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World Affairs: Afghanistan War Veteran on Terrorism, Muslims, Islam

Have you ever had an experience that hit you so hard it made you question everything you had ever learned or believed about something?

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Rachael Martel standing on the ramp of a C-130 in Afghanistan. Photo credit of Rachael Martel.

That was me six years ago as I stood on the ramp’s edge of a C-130 in Afghanistan, marshaling in a Humvee that carried a single body: a 26-year-old US soldier who had been killed the night before after an RPG struck his patrol vehicle. As I stood at attention slowly saluting our fallen comrade while four of his friends carried him into the back of the airplane, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Why are we still here? Is any of this making a positive difference? Are we really making our nation any safer?”

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I was 20 years old. It was my first experience with mortality, my second of four deployments to the region, and an experience that marked the beginning of an education that has completely changed my world view.

Like many Americans, I received a lot of my knowledge about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Islam, and Muslims through the horror stories making headlines in the news over the last several years. Prior to 9/11, I had never even heard the words “terrorism” or “terrorist”. After 9/11, these words dominated the media and they, as well as a lot of other rhetoric, profoundly shaped what I believed about the region and the people that lived there.

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Aerial view of Afghanistan from a the paratroop door of a C-130. Photo credit of Rachael Martel.

After having served in the Middle East and Afghanistan, studying Political Science and Arabic, participating in the Muslim Student Association as a non-Muslim, and interacting with CSU’s diverse international student population, I have come to know that most of what people believe about the source of the conflicts in the region, about Islam, and about Muslims is completely incorrect.

For many of you this is old news. But, in light of the recent terrorist attacks in Belgium and the increased use of anti-Muslim rhetoric within the media, I feel compelled to speak on the issue because I am deeply concerned about the impact it is having on our country, countries around the world and even our community right here in the Fort Collins.

Over spring break I read a very upsetting Facebook post from a friend of mine who is an international student here at CSU from Saudi Arabia. He began his post by mentioning that while he was at a party not that long ago someone had asked him if he had ever experienced any discrimination or racism while being here and he replied, “Never–absolutely not. People here are so nice.”

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Rachael Martel posing with Muslim Student Association during their “Take a Selfie with a Hijab” event during Islamic Awareness week. Photo credit of Rachael Martel.

He then went on to say, “However; that view changed last night while I was out in a public place with some friends. I was (minding) my own business and this white guy in his twenties came over to me and tried to hit me. I tried to defend myself…he was trying again and screaming ‘Terrorist! Get out of here!’” My friend followed up his post by saying that what was even more shocking than this guy trying to hit him, was that none of the bystanders did anything to interject or stop it.

While reading this post, I had flash backs of what America was like after 9/11 when we were gearing up for war, and hatred and fear were circulating all throughout our country. It saddens me that after all this time people are still discriminating against entire groups of people based on the actions of a few groups of extremists. It saddens me that I had to listen to three Muslim-Americans educating listeners about their religion and what kind of people they are on NPR last weekend.

How many Christians feel the need to explain themselves and their religion after the members of Westboro Baptist Church show up and protest a veteran’s funeral?

I want to set something straight right now. Not every Afghan is in the Taliban. Not every Arab is a terrorist. Not every Muslim is an extremist. And Islam does not hate us.

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I know that the media, some of our politicians, and fearful-uneducated-inexperienced people would have you believe otherwise, but they are wrong. I used to rely on them for information, but after seeing a young man’s life cut short I needed more than oversimplified explanations for why we were at war, and in the process of seeking those answers I learned a far more valuable lesson.

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Rachael Martel visiting a local in a jewelry shop at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. His name has been left out for his safety. Photo credit of Rachael Martel.

I turned to the local Afghans working on base for their inside perspective even though I had been taught to fear them. I asked them about the history of their country, their opinions on the war, and their experiences with living under Taliban rule. But I also learned their names and their family members’ names. I learned how to say hello, please, and thank you in their language. I asked them about their religion, their culture, and their day to day lives.

In the end, they weren’t like the terrorists we were fighting at all. If anything they were more like me. Of course we identified with different religions and cultures, but they were just normal people, working and trying to support their families amid war in their country, hoping for a better future and a better life.

I am glad that I got to know them. I was wrong to ever allow others to form my opinions and shape what I believed in the first place, and I am so thankful that I had an experience powerful enough to knock me off the path of ignorance that I was on.

What will it take for people to realize that we cannot beat terrorism with more ignorance, hatred, and violence? How many more acts of terror do we need to have; how many more wars have to be fought; how many more lives need to be destroyed before we realize that there is better way?

Don’t be afraid to get out in the world and learn for yourself. Let your curiosity overcome your fear of the unknown, because it is far scarier to go on living a life of ignorance.

Collegian World Affairs Blogger Rachael Martel can be reached at blogs@collegian.com or on Twitter @rrmartel18.

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  • K

    khaled aldhaferiMar 27, 2016 at 2:18 pm

    Ok, we really have to do this ignorant, uneducated, and uninformed argument – ok let’s do it. First, it is the Koran, and not how you spelled it my dear friend and brother in humanity. Second, if we read religious text as fragments and not as a whole, we would not get the intended message. I can say the same about the old testaments, where they go and wipe a whole village. Is that blood?? Oh no this is the Bible, they didn’t kill people, it is all peace. Or, how how about the 18+ narrative of the Father daughter insist. Oh, what about killing the mother bird if she doesn’t have a chick in its nest. I can go on and on, but I choose to look at the text as a whole. Finally, When you said Christianity has no jihad, that is totally false, what about crusade and crusaders and raping girls on the way to Jerusalem and in Jerusalem.??? What about Kkk, your favourite group I am sure. even your favorite president G. W. Bush and his white house staff who edited his speech, used the crusade and whole ware retrehc to describe the war on Iraq, which later we found You guys lied about it. I only picked a few examples, I can go all day.

    Reply
  • L

    LabrookelaMar 25, 2016 at 8:54 am

    I appreciate reading an article from the perspective of a veteran sharing her experience with Islamophobia, war, and the significance of intercultural interactions. I found the writer’s thesis to be refreshing and more importantly meaningful; relative to the sea of media outlets currently drunk with racism, fallacy and ignorance. I look forward to reading more from the author.

    Reply
    • C

      Connor KelleyApr 1, 2016 at 8:56 pm

      1- the good and moral Muslims she is friends with here in Fort Collins are good and moral because they exemplify American and Western values, not Islamic ones. 2- She has no experience with “war” and she did not experience Afghan culture. The shop owners she met on base were vetted before being allowed in, she didn’t spend any time in the villages or working side by side with the afghan army and police. It upsets me that a veteran would write a piece like this, because she’s using her veteran status to spread ignorance under the guise of tolerance.
      Islam does hate us. The goal of Islam is to convert or dominate all non-Muslims.
      “And fight with them until is no more persecution, and all religions are for Allah” – Qur’an 8:39

      Better grab your hijab and convert, you know, for the sake of diversity.

      Reply
  • G

    Gary RumainMar 25, 2016 at 7:33 am

    As far as I know the Westboro dudes aren’t blowing themselves up or killing anyone. There’s no concept of jihad in Christianity. And this naive fool needs to read the koranus and understand what it’s saying about killing the kuffar until there is no more disbelief in the world.

    Reply