CAIRO – The Pentagon’s move to allow give individual troops greater latitude to wear turbans, head scarves, yarmulkes and other religious clothing with their uniforms has been welcomed by US Muslims as a step forward towards respecting religious beliefs of all faiths.
“We welcome the important decision to broaden the religious rights of American military personnel,” a statement from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, based in the District of Columbia was cited by the Washington Post.
“We hope it will allow all those in uniform to practice their faith while serving the nation.”
The updated pentagon’s policy on military uniform was announced on Wednesday, January 22.
Easing its uniform rules, the Pentagon was now open to allow religious wear including turbans, skullcaps, beards and tattoos, officials have said.
Under the new policy, the military will make every effort to accommodate "individual expressions of sincerely held beliefs" unless it could have an "adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, and good order and discipline."
Commanders may grant special permission to display religious articles while in uniform.
Requests for religious accommodation can be denied when the "needs of mission accomplishment outweigh the needs of the service member."
"Service member's expression of sincerely held beliefs (conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs) may not be used as the basis of any adverse personnel action, discrimination, or denial of promotion, schooling, training, or assignment," the updated policy on religious accommodation said.
The group’s spokesman, Ibrahim Hooper, said the new rules would reduce incidents of Muslim service members being harassed or reprimanded by superiors for wearing beards or head scarves.
“What we are seeing is not a revolution but an evolution in military policy,” Hooper said.
“It sends a message that the military is friendly to minority faiths.”
Though there are no official estimates, the US is home to an estimated Muslim minority of six to eight million.
There is no official count of Muslims serving in the 1.4 million-strong US armed forces because recruits are not required to state their religion.
But according to the American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affair Council, there are more than 20,000 Muslims serving in the military.
Despite Muslims welcome, leader of Sikh community has criticized the new rules as an expansion of current policies rather than a meaningful overall change in policy.
“Unfortunately, this continues to make us have to choose between our faith and serving our country,” Jasjit Singh, the executive director of Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, told Washington Post.
“This is an expansion of the waiver policy that is decided person by person. It does not open doors and say you can apply as a Sikh American and serve your country fully.”
Singh called the new rules a “stepping stone” in a long process by which Muslims and Sikhs have been prodding the Pentagon to ease restrictions on wearing or showing their “articles of faith.”
“It has been a work in progress, but we were hoping they would go father,” Singh said.
“What we want is not to be an exception. Sikh Americans want to be able to serve their country as any other Americans are allowed to do.”
Amardeep Singh, a spokesman for the Sikh Coalition, said though it was the first time the Pentagon had indicated it was willing to accommodate Sikhs, this religious accommodation would have to be approved each time a service member changed assignments.
"What is disappointing ... is that the presumptive bar on the Sikh articles of faith remains,” he said.
"So a Sikh can't just sort of enlist in the US military and expect that they won't down the line have to make the false choice between their faith and their service to the country," he said.
Army Corporal Simranpreet Lamba, one of only three currently serving observant Sikhs to have received permission to keep their hair and turban, said the updated policy was a small step in the right direction.
"I really appreciate that the Army has looked into the matter and tried to add something, but at the same time it doesn't provide any kind of accommodation for all the Sikhs who want to join," he said.
Referring to an earlier case in which CAIR successfully urged the Department of Defense to allow Muslim and Sikh students who wear ahijab or a turban to participate in the Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps, Hooper said he would wait to see the new policy in action.
"We've dealt with this issue on a number of occasions, whether it was with beards or with head scarves or even in support of the Sikh community on the issue of turbans and skullcaps for the Jewish military personnel," he said.
"I'd have to see how it's carried out in practice," Hooper said.
"If it's subject to the whim of individual commanders that becomes problematic because that's what we've seen in the past - some are allowed, some are denied."
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