EUrabia's Muslim Soldiers

European Armies Recruiting Muslim Soldiers

Watch your back, Hans!

by Soeren Kern / Gatestone Institute

The chaplain’s top priority has been to organize a pilgrimage to Mecca for Muslim soldiers. “For me, the army is not about standing up for a nation; it’s about finding a job.”

Germany is seeking to recruit more Muslims into its army: it cannot find enough native Germans to fill its ranks after it abolished the draft.

German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière announced his intention to “multiculturalize” the German Bundeswehr (Federal Defense Force) during a June 20 headhunting mission to the Turkish capital Ankara, where he declared: “I want the [German] army to be representative of a cross-section of the German population.”

Germany formally discontinued compulsory military service on July 1, 2011 as part of a comprehensive reform aimed at creating a smaller and more agile army of about 185,000 professional soldiers.

Islam or Europe: which will it be?

But during its first twelve months of existence, Germany’s new all-volunteer army has been unable to meet its recruiting goals, and military manpower prospects look dim for the foreseeable future.

In a desperate search for soldiers, German military officials have now identified Germany’s Muslim Turkish population (3.5 million and counting) as a new source for potential recruits.

Maizière has been trying to jump-start the recruitment of German Turks by offering them some unique incentives to sign up for military service. Maizière’s trip to Ankara, for example, was aimed at persuading the Turkish government to waive the compulsory military service requirement in Turkey for those individuals who possess Turkish-German dual nationality and who serve at least 15 months in the German army.

Maizière believes that Turks would rather serve in Germany than in Turkey, but Turkish Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz dismissed the idea out of hand, arguing that Turkish law does not permit Turkish citizens to substitute compulsory military service in Turkey for voluntary service in Germany, or any other country for that matter.

Maizière continues to insist that Turks serving in the German armed forces must have German citizenship, and that he has no intention of recruiting non-German citizens. “The model of a German foreign legion is out of the question,” Maizière told reporters in Ankara.

But pressure is building for demographically challenged Germany to lower the military qualification standards and begin recruiting foreigners to staff its armed forces.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces in the German Bundestag, Hellmut Königshaus, recently argued that non-citizens should be allowed to join the German military. As an incentive, he proposed that Germany offer those immigrants who agree to become soldiers a fast-track procedure to become naturalized German citizens.

Königshaus has also dismissed the possibility of loyalty problems with individuals who do not have a German passport. “The requirement naturally must be that foreign candidates profess loyalty to our country and our Constitution, and also speak German,” Königshaus said. “But why should the integration of foreigners in the military be any different than the integration of foreigners in the national football team?”

The answer to that question can be found in France, where the military has faced significant problems integrating Muslim soldiers into its ranks.

Muslim immigrants now represent an estimated 15% of all French military personnel (exact figures are unavailable; French law prohibits collecting data on religious affiliation). In real terms, there are around 30,000 active duty Muslims out of a total of 220,000 military personnel in the French Armed Forces.

Much of the debate about the issue of Muslims serving in the French military has revolved around the hypothetical question of how to predict the loyalty of Muslim troops in cases where the French military is involved in armed conflict with Muslim countries.

The issue of troop loyalty was brought to the fore following the Muslim riots in the suburbs of Paris and other French cities in October and 2005. The riots affected 274 French towns and cities and caused more than €200 million in property damage – as rioters burned 8,973 vehicles and hundreds of buildings.

At the time, French authorities were concerned that the riots might expand into a nationwide uprising of Muslims throughout the country; they were trying to forecast the behavior of Muslim soldiers in the case that the French army would be called upon to restore order.

Some surveys of Muslim immigrants in French suburbs show that fewer than 10% of respondents consider themselves French and just 1% say they are willing to die for France.

Consider a French-Algerian soldier named Aïcha who was asked about a hypothetical military conflict between France and Algeria. Dressed in a French army uniform, he said he could not imagine making war against his own people: “In my head, I am Algerian, I don’t feel French. For me, the army is not about standing up for a nation, it’s about finding a job.” (The quote has since been removed from the website of the National Museum for Immigration History, theCité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration, where it was first published.)

The French daily newspaper Le Monde has quoted excerpts of a classified report that was prepared for the French Ministry of Defense on the topic of “Young Frenchmen of North African Origin” (JFOM, military parlance for “jeunes Français d’origine maghrébine”) in the French military. The report states: “The JFOM are 3.5 times more likely [than native French soldiers] to commit desertion, six times more likely to refuse to obey orders, six times more likely to insult a superior officer, and eight times more likely to commit acts of insubordination.”

The Le Monde article also makes mention of a mutiny aboard the French aircraft carrier Foch. News of the mutiny was first reported by the French newspapers La Marseillaise and L’Humanité; additional details were later filled in by other French newspapers.

The incident occurred during the NATO intervention in the former Yugoslavian province of Kosovo in 1999. The mutiny involved some 60 sailors of North African Muslim origin who kidnapped their weapons officer, supposedly to protest living conditions aboard the aircraft carrier. After being holed up in the ship’s cafeteria for more than two days, French marine commando teams were sent in to “restore order” on the ship by liberating the kidnapped officer and evicting the mutineers, who were quickly “repatriated” to France.

Although the French Ministry of Defense has consistently refused to comment on the veracity of the reports (defense officials went so far as to ask the French media not to publish articles about the incident), several sources say the real reason behind the mutiny was that the North African sailors were opposed to French airstrikes on Kosovo, which is 90% Muslim.

More recently, the French newspaper Le Figaro reported that some Muslim soldiers in the French army had refused to fight in Afghanistan, citing their faith. A military spokesman interviewed by the newspaper said the refusal to deploy to Afghanistan represents “a misunderstanding of the meaning of their commitment to bear arms for France and to defend its interests and values at all times and everywhere.” The officer added: “A disciplinary procedure is systematically engaged in cases of a refusal to fight, resulting in most cases in a termination of contract.”

Separately, during a March 2011 hearing on defense issues at the Assemblée Nationale, the lower house of the French Parliament, former French Minister of Defense Michèle Alliot-Marie revealed that the French Navy was having problems with “self-appointed imams” on board French naval vessels. In particular, commanders on the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle became alarmed at the large groups of Muslims who were gathering on the ship. According to the testimony, the problem was being “resolved” by hiring professional imams to prevent self-appointed preachers from “giving [Muslim soldiers] alternative concepts of what it means to serve in the army.”

The first such Muslim chaplain is a 32-year-old French-Tunisian named Mohamed-Ali Bouharb. According to Le Figaro, Bouharb’s top priority as chaplain has been to organize a pilgrimage to Mecca for Muslim soldiers. The Defence Ministry actually promised to provide two government planes, seating 220 persons each, to fly the Muslim troops to Saudi Arabia so that they would not have to travel on private commercial flights.

Although religion and state remain firmly separated in the rest of French society, the military has accommodated its Muslim personnel in other ways as well. Acceding to Bouharb’s demands, for example, the military now provides Muslim soldiers with halal meals and prayer rooms. The Muslim chaplaincy also publishes a magazine exclusively for Muslim soldiers, with glossy photos of mosques and recipes for meals to break the Ramadan fast.

In 2010, Bouharb caused a scandal when, in an interview with the American Internet newspaper Huffington Post, he publicly criticized the French president’s decision to ban the burqa. Bouharb said: “[The burqa debate] is an excellent means to keep public opinion busy and to evade the real issues of unemployment, housing and economic crisis. And just as a reminder, this issue concerns only a very small minority of French Muslim women.”

Following an uproar in France over the soldier’s public criticism of the Commander in Chief, Bouharb tried to backtrack, saying his comments were taken out of context. But as the controversy drew attention to Bouharb’s background, it emerged that he is in fact a Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer.

For example, a cover story about Bouharb in a French Muslim cultural magazine called Salam News revealed that he had studied Islamic theology at theEuropean Institute for Human Science (EIHS), a school run by the Muslim Brotherhood. French newspapers also reported that Bouharb has been attending conferences sponsored by the Union of Islamic Organization of France (UOIF), which represents the Muslim Brotherhood in France.

According to the Observatory of the Islamization of France, a research group, Bouharb “can legitimately be suspected of being an Islamist mole in the heart of the French army.”

Other European countries have also had their concerns about Muslims in their militaries. In Austria, for example, three Muslim soldiers stationed at the Maria Theresien Barracks in the Hietzing district of Vienna refused to salute the Austrian flag at a parade (they actually turned their backs on it), explaining it is incompatible with their religion.

The Austrian newspaper Die Presse reported (the original article has been removed from the newspaper’s website but a copy of the article can be found here) that three soldiers, all with Austrian citizenship, said they could not submit to the Austrian flag, and that also in the future they would not salute the flag nor even look at it.

The newspaper reported that the Muslim soldiers were not disciplined, but that an imam was eventually summoned to issue a fatwa (religious ruling) stating that Muslims are allowed to salute the Austrian flag.

Austrian Army officers have also complained that Muslim conscripts — about 3.5% of the Austrian armed forces — are unable to do most jobs because they have permission to pray five times a day, no matter what job they are performing at the time. Some who attend Friday prayers stay away for the rest of the day.

In the Netherlands, the Dutch army has stepped up its recruitment of Muslim youth to offset allegations of discrimination. But now the military intelligence agency MIVD is worried that an unknown number of Muslim soldiers are suspected sympathizers with radical Islamists. In its most recent annual report, MIVD states that it has conducted a number of investigations into “alleged radicalization of military personnel” as “there are signs that indicate a possible radicalization of Muslim individuals or groups within the armed forces.” In past years, the Dutch military has investigated at least ten Muslim servicemen for subversion.

In Spain, military commanders terminated the contracts of more than a dozen Muslim soldiers stationed in the city of Ceuta, a Spanish exclave on the northern coast of Morocco, based on classified information that pointed to “lack of trust or dubious loyalty.” Spanish authorities have been concerned about the security of Ceuta and its sister city Melilla, which Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has long threatened to “reconquer” for Islam.

In Switzerland, newspapers (here, here and here) have reported about concerns about the rising number of Muslim soldiers in the Swiss army. In 2010, the Swiss government drafted new rules that give Muslim soldiers special privileges, especially when it comes to food. But the five daily prayers will not be possible; recruits will be able to pray only once the day’s army duties are over.

Soeren Kern is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook.