The late Abdullah Hassan Igram is pictured here with his younger brother after he completed reading the Quran at the age of 13.  Abduallah's wife keeps their historical documents and photogrphs in her Cedar Rapids home.  Abudllah would go on to serve in the military, advocate for Islamic idetification on dog tags, and serve as president of the Internation Muslim Society. Photo by Sarah Mercier.

Good Muslims, Great Americans

Private Aaron Robinson has a problem. The Cedar Rapids, Iowa, native joined the army reserves in 2002 and then converted to Islam while he was stationed at Ft. Riley in Kansas. Robinson was sent to Iraq for eight months and he’s seeking a discharge before he’s called back.

“Had I been a Muslim first, I probably wouldn’t have joined the military," Robinson, 25, says. “If I’m going to die for something it better be just. As a Muslim and a soldier I have to do what is right, I’m going to be judged for whatever I do.”

According to the latest statistics from the Pentagon, Robinson is one of approximately 4,700 active duty and reserve soldiers who identify themselves as Muslim. All four branches of the military have had Muslim soldiers — male and female — serving in their ranks since the Second World War. Over the years a number of these Muslim soldiers have come from Iowa.

Military service is important to the Islamic community of Cedar Rapids. The Muslim community in Eastern Iowa began in the late 1800s when Lebanese immigrants, fleeing conflict in the Middle East, settled here and prospered. In 1934 they built the first mosque in North America, sent their children to school and into the military.

During World War II 16 Muslim men from Iowa — fathers, sons, and brothers — left to defend their country. Only 14 returned. In the current military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, 20 soldiers from this community have been sent to the Middle East to fight with and against other Muslims.

Aaron Robinson is one of these Muslim soldiers. Growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he was raised as a Methodist. He went to church with his family every Sunday but never found a home in traditional Christianity. He found that place in Islam and his conversion came quickly.

“When Allah wants to make anything easy for you, it will happen no matter what,” Robinson says.

He joined the military to provide support for a child his then nineteen-year-old girlfriend was carrying. The relationship soon ended and Robinson was sent to Iraq before the birth of the child. He says the difficult circumstances surrounding the birth of the child and the strained relations with his girlfriend and her parents, led to him becoming a Muslim. Robinson has never seen his child and he believes this is the will of Allah.

“Sometimes Allah keeps you from the thing you desire the most,” he says.

In Iraq he was the only Muslim in his unit and he found that his new belief system was troubling for some of his fellow soldiers. He remembers talking with a soldier named Hatcher whose firm belief in Catholicism matched his own in Islam.

“He actually started crying one time because he literally thought I was going to hell,” says Robinson.