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Edward Curtis, author of Muslim Americans in the Military, talks Trump and Muhammad Ali

Edward Curtis shares the story behind his newest book


Edward Curtis
  • Edward Curtis

I sat down with Edward Curtis, the 46-year-old Millennium Chair of the Liberal Arts and Professor of Religious Studies at IUPUI, to discuss his new book, Muslim Americans in the Military: Centuries of Service. In it, he outlines a 200-year history of Muslim service in the U.S. military — from the soldier who fired the shot that killed British Maj. Pitcairn at the Battle of Bunker Hill, to soldiers currently in uniform.

Curtis wrote the 87-page book in three weeks. He wrote it so quickly because he wanted it released before the presidential election. I talked with him a week before Donald Trump gave his victory speech in New York City.

Dan Grossman: Is Trump's targeting of Muslims one of the motivating factors of your book?

Edward Curtis: I see Trump's targeting of Muslims as a small part of this country's Islamaphobia. And I blame Democrats as much as Republicans for the Islamophobia in the country. I think it's really easy for liberals to want to blame Trump for anti-Muslim bias in the country. But I think that our own government — our Democratic administration — does quite a lot to foment Islamaphobia both in their foreign policy, in their immigration policies, and especially in the way that they treat Muslims as potential criminals in their massive surveillance of the community.

Dan: In your discussion, you brought up some of the less savory aspects of United States history such as slavery and Jim Crow since many American Muslims happen to be African American.

Edward: In the 1960s the most typical face of Islam, the most famous Muslim in America, was Muhammad Ali. But after 9/11, Islam became less of a religious identity and more of a racial identity which is associated with brown people who could roughly be from the Middle East or South Asia. So blacks and whites don't always fit into the stereotype of who a Muslim...

Dan: The case of Muhammad Ali. That says a lot about the changing attitude towards Muslims does it not?

Edward: It really does. He was once seen as one of the more dangerous people in America, not because he had taken arms up against the United States, or because he was a violent extremist, but because he chose not to go to war. And at that time, that was seen as radical politics. And I had to make a decision when I was writing this book. Do I only tell the stories of Muslims at war, Muslim warriors who have been brave, who have been part of the military, or do I also include the stories of how the military has mattered to Muslims and how Muslims have mattered to the military? And I chose the latter, and it enabled me to talk about bravery and courage outside of military service. One of the points that I make is that I don't think looking back that Muhammad Ali was a coward. He was so incredibly brave.

Dan: You interviewed contemporary service members as well as recent veterans. Any highlights?

Edward: I interviewed Harris Khan, who was 12 Bravo combat engineer, the person who goes in front of the infantry to clear out any obstacles in their paths. First of all, I have not spoken to many combat engineers. These are the folks in the thick of really bad stuff. ... Many people, or at least some people who join the military, would like to be in battle. Some of course, joined to get a job, to get their education. But the kind of brotherhood that you read about so much in literature was exactly what Harris Khan was after. He wanted to be at the tip of the spear. And that's what he became when he became a combat engineer in Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq, which is the ongoing current operation against ISIL... In my daily life, I don't get to talk to too many people who enjoy the thrill of military action. And when I spoke to Harris Khan I was speaking to someone whose life was at its most intense, was at its most real, when he was engaged in on the battlefield.


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