WASHINGTON - A leading US Muslim observatory group has cheered and welcomed the decision of the Department of Defense to allow Muslim and Sikh students participating in Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (JROTC) to wear headscarves and turbans while in uniform.
"We welcome the fact that Muslim and Sikh students nationwide will now be able to participate fully in JROTC leadership activities while maintaining their religious beliefs and practices," Nihad Awad, National Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said in a statement obtained by OnIslam.net.
The decision, announced Thursday, followed an October incident in which Muslim teen Demin Zawity was banned from participating in the homecoming parade while wearing hijab.
Practicing for a long time to participate in the parade, the decision was shocking to the 14-year-old student at Ravenwood High School.
Sensing the hurt feelings of Zawity, CAIR wrote to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, calling for a formal apology be issued to the young student.
CAIR also requested constitutionally-protected religious accommodations for the girl and for future Muslim JROTC participants.
In a letter to the Muslim organization sent on Panetta's behalf, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army Larry Stubblefield explained that based on the incident that led Zawity to quit JROTC, the Army will now be making more accommodations for religious headwear in the training program.
"Based on your concerns, the Army has reviewed its JROTC uniform policy and will develop appropriate procedures to provide Cadets the opportunity to request the wear of religious head dress, such as the turban and hijab, Stubblefield wrote in the letter, made public by CAIR.
This change will allow Miss Zawity and other students the chance to fully participate in the JROTC program.
Additionally, a representative from the US Army Cadet Command will contact Miss Zawity and provide her the opportunity to rejoin the Ravenwood High School JROTC unit, he added.
Not for Soldiers
Though allowing Muslim hijab for JROTC members, army spokesman George Wright confirmed that the Ministry of Defense's decision does not apply to the army, the Daily Caller website reported on Thursday, December 22.
The new procedures will provide JROTC with a exemption method more similar to current Army procedure mandated through the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.
However, these exemptions will be applied on a case-by-case basis for army soldiers.
Requests for ETP [exemptions to policy] to uniform and grooming standards (AR 670-1) based on religion, are considered on a case by case basis and balanced against military necessity ETPs are temporary, cannot be guaranteed at all times, not liberally granted, and may be revoked due to changed conditions, Army regulations state.
According to Wright, currently there are three Sikhs and one Orthodox Jewish rabbi who have been approved to wear religious garb outside of their standard regulation uniform on active duty.
One female Army captain has applied to wear the hijab for religious observance. Her case is pending.
Yet, some politicians were not ready for such modification on the army uniform to make it easier for other religions.
Look at the word: uni'-'form' everybody wears the same thing, political commentator Jed Babbin, a former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense, said.
The military is by its own nature diverse and creates a culture in which everyone, regardless of their race or creed, is blended into one force for a common purpose.
This [uniform exemption] divides it, balkanizes it on religious grounds.
Though there are no official estimates, the US is home to an estimated Muslim minority of six to eight million.
A Gallup poll found last August 2011 that the majority of Americans Muslims are loyal to their country and optimistic about their future in the United States.