John Bilal III remembers growing up in his Muslim household with his military family and considered himself a Muslim American during his time at the United States Military Academy before graduating in 2006.
Not everyone during Bilal III’s time at the Academy, before he was eventually deployed to Iraq in 2008, knew about his religious affiliation.
But in an election season marked by inflammatory rhetoric on the campaign trail such as Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the country, people like Bilal III are willing to share their experiences to show they are just as “American” as many others who have fought for and served their country.
“My closest friends new, and my roommates knew because I would pray.” Bilal III said.
He wouldn’t outwardly express it aside from the daily prayers.
“That was, I wouldn’t say intentional, but I just felt—I just felt that it wasn’t really necessary,” he said.
“They considered me a friend,” Bilal III remembers of his colleagues. “The idea of religion was really never brought into play.”
In his first months at the Academy at West Point, Bilal III said one of his captain’s colleagues was unaware of his religious beliefs.
“To me that’s a good thing because he sees me as a good leader,” he remembers thinking.
But that wasn’t to say it was meant to be a secret.
“I don’t think it would’ve changed his view [if he found out],” Bilal III said.
To Bilal III’s knowledge, this was a common experience for many of the Muslim Americans serving. 5896 members of the military identify as Muslim, according to a 2015 report from the Department of Defense, making up close to .3 percent of the military. It was still common to have the necessary accommodations, Bilal III said.
“The academy was sure to include we had a place to pray,” he said.
The other times religion came into conversations was when people asked Bilal III about his last name. John Bilal III would have been John Hutchins III if it were not for his family’s conversion to Islam.
Bilal III’s grandfather became a practicing Muslim in 1950s, and chose to change his last name from John Hutchins to John Bilal. His family attended a Muslim vocational school.
Bilal III’s father, John Bilal II, attended the school through high school and eventually began serving as a marine. He too had a similar experience during his time serving when he said that Islam was a lesser-known religion in the country.
“I felt like we were all marines, you know?” Bilal II laughed. “We were very focused on our jobs, you know, on what we had to do.”
Not much has changed in the military from father to son.
Muslims still only make up a minimal percentage of the religions practiced in the military across all branches. Accommodations were made in the 1970s during Bilal II’s service as they are today. Bilal II recalls that, like his son, he too did not openly announce his Islamic faith.
This is not to say everyone completely understood, Bilal II said as he remembered telling a drill instructor of his Muslim faith in 1976.
“He told me that you’re either a Catholic or a Protestant, so I had to choose which mass to go to,” Bilal II said.
Later on in his service, Bilal II when went up for a sergeant position.
“What would you do if you had to fight in an area of the world that was Muslim?” Bilal II says he was asked.
“I was sworn by the constitution,” he answered. “I was conscious of what I needed to say and do at the time,” Bilal II said of the interview.
The idea of being “conscious” of what to say was not tied to his Muslim affiliation, Bilal II said. He said he does not recall hostility against his religious choice.
Even today, his son—Bilal III—says it’s an accepting climate
“I never felt the Muslims that I knew who served were left out of place,” he said.
This contrasts with public sentiment outside of the military, filled with fear that a Muslim American could develop radical views, thus creating a fear of all Muslim Americans. That sentiment has become more apparent this election season, as some politicians have backed Donald Trump’s call for a ban on Muslim immigrants.
Yet, within the military, Muslims and non-Muslims trust each other with their lives, Bilal III says.
“Yes there is a significant amount of conservative views in the military,” Bilal III says. “[But] I don’t see that rhetoric bleeding over into soldiers in the military…and more importantly, I don’t see that rhetoric bleeding over to leaders in the military.”