We will not tolerate actions that go against the fundamental principles of the oath we share, including actions associated with extremist or dissident ideologies. Service members, DoD civilian employees, and all those who support our mission, deserve an environment free of discrimination, hate, and harassment.
— Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Extremism Stand-Down Memo, Feb 5, 2021
When the new secretary of defense ordered a DOD-wide stand-down to discuss the problem of extremism in the ranks in February 2021, he almost certainly didn’t have U.S. Army First Lt. Khadijah Simmons in mind. She was a 27-year-old officer who identifies as Black and Mexican-American and says she enjoys “museums and travel and history — and if it’s Black history, even better.” She planned on a career as a military dentist, and there are no indications anyone in her unit based at Fort Polk, Louisiana, saw her as a controversial figure in any way.
What alarmed Austin, of course, was the disproportionate presence of both active-duty service members and military veterans among the extremists who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. As you may have guessed, that group did not include Simmons.
But a few months after the “stand-down,” in July 2021, Khadijah Simmons became Khadijah X, a name change consistent with her conversion to Islam, and things began to change. Some white soldiers apparently began to feel uncomfortable around her. Some “did their own research” with predictable results, concluding that Lt. X must represent some kind of threat — perhaps she was an Islamic extremist, or a budding terrorist.
“When you convert to Islam, you change your name to show your devotion to the religion,” she told Salon, explaining her motivation. “It’s a common practice within the faith, as a whole,” especially although not exclusively among African-American converts. She chalks up the reactions she encountered to “lack of knowledge,” and to people associating her name change with Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, the controversial sect led by Louis Farrakhan.
By her own account, Lt. X had visited a Nation of Islam mosque, but was not associated with the group. Rumors began to fly in her predominantly white unit — about the Nation of Islam, about a Black Panther Party sticker on her laptop, about accusations that she treated Black soldiers more favorably than white ones. None of these rumors had ever circulated when she was Lt. Simmons.
When Lt. X was eventually investigated by the Army under the informal “fact-gathering” process known as AR 15-6, the nominal issue was her job performance, with vague allegations of extremism serving as a sinister subtext. She now faces “separation from service,” she told Salon. “They found me guilty of dereliction of duty. However, I was going through all of this on top of being expected to do my job. How do you expect me to do my job when my subordinates think I’m a terrorist?”
That was when Mikey Weinstein, an Air Force veteran and former Reagan administration lawyer who is founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, agreed to step in. Weinstein’s nonprofit, by his account, has represented more than 77,000 active-duty military service members — a large majority of them self-identified Christians — in religious-freedom cases.
“Lloyd Austin made it clear that we were going to wipe out extremism in the military after Jan 6,” Weinstein told Salon. “But it wasn’t Muslims who did that. It wasn’t Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, Jews or Native American spiritualists.” None of those groups contribute to what Weinstein calls the environment of “discrimination, hate and harassment” within the military. They are the ones who suffer from it, along with a fair share of non-evangelical Christians, who often feel their faith is being hijacked.
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Weinstein attributes the problems in military culture to “three dozen fundamentalist Christian nationalist parachurch organizations that are inextricably intertwined into the DNA of the Department of Defense.” Those groups, he says, are responsible for a sizable chunk of the religious-freedom violations MRFF deals with year after year. As this compilation video suggests, at least some such groups see themselves as “government-paid missionaries,” a view at odds with the military’s mission to protect the Constitution, which specifically disavows any state-sponsored religion.
There are no non-Christian groups within the military engaged in anything remotely similar. Lt. X says she was not proselytized, let alone “radicalized,” by a Muslim chaplain or anyone else. Her process of conversion, she says, was gradual.
“Both my parents are ‘no preference’ when it comes to religion. I didn’t grow up in a religious household,” she said. “Through the years, and going to college and joining the military, I’ve met people from all around the world. I found that being Islamic aligned with who I am as a person, with my goals in life. I was intrigued by the discipline, the community of the people who practice being Muslim. I just thought it was in tune with my life.”
She had a spotless disciplinary record, at least until she made her conversion public and changed her name. “I’ve never been in any type of military trouble,” she said. “I’ve never received a letter of reprimand, a letter of concern. I’ve never received an Article 15 [a “non-judicial punishment”], never received any type of military or civilian punishment. I’ve definitely gotten speeding tickets. But I’ve never been in any type of trouble with the law.”
Lt. Khadijah Simmons had a spotless disciplinary record — until she made her conversion public and became Lt. Khadijah X.
After Khadijah Simmons became Khadijah X in July 2021, registering her new name at an Arizona courthouse and with Social Security, she got her military uniforms changed as well. When she returned to work, “Initially there were a few weird looks, which I had expected,” she said. “A few people asked me why I did it. I just said, ‘For personal reasons’ and that I’m a Muslim. Other than that, really nothing to my face.”
But as summer turned to fall, things changed. Lt. X says that by last November, she became “super uncomfortable,” and finally asked her commanding officer for a transfer to another unit. That request was granted, and she became an assistant to the battalion executive officer, or XO. “It was 10 times better. I didn’t feel like I was walking on eggshells,” she said. “People were just more accepting and welcoming.”
Somewhat mysteriously, a simultaneous AR 15-6 investigation was launched into Lt. X, alleging “misconduct and substandard performance.” She was appointed a military defense counsel, who would not comment for this story but referred Salon to Tracy Riley, chair of the Louisiana NAACP’s Legal Redress Committee, who discussed a similar case that emerged last year. (More on that below.)
Lt. X says that when the investigating officer, Capt. James Twigg, first sat down to interview her, “He started talking about extremism. I was like, ‘Why are you talking about extremism, which is outside the scope of your appointment orders?'” It seems likely that others were asked about extremism as well, giving it even more weight than appears in the final text.
Without access to all the supporting documents, much less those interviewed, it’s impossible to evaluate Twigg’s report on Lt. X in full. But she and Weinstein point to signs that the process was stacked against her from the beginning. An “officer evaluation report” in which she was graded “capable,” for instance, was reshaped to sound largely negative, when the original version had praised her “ability to think critically” and her “professionalism and bearing.” Although several white soldiers gave statements that she had favored Black subordinates, every Black soldier in her unit denied that. One lieutenant testified that a West Point chaplain had asked Lt. X (then Simmons) to remove the Black Panther sticker from her laptop in 2020, suggesting it had been a problem well before her name change. In fact, the chaplain in question denied any memory of such an incident, praising Simmons/X for her “hard work and dedication.”
In any event, the report issued in January simply recommended that she be transferred out of her field artillery unit to another military specialty, which had been her intention all along. That should have ended things, but Lt. X was still “flabbergasted,” she said, by the sworn statements of “people saying that they were afraid of me. I’ve never done or said anything to intimidate anybody. I had no idea that people thought that I was extremist.”
Instead of accepting the recommendation to transfer Lt. X, her commander, Lt. Col. Jonathan Holm, recommended she be separated from service. That’s when she connected with the MRFF and Mikey Weinstein, who says he’s encountered similar situations countless times before.
“In the military, if you try to stand up on your own,” says Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, “you turn yourself into a tarantula on a wedding cake.”
“If you’re being persecuted, you can try going up your chain of command, but often that doesn’t work because they’re the persecutors,” he said. “You can try going to the chaplain, but they’re just staff officers. You can try going to the judge advocate, the military lawyers, but they’re staff officers too. They’re not in the command chain. It takes a lot of guts for her to stand up and go public. In the military, when you try to stand up on your own, you turn yourself into a tarantula on a wedding cake. And your military superiors are not your shift managers at Starbucks. They have complete and total control over you in every possible way.”
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Tracy Riley of the Louisiana NAACP, as mentioned above, told Salon about another recent case at Fort Polk involving a Black, non-Christian woman. Private Kryshnh Walker, who is Hindu, became involved in a dispute with a sergeant she accused of sexual harassment. He countered by accusing her of using illegal drugs, then loaded her “with extra duty and continued the harassment” until Walker “reached the point of exhaustion,” according to an email Riley wrote last August seeking redress.
Walker was ordered confined after an Article 15 investigation alleging she was a “threat to public safety” for unspecified reasons. While in custody, she was diagnosed with severe COVID symptoms and sent to a civilian prison, where Riley says she became severely malnourished and was in danger of dying.
“Please stop what you are doing to deploy every asset available to retrieve PVT Walker from confinement and get her the immediate medical attention possible,” Riley wrote in her email. “No soldier deserves to die of COVID-19 alone in a cell without proper medical attention. It is not lost on the NAACP Louisiana State Conference that PVT Walker is a black female whose every control over her person and well being is under the control of an all white Command. This situation reeks of retaliation for reporting sexual harassment.”
After a general was assigned to investigate, Walker was transferred to a hospital and all charges against her were dropped. But she was also separated from military service, while her alleged harasser was allowed to retire with a clean record.
“The soldier who hadn’t done anything wrong has paid the cost for raising her hand and having the courage to speak out,” Riley said. “I just think it’s incredibly insensitive and a missed opportunity for the country.”
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Last December, the Defense Department issued its guidance on countering extremist activity, with a clear message that the focus was “on prohibited activity; not on a particular ideology, thought or political orientation.” That seems wildly at odds with how Khadijah X was treated: Even if the wildest rumors and allegations swirling around her had been true (and once again, she says they were not), none of them involved anything close to extremist activity.
The week after the DOD guidance was released, an AP investigation concluded that decades of efforts had failed to stamp out bias and extremism within the military:
The investigation shows the new guidelines do not address ongoing disparities in military justice under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. … Numerous studies, including a report last year from the Government Accountability Office, show Black and Hispanic service members were disproportionately investigated and court-martialed. A recent Naval Postgraduate School study found that Black Marines were convicted and punished at courts-martial at a rate five times higher than other races across the Marine Corps.
That’s what Khadijah X and Kryshnh Walker were up against, and their cases must be considered in that context. If the U.S. military wants to get serious about fighting extremism, perhaps it should look at these apparent miscarriages of justice as “teachable moments,” and turn these case studies on how things went wrong into a lesson on how to set things right.
At least for now, Lt. X does not sound optimistic. “The Army in general preaches diversity, inclusion, acceptance,” she said. “But then the minute I present that inclusion and diversity, I’m a terrorist.”
Read more on America’s struggle for religious freedom: