The U.S. military is struggling to recruit Arab-Americans for its war on terrorism some five years after Sept. 11, with many in the community wary of U.S. foreign policy and fighting wars in the Middle East.
Pentagon officials have often bemoaned the shortage of soldiers with Arabic skills that would be invaluable on the ground in Iraq, and could help translate a backlog of captured or intercepted material that could be critical to fighting militants.
Officials say that in a military of roughly 1.4 million people, about 4,000 have some proficiency in Arabic. The Pentagon says it will spend hundreds of millions of dollars in the next five years to beef up its foreign language capabilities, especially in Middle Eastern languages.
“What we’re looking for is people who have native skills, who speak it fluently and who are also very familiar with the culture over there,” said Capt. Hatem Abdine, a recruiter for the California Army National Guard who is a naturalized American of Syrian descent.
Looking to bridge culture gap
Since the 2001 attacks, the military has turned its attention to the United States’ 3 million strong Arab-American community in hopes of bridging a deficiency that has complicated operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Communities such as Dearborn and neighboring areas around Detroit, home to one of the biggest Arab populations outside the Middle East with almost half a million Arab residents, are among those receiving particular attention.
Gunnery Sgt. Wayne Goode, a Dearborn-based Marines recruiter, said the Marine Corps had sent out a direct mailing to Arab Americans after Sept. 11 seeking linguists.
George Noirot, spokesman for the Army’s Great Lakes Recruiting Battalion, which covers the area around Detroit, said, “They (Arab-Americans) were anxious to work with us in the Army because I got the feeling they really wanted to show that they were Americans and love the country here.”
Numbers remain low
But while recruitment of Arabic speakers may have increased, officials admit numbers remain too low and recruiters face tough challenges, including concerns in the community about U.S. policies overseas and fighting a war against fellow Arabs.
Many Arab-Americans also have felt singled out for heightened scrutiny by U.S. law enforcement and other authorities after the 2001 attacks, and may feel reluctant to work for a government they feel has discriminated against them.
“A lot of policies seemed to focus on Arab-Americans after 9/11 so people asked: ‘Why should I be part of an entity that is inflicting injustices or a selective approach on my own community?”’ said Imad Hamad, head of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee’s Dearborn office.
Hamad said his group encouraged Arab-Americans to enlist in the military and praised the Army for its efforts.
The military says it has no statistics for the number of Arab-Americans in uniform because it is not mandatory for applicants to state their ethnicity.
It is currently bridging its shortfall in language skills by hiring contractors. The Army has 5,900 contractors in Iraq.
Politics complicating recruitment?
The Association of Patriot Arab Americans in the Military (APAAM), which was founded shortly after Sept. 11, says there are about 3,500 Arab-Americans in the armed forces, including leaders such as Gen. John Abizaid, who oversees U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan as head of Central Command.
“A lot of Arabs in this country are just increasingly concerned about U.S. foreign policy in relation to the Middle East,” said David Fawal, a Palestinian-American in the Navy reserves, adding he did not share these views and did not personally know what impact they had on recruitment.
Fawal, a lawyer based in Birmingham, Alabama, said he had met very few Arab-Americans in his 16 years with the Navy, most of them through APAAM. The group does not list the number of its members but features about 20 profiles on its Web site.
Abdine said many Arab families also had come to the United States to escape war and it was a “hard sell” to convince some of them to go back to that.