This Sunday, I'll be joining Religious Freedom USA and JStreet for a liberty walk near ground zero in support of Park51 and religious freedom and tolerance in America. I'll be doing it in honor of the Muslims I know.
In 2004, as Jewish Marine from New York, I was put in charge of over 200 Iraqi soldiers. All but one were Muslim. This, I feared, would be a recipe for disaster. Far from it.
This is Imad.
He risked his life pulling a wounded Marine out of the line of fire. A year later, he was killed in an ambush.
This is another friend of mine, Abdelhadi.
Abdelhadi was kidnapped, tortured, and beaten in August of 2004. He had served in Saddam's Special Republican Guard and was a fearless warrior who now worked with US Marines. He tribe was able to negotiate his release and less than 24 hours later he hobbled back to work. He was barefoot because they beat his feet so badly he couldn't wear boots and his body had been battered by electrical cables. A year later, he was killed in front of his family. I have been trying to find them for over two years.
This is Hasheesh (I covered his face to protect his mother)
Hashish's mother brought him to our base and begged us to give him a job in the Iraqi National Guard. The Iraqi officers told me not to hire him because he was a drug addict. But none of us were willing to tell his mother, so we ended up hiring him. Soon, he became one of our best soldiers and my Marines started calling him Hasheesh. A few months later, he was shot fighting alongside us during the second battle of Fallujah, one of the bloodiest campaigns of the Iraq war. He survived, but was later killed at a gas station for working with us.
This is Abood and his family.
Abood was my interpreter in Iraq. He served alongside our military in Iraq for nearly 3 years of sustained combat operations. Two of his daughters also served as interpreters for coalition forces. He was by my side during some of the toughest fighting of the Iraq war in Fallujah in 2004. In 2006, he was forced to flee his home for working with us.
This is Frank, he was also an interpreter of mine. (I've changed his name for his protection)
Frank was wounded by a gunshot wound fighting alongside my Marines in Fallujah. When not engaged in house to house fighting with Marines, Frank practiced and taught classical music at a conservatory in Baghdad. In 2006, we was wounded a second time when Al Qaeda tried to blow it up with a car bomb. And now, Frank has been forced from his home by other extremists and is now fleeing Iraq.
I can tell you countless stories of bravery by Muslims fighting alongside our troops (many of whom are also Muslim) in wars most Americans could care less about. They have made great sacrifices and I'm ashamed more Americans don't feel the need to honor their service.
Opponents of Park51 argue putting an Islamic religious site so close to the scene of a crime perpetrated in the name of that religion is an affront. But Islam is not the religion of 9/11 hijackers or the monsters who killed, tortured, and threatened my friends anymore than Judaism is the religion of the man who shot Yitzhak Rabin, or Christianity is the religion of people who burn books or kill doctors.
On Sunday, September 12th, I'll be headed down to ground zero to rally for tolerance with a diverse coalition of my fellow New Yorkers who stand in this tradition. I'll be doing it for the Muslims I know and I'll be doing it because I believe it strikes to the heart of what it means to be an American.
Learn more about the Liberty Walk for Religious Freedom by clicking here.
And check out JStreet's statements on religious freedom in NYC.
I hope to see you at the Liberty Walk for Religious Freedom
2:30 pm on Sunday, September 12, 2010
Meet at Barclay and Broadway, on the side of City Hall Park
Wear blue to identify yourself as a J Street Supporter and bring an American flag.
Follow Zachary J. Iscol on Twitter: www.twitter.com/zachiscol