Fact Check: Did Mikey Weinstein Protect Religious Exercise of Muslim Soldiers?

Michael “Mikey” Weinstein put out a press release yesterday claiming his MRFF – and it alone – was responsible for ensuring the religious liberty of two US troops of the Muslim faith. Ramadan begins next week, and according to the information released by Weinstein, but for him, those two troops were not going to receive accommodations for their faith during that time.

If, by chance, Mikey Weinstein did ensure the accommodation of religious troops, it would be laudable – and potentially the first time Weinstein has done something that resembled the name in his “religious freedom” foundation.

According to email traffic selectively released by Weinstein, the two troops had requested accommodations during the month of Ramadan, and they were denied:

The accommodations I requested involved being assigned to a rear detachment…, granted a light duty to not exhaust my body since I am fasting (no food/fluids) from dawn to dusk, and conducting physical readiness training on my own to maintain my individual readiness.

This begins to provide some context. The Soldiers’ unit was going “into the field” for exercises – and the troops’ accommodation request was to not go into the field with the rest of their unit.

As described by the MRFF, the Soldiers’ leaders had responded by telling them they would go on the exercise, but they’d be put on the night shift. The MRFF called this “unsatisfactory…ignorant…[and] discriminatory.”

That said, it’s a surprisingly common response to Ramadan in the US military. By having Islamic troops on the night shift during Ramadan, they are able to work, eat, and drink normally, and it completely frees their prayer time from official duties. In other words, they are able to observe the strictures of their faith while the unit accomplishes its mission.

One Muslim Airman – deployed to Bagram – described this arrangement not as “discriminatory” but “convenient”, because it was the easiest way to meet the requirements of his faith. Similarly, in Iraq US troops of the Muslim faith “had the option” to change to the night shift. Last year, Seaman Osama Mohammad aboard the Eisenhower noted [emphasis added]

“Whenever I have Friday service, they let me attend and they respect all my prayer times throughout the day,” Mohammad explained. “They even wanted to lessen my load and try to help me by letting me work nights so I can observe the fasting.”

Is deploying with the unit – to the field, to Afghanistan, to sea – but working nights a “good enough” accommodation? That’s an interesting question, and it’s open to debate. For context, then-Chaplain (Maj) Khallid Shabazz – now a Colonel and the highest ranking Muslim chaplain in the US military — gave this response in 2013:

Commanders can help Muslims Soldiers fulfill their religious requirements during Ramadan by accommodating them in a couple of ways.

First, when possible, commanders can allow Muslim Soldiers to participate in light duty when on an exercise or in the field, as opposed to strenuous duty.

Note that he did not say the troops should be exempted from being in the field – just that they should be accommodated while they were there. That would appear to be precisely what this Army unit was trying to do.

(Incidentally, guess who was the Division Chaplain at JBLM until just last year? That’s right, the self-described “#bigIMAM“, Chaplain Shabazz.)

The Soldiers did not take the Army’s accommodation well [emphasis added]:

I felt that my leadership was going out of their way to infringe upon our religious freedoms…This was an injustice that I didn’t believe would happen in the United States of America.

Clearly, the Soldiers would have preferred taking leave rather than going on the FTX – frankly, the rest of the unit probably felt the same way. Importantly, accommodation does not require giving someone exactly what they want. Contrary to their claim, the Army had accommodated their faith practices – it just hadn’t granted their request to stay home while everyone else went into the field.

Consider a Christian in the same scenario who asks to stay home the entire week prior to Easter. Is the Army obligated to honor that request? Or can it allow the Soldier time during the deployment for his Holy Week observances?

The Soldiers appear to have had a difficult time discerning that distinction – between what the Soldiers thought was reasonable and what the Army allowed. For example, in their accommodation request, one of the Soldiers made a point of saying they were getting out of the Army shortly after the exercise anyway and they weren’t even good at their job – so it didn’t make any sense for them to go to the field:

I am not an asset for the long-term or short-term unit readiness due to separating from the Army on November 06, 2021… I believe the mission can continue without myself being there because a new soldier…[has arrived who] has more experience/expertise than I do. Meanwhile, most if not all of my early military career…involved fulfilling roles in an orderly room which unfortunately hindered my ability to ever train on my…equipment. [And] my time [during the] Covid-19 pandemic obstructed opportunities to train on [my] equipment.

Saying “I’m not even ready to do my job” is not justification for a religious accommodation.

Even if that is entirely accurate, the Army is obligated to accommodate Soldiers’ religious exercise, not their opinions of the reasonableness of the Army’s decisions.

Given Weinstein’s celebratory press release, it should be evident that the troops were subsequently granted the “accommodation” they’d requested, after his intervention.

The US military has a high bar to meet when it comes to inhibiting a US servicemember’s religious exercise in the name of the mission. In fact, the military is obligated to accommodate the religious exercise of its troops – until the point it interferes with the mission. In large part (though not without many exceptions), the military is trying to accommodate faith – which is why there are so many ‘first beards‘ popping up around the military recently. That said, just because you claim you need to wear a beard because of your FSM faith, it doesn’t mean the military is required to accommodate it.

While it is good that a servicemember’s faith would be accommodated, it is worrisome that the only way it could be accommodated (to their satisfaction) is exemption from field training – for an entire month, every single year.

To recap, is the MRFF’s claim – that two Army Soldiers were granted a Ramadan accommodation solely because of the MRFF – true?

In the current trend of hedging fact-checkers, we’ll rate this claim “mostly false.” The Army Soldiers were already granted Ramadan accommodations before the MRFF was even involved. These accommodations were consistent with those used by the military in other circumstances, and consistent with those recommended by the highest-ranking Muslim chaplain in the military. However, they weren’t the accommodations the Soldiers wanted. They appear to have received what they wanted after the MRFF became involved.

Does this set a precedent or expectation that Soldiers of the Islamic faith can’t go on exercises during Ramadan? That seems unlikely, given the numerous examples of Muslim US troops who have trained through Ramadan:

When it comes to religious liberty, they say, the military has gone to considerable lengths to be accommodating. Troops have time to pray and can fast during Ramadan. The military even makes halal versions of M.R.E.s — meals ready to eat, its plastic-wrapped field rations — along with kosher and vegetarian versions.

“The halal M.R.E.s are actually pretty good, maybe even better than regular M.R.E.s,” said Capt. Nadi Kassim, a company commander in the Army’s Second Cavalry Regiment…

When a recent field exercise fell during Ramadan, Captain Kassim said, the support unit doing the cooking set aside meals so he and another Muslim could eat after sunset. “We did not ask them to,” he said. “They just did it on their own to show they supported us.”

The military’s reaction to the religious exercise of these two US troops should, presumably, reflect on the religious freedom of all US troops. They say a rising tide lifts all ships, and granting accommodations for religious exercise is normally a good thing.

At the same time, the appearance of crying ‘persecution’ to get out of undesirable duty might be more like an anchor than a lifting sea.


One comment

  • William Robinson

    Well said. The difference between these two soldiers and the others described in the article is that these two make requesting a religious accommodation harder for everyone. Why? Because commanders and fellow soldiers generally intuit when one is using their faith claims as an excuse not to work.

    Contrast their approach with the others, who went out of their way to express appreciation for the accommodation in word and deed, the latter by doubling down in their support of the mission. When that happens, commanders and others routinely bend over backwards to do the right thing by supporting their teammates.

    Because that’s what soldiers should do. More importantly, that’s what good believers do: demonstrate that practicing their faith actually makes them better soldiers.