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US Muslim soldier struggles to get harassment complaint addressed
Wednesday, May 19, 2010 10:09:04 AM, William Wan
Army Specialist Zachari Klawonn: The path of a Muslim soldier in this country's Army is often not an easy one, especially not after the Fort Hood incident which killed 13 and injured 30, on Nov. 5, 2009 (Jahi Chikwendiu-Washington Post)
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Two months after a Muslim soldier complained to the Pentagon about being harassed in the wake of the Fort Hood shootings, Spec. Zachari Klawonn said the Army has not followed through on its promises to address problems at the country's largest military base.
Commanders at Fort Hood, Tex., moved Klawonn, 20, off post for his safety in March after a threatening note with religious slurs was left at his barracks door. But then the military failed to provide him the standard stipend for off-post housing, Klawonn said. In recent weeks, he's had to take out two loans, borrow an additional $300 from a nonprofit group and pawn his possessions to pay the bills.
Klawonn said he asked for the housing allowance repeatedly, making his appeals up the chain of command. Last week, after a reporter asked about the housing allowance, Klawonn said he was called by his commanders and told he would begin receiving his stipend June 1.
"No one's taking this seriously. These are serious issues about safety, equality and religious harassment, and it's simply not a priority here," said Klawonn, who has retained an attorney through the Military Religious Freedom Foundation to prepare a lawsuit against the military.
Post commanders rebutted his allegations and said they have made every effort to address the harassment he has experienced. "This base takes the concern of its Muslim soldiers and all its soldiers very seriously," said post spokesman Christopher Haug. "His commanders are really trying to help him."
During his two years in the military, Klawonn said he has filed more than 20 complaints of harassment for being Muslim. Many of the instances have occurred at Fort Hood and were confirmed by fellow soldiers, including times when other soldiers jeered him and used religious slurs, when his Koran was torn up and when another threatening note was left on his truck. Klawonn said the harassment escalated after Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, a Muslim psychiatrist he'd never met, was charged with killing 13 people and injuring more than 30 during a massacre last November.
After Klawonn's experiences were documented in The Washington Post, Fort Hood commanders said they were working on several initiatives. They promised to improve cultural training for soldiers, organize a meeting for Fort Hood's 180 Muslim soldiers and restart Islamic prayers on Friday so Muslims would have somewhere on the post to worship.
But nothing has changed, Klawonn said.
The post-wide meeting was supposed to be led by Louay Safi, a scholar and advocate for Arab and Muslim rights, he said, but Safi never showed up, and the meeting was delayed. When Fort Hood's head chaplain, Col. Frank Jackson, eventually held the meeting, most Muslim soldiers were not notified directly, and only 13 showed up, Fort Hood officials confirmed.
At the conclusion of the meeting, the chaplain told Klawonn he was in charge of finding a solution for the post, Klawonn said.
"I'm a low-ranking specialist with no authority, a full-time job on top of physical training and all the other duties," Klawonn said. "How is telling me to talk to other Muslims in my spare time a base-wide solution?"
Fort Hood officials said commanders never promised that Safi would be brought in for a meeting. Officials also disputed that Klawonn was put in charge of coordinating a post-wide plan for helping Muslim soldiers. They said Klawonn may have gotten that impression because the chaplain asked for volunteers to spearhead the issue, and only Klawonn raised his hand. The chaplain has since found a few volunteers to help, Haug said.
He added that a cultural diversity class was held and a survey conducted for Klawonn's unit that included a question about discrimination problems. Both are required on a regular basis, but Haug said Fort Hood leaders ordered a special round in response to Klawonn's harassment.
The post has reserved an area for Muslim prayer on Fridays, Haug said, though he acknowledged that there is no imam to lead the services and that almost no one shows up for them. When Klawonn went to the chapel space on Friday at the appointed time, he said he found a Christian financial planning class meeting there.
Klawonn has also filed complaints about presentations that equate Muslims with terrorists. In one anti-terrorism presentation Jan. 13, he said, one of the slides explained Islam's beliefs this way: "It is the duty of all Muslims to kill all Americans and Westerners." Klawonn later found out that the unattributed quote came from Osama bin Laden.
Fort Hood officials said they are reviewing the slides.
"The way his commanders have dealt with this is either incompetence or it's intentional. But either way, it's just wrong," said Michael L. "Mikey" Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which has clashed with the military in recent months over Bible verses printed on military rifle scopes and the Rev. Franklin Graham's invitation to pray at the Pentagon despite his strongly worded condemnations of Islam.
Last week, Weinstein sent a letter of complaint about Klawonn's treatment to the Pentagon and Maj. Gen. William Grimsley, the acting commander of Fort Hood. Weinstein's group has also retained Dallas lawyer Randal G. Mathis to work on Klawonn's case pro bono.
Mathis said the lawsuit will not seek financial damages but a federal court order forcing Fort Hood officials to address the problems Muslim soldiers face on the post.
(Courtesy: The Washington Post)
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