happens,” Shamez reflected a few days after the jamboree ended. “It’s Allah’s will.” And it’s a scout’s duty to do his best.

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