WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Desperately short of soldiers who speak Arabic and understand Islam, the U.S. military is quietly courting American Muslims. But they show little enthusiasm for an institution many say is prejudiced against them.

“The military have the same problem as civilian government agencies, such as the FBI,” said Ibrahim Hooper of the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an advocacy group. “There is a general reluctance to join because Muslims think there is bias against them and career prospects are limited.”

Pentagon statistics show there are more Jews and Buddhists than Muslims serving in the 1.4 million strong, overwhelmingly Christian armed forces.

In the Marine Corps, there are only slightly more Muslims than Wiccans, who practice witchcraft. And in the Air Force, Wiccans outnumber Muslims by more than two to one.

The Pentagon lists 3,386 Muslims in active service, compared with 1.22 million Christians of a wide array of denominations, including little-known groups such as the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel or the Pentecostal Holiness Church International.

The statistics are drawn from personnel records that include a “religious faith code,” a rubric soldiers are asked, but not obliged, to complete. Some Muslims in the military say their real number is higher, and estimates go up to 10,000.

Whatever the figures on religion, it is a lack of Arabic-speaking officers and soldiers steeped in Islamic culture that is so striking, a subject that comes up in most conversations with people returning from duty in Iraq.

While there is no specific recruitment drive aimed at Arab and Muslim communities in the United States, the Pentagon has made well publicized moves to show that the military does not equate Islam with terrorism and is making efforts to accommodate Muslim Americans who want to serve both God and their country.

For example: Last July, the Marine Corps dedicated a new Muslim prayer center at its base in Quantico, Virginia. A month later, the Air Force Academy commissioned its first Muslim chaplain. And in September, the U.S. military academy at West Point inaugurated its first Muslim prayer room.


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