Ranks Of West Point Muslims Grow

Mitchell--Muslim cadets at West Point
Mitchell--Muslim cadets at West Point

Since Thomas Jefferson signed legislation creating West Point Academy more than 200 years ago, it has often had to move with the times – admitting the first African American cadet and letting in women, reports CBS News correspondent Russ Mitchell. Now it's coping with another new challenge.

The serene Hudson Valley campus, with its history, traditions and ceremonies, has given birth to some of America's greatest wartime leaders. But now, even as the U.S. Army is fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, West Point finds itself training a new generation of leaders – some with a surprising background. They are American Muslims.

"Muslims of West Point are unique in themselves because they are going to be the leaders of tomorrow…of platoons, companies, battalions and maybe even of the whole Army itself," Imam Asadullah Burgos tells Mitchell.

Asadullah Burgos is the Imam at West Point, where he has seen the number of Muslim cadets grow from just one 10 years ago to more than 30 now. This fall West Point dedicated a prayer room solely for use by Muslims.

Two of the Muslim cadets are Faraz Bala and Shuja Kazmi. Bala, a junior from Seattle, hopes to work in military intelligence. Kazmi is a former combat medic who has already served in Iraq.

When asked what is difficult about being a Muslim at West Point, Kazmi responds: "I think the toughest part may be trying to educate people about the religion and break any stereotypes that might exist."

In the past there have been reports of hazing of women and minorities at West Point but Muslims don't seem to have faced anything like that, reports Mitchell.

Both Bala and Kazmi know too well that if they are sent to Afghanistan or Iraq there's a very good chance they will be fighting against Muslims.

"Just like in out previous wars it's been Christian on Christian in World War I and World War II," says Bala. "This was isn't about religion – our mission there is just providing security."

"It's wrong for it to happen," says Kazmi when asked what he thinks of Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq carrying out car bombs and beheadings. "That is something as a soldier you try to stop."

But not everyone finds it easy. Imam Burgos says some Muslim cadets have sought guidance over their personal conflict about going to war.

"We are taught to save humanity not destroy humanity," says Imam Burgos. "So that is a conflict. A conflict within our souls, within our own selves. A conflict we have to deal with regardless of what faith we're from."

West Point does not actively recruit Muslims. In fact, it never asks the religion of anyone applying to the academy.

"That's the big thing with society today," says Faraz when asked if he feels like an American Muslim soldier – American first, Muslim second. "We would like to separate things into categories but sometimes it's just more complex than that."