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Muslim Population in the Military Raises Difficult Issues

The deadly rampage at Fort Hood is forcing Pentagon officials to confront difficult questions about the military's growing Muslim population.

The military has worked hard to recruit more Muslims since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the number of Muslim troops, while still small, has been increasing. There were 3,409 Muslims in the active-duty military as of April 2008, according to Pentagon statistics.

SLIDESHOW: Deadly Fort Hood Rampage

Military personnel don't have to disclose their religions, and many officials believe the actual number of Muslim soldiers may be at least 10,000 higher than the Pentagon statistics. For instance, the military "Officer Record Brief" of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the suspect in the Fort Hood shootings, said he had "no religious preference" and didn't identify him as a Muslim.

Even now, Muslim soldiers remain fairly rare in some parts of the military. At West Point, Army officials said there were just 24 Muslim cadets out of a total student body of 4,400. The Muslim cadets worship in an interfaith center on the bucolic New York campus, but don't have a dedicated mosque.

The push to boost Muslim representation has proven to be a double-edged sword for the military, which desperately needs the Muslim soldiers for their language skills and cultural knowledge, but also worries that a small percentage of those soldiers might harbor extremist ideologies or choose to turn their guns on their fellow soldiers.

In one of the military's most notorious cases of fratricide since Vietnam, Army Sgt. Hasan Akbar, a convert to Islam, rolled a grenade into a tent filled with other soldiers in April 2003. The attack killed two officers and wounded 14 others. During his court-martial, prosecution witnesses testified Sgt. Akbar had committed the attack because he believed the U.S. military would kill Muslim civilians during the coming invasion. Sgt. Akbar was later sentenced to death.

Muslim soldiers also face challenges stemming from their dual identities as adherents of the Islamic faith and as members of the U.S. military. In Iraq and Afghanistan, Muslims serving in the U.S. military often use fake last names to avoid being singled out by insurgents as traitors and to prevent reprisals against their families elsewhere in the world.

More on this story at the Wall Street Journal.