A Patriot’s Letter: American, Marine and Muslim

Khaled Hafid, 2006

Staff Sergeant Khaled Hafid is currently serving overseas as a contractor for the Department of State. He is a 10-year veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He has served multiple tours in more than 15 countries, including two combat tours in Iraq. He is an alumnus of Sheepshead Bay High School (1996), Shell Bank Junior High School (1992) and P.S. 52 (1989).

My neighbors, my fellow Americans: What has become of us? What has led us to this point of time? Where do we want to go next?

My name is Khaled Hafid, some of you reading this right now have heard of me. Some of you reading this have no idea who I am.

Some of you reading this see the first six letters of my name and are asking yourselves, “Is he a Muslim?”

I ask you, does it really matter?

I am from Sheepshead Bay. I grew up a block from P.S. 52 on the corner of Avenue Z and East 29th Street. My family came to the United States from Yemen in 1974 and I was born in 1978. I am an American through and through. I remember a time growing up not knowing the difference between white and black. I knew not the difference between a Jew and a Christian. As the years went on, things had changed of course, and I had learned more about my religion and culture. Where did it lead me?

In 1996, I remember distinctly being moved by the U.S. women’s gymnastics team winning the Gold Medal in the Summer Olympics. I said to my mother, who barely spoke any English, that I was so proud to be an American.

Later that summer I left for Parris Island, South Carolina. I was becoming a U.S. Marine; I was going to serve my country, OUR country. My religion and culture did not prevent me from making this decision. My father was beaming with pride when I told him I wanted to be a Marine. Never did he say anything negative; never did he mention it conflicting with our beliefs or ideologies.

Growing up in the neighborhood as a child was tough. There were times my friends and I (who were all from Yemen) were picked on and called names. We always wondered what would happen when we would go to the park across the street. Would we go there and have a good time? Or would we have to fend off the vultures waiting to pick on us for our religion and our ethnic background? We were outnumbered and a minority, but we took the punches – literally – and moved on.

With time, the pressure of growing up there eased as those who were preying on us came to realize that we were indeed people first. We were and are human beings, and we all want the same thing… happiness. We became friends with those who persecuted us, and to this day whenever we cross paths we say hello and extend a hand in friendship.

We all remember what occurred on September 11, 2001. I was in Shanghai, China, standing post in the American Consulate. I received a call from one of my Marines telling me what had happened. I remember turning on the television in the conference room to see the towers in flames. I was floored. This was killing me inside because this was my home being attacked, and furthermore, I had an idea what was to happen next. I called friends I had still kept in contact with over the years to make sure they were all right. For five days I went with no sleep, wondering what would become of our nation.

The last thing I ever wondered was how I would be looked at from that point forward. I only viewed myself as an American, as a Marine.

The backlash was to be expected. I was told of a story from someone still living in the building I grew up in, of someone from our own neighborhood standing outside, watching. When someone else approached this person, all he had to say was, “You took our buildings down, now we’ll take yours down.” It started.

Never once did I waiver, never once did I allow the hatred to consume me. The intention of the attackers was to destroy our fundamental beliefs; they were succeeding.

Everyone decides which path they will take. Everyone chooses how they will handle something. This person chose to stand outside his neighbor’s building flouting idle threats. What did I decide to do as a Muslim? What did I decide to do as an American? What did I decide to do as a Marine? I decided to re-enlist for another five years knowing that I would be going to war. It was my duty as a Marine to protect the rights laid forth by our Constitution. It was my duty as Marine and as an American to protect our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech.

I went to war with the colors my nation: red, white, and blue. I went to war to protect all the rights that everyone had wanted to take away from my fellow Muslims and me. I served twice in Iraq. I served as an “Ambassador in Blue” overseas in Embassies and Consulates. I gave my life for nearly 10 years, and each time when I return from a trip overseas, I am detained for hours because I fit a profile.

Do I hate it? Sure. Do I think it is right? No. Do I feel betrayed? No, because if it makes you, my fellow Americans feel safer, then yes, treat me with lower regard. Judge me by my cover, not by my service to you.

So now I serve my country in a different capacity and live far, far away. I get news of a Cultural Center being built near Ground Zero, but hear others referring to it as being built on Ground Zero. To do this is manipulative and is meant to bring fear to the hearts and minds. The internet is a tool to keep abreast of the situation, and it is also a tool used by others to spread hate. We are a country of immigrants. We are a country that preaches tolerance. We have it in our Constitution that everyone has the right to believe in and worship any religion. Yet all you hear these days is that if we allow the Muslims to build this Center, we are dishonoring our nation?

Really? I thought that was one of our Constitutional rights as Americans.

I then come to find out that even before the Cultural Center near Ground Zero had become a hot topic, Sheepshead Bay was also having a mosque built. It is to be located a block away from the elementary school I went to as a child. All of those I grew up with, who went to that same school with me, are now parents themselves and have children of their own registered there. It saddened me the other day when I received an email from a friend of mine telling me his daughter was told by a classmate that she was going to hell because her mother had said that she “worshipped a book written by the Devil.”

Is this what we want for our kids? Is this what we want to teach them? This happened in our very own community.

I have read the blogs, and I have watched videos of the rallies for and against. I have read responses from both sides and cannot believe that this is happening in my own neighborhood. Bomb threats, bigoted remarks, bullying of a 15-year-old girl walking by because she is a Muslim. This is not what America stands for. We have to set the example from our small corner of the city first if we want the rest of the nation to coexist.

How does one set the example? They set it by being the example.

There are Muslims in the community and there will continue to be Muslims in the community as long as basic civil rights are still valid and followed. When my friend told me he’s thinking about moving his family out of the United States because he doesn’t want his children to encounter hatred, what are we doing? Are we as a community doing our country right by protesting a Mosque? Yes and no. Yes in that we as Americans have a right to free speech. No in that when it involves hatred and bigotry, we are spitting on the Constitution and overlooking every American’s right to worship their religion.

So as a community, as a small corner of a city so diverse and respected by billions throughout the world, let us show everyone that we are tolerant of faith and intolerant of hatred. Let us welcome those of all colors, races, and religions.

If my father had gone through what my friend is going through now with his children, he would have surely moved. What would become of me then? Would I have joined the Marine Corps and spoken to the President of the United States backing his War on Terror? Or would it have been more likely that I would have hated our country and fought in the same war but on the other side? I’ll let you decide.

I ask again: what sort of example – to your children and to the world – will you set? The choice is all yours.

Khaled Hafid
Staff Sergeant
United States Marine Corps