WASHINGTON — A Muslim Airman in California has become the first to be allowed to grow a beard, marking the service’s first such religious accommodation for a follower of Islam, Air Force officials.
The decision allowing Staff Sgt. Abdul Rahman Gaitan, 30, to grow a beard was announced in August, yet Air Force revealed it only last week, Stripes.com reported Tuesday.
Gaitan said his beard is in keeping with the following of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
“It is a constant reminder of our faith and who we are as Muslims,” he said, according to the Air Force article.
Raised as a Catholic, the American Airman first developed an interest in the Muslim faith while stationed at an air station in Izmir, Turkey, a curiosity that remained strong when he left for his new duty station in Hawaii.
“When I left Turkey, I felt as if a little bit of myself was left behind,” he said, Air Force Times reported.
“I began to read the Quran and the more I learned, the more I was drawn to its teachings.”
The airman visited a mosque in Hawaii to explore the faith and ask questions — he converted soon after.
The airman said he had received some negative reactions since he began growing his beard, including questions from fellow airmen about whether he was a terrorist or had decided to join Islamic State.
“The incident shot straight to the commander, like a lightning bolt, and the following morning, I was called into his office with the chief and first sergeant waiting for me,” he said.
“In my entire career, I’ve never had a commander look me in the eyes like he did … his look, tone, words, and posture were shouting at me, ‘Don’t worry, we have your back.’ ”
After the meeting, the commander reminded the unit of the Air Force’s zero-tolerance policy on discrimination.
“I walked out of there with a feeling I had never felt as a Hispanic Muslim airman,” Gaitan said.
“I finally felt like I was fully part of the Air Force family and that my peers and my leadership would fight to protect me.”
Wearing a beard is a Sunnah in Islam.