BY SIAN WU
Speaking to James Yee is a bit like attending Sunday school.
His citing of “the American ideals of freedom, tolerance, diversity, and justice” flow naturally and seamlessly in and out of everything he talks about. It is easy to see how he was so well suited as U.S. Army Muslim chaplain at Guantánamo Bay.
But while that natural ability and a deep understanding of Muslim culture can help you get through three years of harsh conditions at Guantánamo, it is not enough to combat hostile religious prejudice that Yee believes is a severe problem within the U.S. military. He writes about these deep divisions and his experiences at Guantánamo in his new book, “For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire” (Public Affairs Books, $24).
Yee grew up in the small New Jersey town of Springfield, going to Lutheran service every Sunday, as one of the only Chinese Americans in his school. After graduating from West Point, he studied Arabic and Islam in Syria, and returned to the army as a Muslim Chaplain. In spring of 2001 he was assigned to Fort Lewis in Olympia. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Yee was assigned to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
It was here that he was able to show his strength of fostering inter-faith dialogue, the very type of dialogue that sparked his own interest in Islam. He gave cultural awareness briefings, which were required of all incoming U.S. soldiers at the camp. He had an immense desire to teach U.S. soldiers about the tenets of true Islam, not the extremist beliefs that were often misinterpreted as mainstream religion. He believed, and still does, that once a deep understanding of cultural and religious differences occurs at all levels of the military, significant steps could be made towards peace.
At Guantánamo, Yee often interacted with the prisoners, delivering Qurans, prayer beads, and Islamic literature from the prison library, and occasionally de-escalating prisoner riots. Although he was able to change some policies, like new rules which only allowed other Muslims to handle Qurans in prisoners’ cells, Yee ran up against many road blocks in his mission of promoting education and religious sensitivity.
“Over the long haul, there were things that I wasn’t able to accomplish because of this strong anti-Muslim hostility,” he says in a phone interview with the International Examiner. “Religion was systematically used as a weapon against the prisoners.”
Yee writes in his book that pictures offensive to Muslims were often circulated amongst U.S. soldiers and officers, and that guards would kick and deface the detainees’ Qurans, which would lead to fights and riots.
When fellow officers would say about him, “Who does this Chinese Taliban think he is?” it became clear to Yee that not only was his religion an issue with his colleagues, but his ethnicity played a role in their negative view of him as well.
“What’s disturbing is that my story has confirmed that there are people within the military who harbor negative attitudes towards Asian Americans and Muslim Americans,” says Yee.
Yee fell under suspicion when Capt. Jason Orlich listened to a routine cultural awareness briefing, and felt as if he “was trying to justify their [the extremists’] acts,” he told The Seattle Times. But several other soldiers who attended Yee’s briefings said they heard nothing suspicious in them. While Yee grew close to the Muslim translators and interpreters at the camp, Orlich and others became suspicious of the so-called “Muslim clique.” Several in the group were accused of mishandling documents, and most seriously, secretly passing documents to prisoners through literature from the prisoner library.
What ensued was a long ordeal of interrogations, inspections and investigations, which led to Yee’s arrest in Florida in September 2003. At the time of his arrest, he was not fully aware of the reasons for his arrest; that ignorance may have contributed to the clearing of his charges. That, along with his meticulous following of protocol, excellent record and the mishandling of evidence on the part of FBI agents themselves, led to the dropping of all charges against him in March 2004.
Yee is concerned that the military-prisoner relations have gone downhill since his absence. He notes that recent news reports show that there are now 18 to 21 prisoners who are currently on hunger strikes and are now being force fed through painful feeding tubes. When Yee was at Guantánamo, only two prisoners were on hunger strikes. He fears this is due to an increase in incidents of religious disrespect, leading to prisoner anger and protest.
When Yee left the army in January of this year, he was given an honorable discharge, but not an apology. He is still waiting for one.
“It has become an obligation for me to tell my story to as many people as possible,” he says. It’s obvious he believes his new book “For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire” will reach far more people than his cultural awareness briefings at Guantánamo Bay ever did. When asked whether he would consider joining the army again, it became evident that he values the freedom of speech he has a civilian — a freedom that would be cut short if he decided to join the military again as an army Muslim chaplain.
In Yee’s eyes, the U.S. military has much room for improvement when it comes to understanding Islam and Middle Eastern society and culture.
“Within the higher levels of military leadership and the pentagon, there is a reluctance to foster dialogue with any major American Muslim organizations, in order to try and address the issues of religion, regarding Islam,” he says.
In light of the recent scandals involving the Quran desecration and prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, Yee sees it as integral for the United States to attempt to improve the image of the country abroad, especially in the Muslim world. He says, “In order to do this, you have to first engage with your own Muslim population.”
“The very first people to settle in America were the Pilgrims, and they came to establish freedom of religion,” he says, with a note of irony. He believes that Americans often lose sight of that ideal, and it is important to continue to advocate for the values of ethnic diversity and religious equality. .