Muslim Airmen Reflect on Challenges, Rewards of Serving in Air Force

In the latest edition of Air Education and Training Command’s “Real Talk” series, three Muslim Airmen gathered Aug. 19 to share their personal experiences of how their faith informs their service.

The discussion, moderated by AETC Commander Lt. Gen. Marshall B. “Brad” Webb, also touched on the Airmen’s positive and negative interactions with other Airmen about their religion, and how they hope the Air Force will progress on the issue in the future.

Chief Master Sgt. Gloria L. Weatherspoon, senior enlisted advisor at the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute, enlisted in the Air Force in 1996. Since then, she said, she has seen a full range of reactions to her faith. 

When she first started, Weatherspoon briefly considered seeking a waiver from Headquarters Air Force to wear her hijab but dropped the idea—”I’m an A1C, and the first person in my chain of command is a staff sergeant who knows nothing about this, and it was like, ‘Well, it’s not worth it,’” she explained.

Years later, however, she decided she did want to seek a waiver and reached out to Capt. Maysaa Ouza after a quick internet search showed Ouza wearing her head scarf in uniform.

“I was like, ‘Hey, you don’t know me, but I need help.’ I sent her my phone number, she called me right away. … And she told me how to do it, but I sat on it for a little while because I didn’t know how people were going to react to me,” Weatherspoon said.

Eventually, Weatherspoon did seek the waiver and was approved in a matter of days, she said. When she showed up for work the first time in her hijab, she posted a picture of herself to social media, and the photo was subsequently shared onto the unofficial “Air Force amn/nco/snco” Facebook page without her knowledge.

“No leader wants to be on there. I was just like, what is happening. I was so upset,” Weatherspoon said of her initial reaction. But to her surprise, the vast majority of comments from fellow Airmen of all ranks were positive.

Wearing the hijab is meaningful to Weatherspoon, she said, because it allows her to feel like an “open book.”

I wanted to serve as my whole self,” Weatherspoon said. “I wanted … people, when Ramadan came, to assume that I was going to fast instead of me having to give a whole entire briefing about why I’m not going to lunch.”

Alternatively, Maj. Sadia A. Heil, individual mobilization augmentee to the chief of Force and Unit Level Capabilities, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Directorate, does not wear a hijab while in uniform. 

“When I see Chief Wetherspoon wearing hijab, I know that that was a personal decision she made and that she feels empowered wearing hijab. And I also know that I have the ability as a Muslim woman to make personal decisions that are good for me,” Heil said, emphasizing that either mandating or banning the hijab are both extremes that restrict an individual’s ability to practice their own faith and spirituality.

Heil added that she has had times in the Air Force when she “felt very disappointed” in how fellow Airmen have disrespected her or her religion. Those incidents, she said, included everything from Airmen mispronouncing the name of the holy month of Ramadan or asking her if she spoke “Islamic,” to a commander that used an Islamic title as his callsign and gave briefings in which he told Airmen that a “moderate Muslim” is a hypocrite.

“So I’m now in a position where I’m working for somebody … who … has the audacity to think that he can think that I’m a hypocrite, but is also taking that and is spreading it throughout my command,” Heil said.

The importance of commanders establishing a positive, respectful culture is key, the panelists agreed. Capt. Abdulaziz H. Ali, theater engagement division chief at the Air Force Special Operations Schoolhouse, recounted a time when his commander came up to him unsolicited during Ramadan and asked how he could help Ali during that time, which typically includes a month of fasting.

“When it comes to a culture of inclusion, that does fall squarely on commanders,” Ali said. “So it’s good that you see me, but what are you doing to make sure that everybody in the unit feels like they can be themselves at the unit?”

All three panelists also agreed on the importance of education—while they all consider themselves to be ambassadors for their religion and are willing to discuss it in good faith, they stressed that many conversations are more accusatory or lacking in context.

“I think if you are coming from a place of genuineness, you will do the work first,” Weathersppon said. “You will say, ‘Hey, … I Googled how to learn about Islam, and I saw these 10 books. Have you ever read them? Do you know about them? What do you think because I genuinely want to learn so I can connect better with you, so I can be there for you’ … versus picking apart things based off of whatever your biases already are.”

The panelists were also all able to recall times in which their Muslim faith had been helpful in their Air Force careers. 

For Ali, his faith furthered his interest in learning Arabic, which has allowed him to help relations with Arabic-speaking partners and become a Foreign Area Officer.

For Heil, there was a time when she was able to connect with distinguished Muslim visitors at her base and ensure their Ramadan fast was respected.

And for Weatherspoon, there was an instance when her presence helped assure a delegation from the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Defense to partner with the force on education opportunities for women.

In all of these examples, Ali said, there’s ample evidence of what Muslim Airmen can contribute to a diverse Air Force.

“I think if you recognize that you have a pool of resources to draw from within the United States populace, and you create an environment that attracts people from different backgrounds—I mean, you know, the fact that this forum exists is a testament to the importance of that as a priority for leadership within the Air Force, but also what we bring to the fight,” Ali said. “ … Time and time again, people look at us and we are the envy of the world, because we make a deliberate effort to pull talent from everywhere.”