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CAIR demands US Army remove Iraqi-American immigrant soldier’s story from website

Spc. Zahraa Frelund, then a private first class, trains on the MK-19 grenade launcher, in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Zahraa Frelund)
March 30, 2021

On Monday, the Council on American-Islamic Relations demanded the U.S. Army remove a news article profiling the life of Zahraa ‘Katya’ Frelund, an Iraqi-American immigrant who risked her life to become an interpreter for U.S. forces deployed in Iraq, later emigrated to the U.S. and eventually joined the Army.

In a March 18 article titled “Soldier fights for her life to serve in US Army” Frelund described her experience facing abuse from her family while living in Iraq in 2009 and her decision to run away from home and immigrate to the U.S.

On Monday, CAIR called on the Army to remove the article, which the advocacy group said was promoting “Islamophobic, Anti-Iraqi, Anti-Arab Themes.”

In the Army article, Frelund described an incident in which she and her mother were shopping for school supplies in a public market and her mother slapped her across the face for disagreeing about what shoes to buy for her school uniform. Frelund described that slap to the face as the moment that made her decide to run away from home.

“In that moment, I felt I amounted to nothing,” she told an Army News Service reporter. “I felt like dirt. Worse than dirt, and that’s when I decided I was done. I’m done with this lifestyle; I’m better than that. Better than being beat up every day just for them to someday arrange a marriage for you. That’s literally your life as a woman; you have no say, no options — and I was done.”

Frelund said she decided to run away from home and go to a U.S. military base to work as an interpretor and to find a way out of Iraq.

In the article, she described the risks she felt she was taking in her decision to run away from home, including the possibility that she might be killed or forced into sex work for the offense of being a woman traveling alone in public in the Muslim-majority nation.

“Where I come from in Iraq, there are literally two options for a woman who (leaves) home,” Frelund said. “Either I’m caught and killed as part of an honor killing, or the bad people — the terrorists, the militia — they’ll take me to a sex house.”

Frelund even described being stopped and physically restrained by Iraqi soldiers, who she said called her a “whore” and told her to take off her clothes. Frelund, who said she was still a Muslim at the time but also a believer in Mary, Mother of Jesus — said she heard a voice tell her “’Tell them yes, and look to your right.’ I knew in that moment that God was with me.” She said as she began to disrobe, first by taking off her hijab, the soldiers released their grip on her and she was able to take off running and escape down a set of stairs to her right.

Frelund described eventually making it to Camp Liberty at the U.S.-controlled Victory Base Complex in Baghdad, Iraq and agreeing to serve as an interpreter for the Army before coming to the U.S. During the period of her arrival to the U.S., Frelund described converting to Christianity and said her conversion has continued to shape her life. Frelund was eventually able to join the Army as a cavalry scout in 2019.

CAIR sent a letter to Acting Army Secretary John E. Whitley and Deputy Press Secretary Jamal T. Brown requesting the article be removed and said “Official military publications must not foment racism against any ethnicity or bigotry against any faith.”

On its website, the group also said “The article follows the story of an Iraqi woman who tells her story of converting from Islam to Christianity and becoming a U.S. Army interpreter, decisions which the article attributes to a series of Christian auditory and visual religious visions. The interpreter also makes sweeping generalizations about Iraqi society, claiming that any and all Iraqi women who leave their homes will either be murdered in an honor killing or kidnapped and forced into prostitution.”

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) also sent a letter to Whitley, calling for the article to be removed. The MRFF letter states “This ‘news’ article is quite obviously both hideously and blatantly Islamophobic and simultaneously a wretched yet clear example of fundamentalist
Christian supremacy, domination, and exclusivism.”

The MRFF has been involved in a number of complaints about religion in the military. In the past, the MRFF has advocated to block the Marine Corps from licensing a group to produce replica dog tags with Bible quotes. The group has also advocated on behalf of a Muslim woman who was ordered to remove her authorized hijab and called for disciplinary action against her superior.

The MRFF letter goes on to state that if the religious affiliations were reversed and the Army had written a profile article about a soldier who converted from Christianity to Islam, “there would have been torrents of blood in there streets. And, you KNOW it, sir!”

The original Army article included a disclaimer stating “Editor’s note: The following story is told from a Soldier’s first-person account.” The disclaimer was later updated with an additional sentence, “The Soldier’s views do not necessarily reflect the views of the Army.

Reacting to the update, CAIR wrote the disclaimer “is not enough to distance the publication from the article’s open resentment and hostility towards Islam, Muslims, Iraqis, and Arabs.

The incident comes amid concerns about the U.S. military becoming politicized. Republican lawmakers have recently raised concern about the U.S. Navy’s decision to include books like “How to Be an Antiracist” on its official reading list, despite complaints that the book promotes discrimination and that its author, Ibram X. Kendi, has shared conspiracy theories that white people are responsible for AIDS and are actually aliens.

The U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has also seen backlash over its decision to hire its first-ever chief diversity and inclusion officer. Within days of the hiring decision, SOCOM announced it was investigating the diversity officer’s social media posts after other social media users noticed he had shared several politically charged social media posts, including one comparing former President Donald Trump to Nazi-German leader Adolf Hitler.