The top Marine was a guest at a Baltimore mosque June 7 where he stopped by for an Iftar dinner — the evening breaking of fast by Muslims celebrating the holy month of Ramadan.
In an email to the top Marine, Shams said, “By you coming to the mosque, not only will you be sending a powerful message to anyone who is a Muslim in the Marine Corps, but also the rest of the armed forces.”
After arriving at the Iftar dinner, Neller was given a tour of the mosque and even showed the women’s section, Shams said.
“We wanted to educate him, bridge the gap, and break any myths out there,” Shams said.
Neller also gave a speech that evening discussing his own Catholic faith, his time in the Corps and inclusiveness of the military.
“I think this was a very powerful event, it was unprecedented,” Shams said about Neller’s attendance at the Iftar dinner.
But Shams said that the Corps still had much work to do in educating the force on Muslim Marines serving.
A lot of Marines don’t know what Ramadan is, or that Friday is the holy day for prayer for Muslims. While Shams was serving, a lot of the food served by the Corps contained pork.
“I can’t eat that,” he said.
Shams has put together other initiatives and talks to help educate U.S. veterans and military folks about Muslim communities.
In the 29/29 initiative, Shams arranged for 29 veterans to spend the night at 29 Muslim families’ homes across the United States over 29 days during Ramadan. The veterans can attend evening worship services, break the daylong fast with their host families, and then spend the night and share morning meals before fasting resumes at daybreak.
Shams said the event stemmed from his desire to juxtapose two communities in America and show there are more commonalities than some might think.
“Muslims are often seen as the most despised group in America right now, while veterans are seen as one of the most honored groups,” Shams said.
Shams coordinated the event with his friend Scott Cooper — a former Marine EA-6B Prowler pilot who now serves as the director of national security outreach for Human Rights First, an independent advocacy group.
Cooper participated in the event, spending a night at Shams home. Cooper explained that he began reaching out to the Muslim community after the heated religious rhetoric in the past three years.
“I found it just especially offensive,” Cooper said. “Who cares who your god is and who you pray to or not, that’s one of the things you learn in the military especially. Your drill instructor tells you ‘all of you are equally nasty.’”
Cooper deployed five times to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan, and also worked as a contractor in Egypt. During those deployments, he experienced first-hand the “hospitality of the Muslim faith.”
“I got really close to a number of officers in the Egyptian military. I hosted some in the United States and would take them to the mosque,” Cooper said. “I got a really close view of their traditions and some just really aren’t that different than other religious practices, like communion in the Catholic faith.”
Both men hope the 29/29 Ramadan initiative will inspire more Americans to reach out to their local Muslim communities.
Shams served in the Corps from 2000 to 2004 as an admin Marine. Neller’s attendance at the Baltimore mosque was not the first time a commandant has attended an Iftar dinner.
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq. Follow on Twitter @Kyle_Rempfer