Being a US sailor allowed Jonathan Berts a chance to travel around the world and study Arabic and Islam, but he says his commitment to faith resulted in mistreatment and an unfair dismissal.
The nine-year veteran filed a federal lawsuit last month in Sacramento for being illegally denied his right to reenlist in 2012 due to his keeping a beard for religious reasons.
The trouble started not long after Berts began keeping the beard. “I didn’t think anything of it. It was just me growing in my knowledge and having a better awareness of Islam. I thought it was necessary to grow a beard so I began doing so,” he said.
Berts had kept a beard earlier in his career for medical reasons; his commitment to the navy was not questioned then. It was only after receiving encouragement from Muslim chaplains to embrace “his faith outwardly as a Muslim” that the 2nd petty class officer said the mistreatment started.
The military allows for beards to be kept at the discretion of commanding officers. His request and appeal for permission were denied, reported the Los Angeles Times.
“Before I grew a beard nobody asked any questions. They would ask why I began wearing a beard, and I said that I wanted to live openly as a Muslim. I started praying and fasting regularly as well.”
Berts had a middling rank and was trusted with being a teacher of military history and a boot camp instructor in the Chicago area. He was also a fourth generation member of the military, a source of pride for him. He was shocked by what he said happened next.
“The line of questioning from my seniors was inappropriate. They started asking me my ideas about the constitution and about Osama bin laden. They started asking me if I knew who Nidal Malik Hasan was, the guy who killed 13 people at Fort Hood. They stared making jokes at my expense – winking and smiling, smirking. They called me a towel head and the n-word. They tried to associate me with bad people.”
“I was put in charge of supervising an abandoned building. There were mice running around and no running water at times. Lots of times I saw cockroaches. The last six months of my time were pretty crappy,” said Berts. A video shared by Berts with News 10 ABC appeared to confirm the dismal condition of the building he was tasked with guarding.
“It’s definitely new ground,” said Brice Hamack, a civil rights coordinator with CAIR’s northern California office. “Our co-counsel, Alan Reinach, the executive director of Church State Counsel, thinks it’s a strong case and is definitely achievable. Jon approached Alan first and Alan thought to involve CAIR.”
“I think people are really afraid to come forward, so I can only guess that such a situation is more widespread. We’ve only had a few soldiers come forward, often due to fears that their situation could quickly spin out of control,” he added, noting that due to the preliminary state of the lawsuit Berts’ alleged opponents could not be named at this time.
Berts explained that he had originally tried to work within the military system that allowed soldiers to put in complaints to their commanding officer. Berts said that he submitted paperwork. Unfortunately for him he said the paperwork had to go through the person calling him names. He also tried to make his complaint through an “equal opportunity advisor”. This civilian role is supposed “to encourage diversity,” explained Berts. “The person is a civilian outside the chain of command. However, I complained to him about five times regarding my treatment, but each time the paperwork mysteriously disappeared.”
Berts said that in my final evaluation he received a poor report. “People said that I was making a lot of noise and trouble. The final evaluation was more or less the final nail in my active duty career. I was denied reenlistment.” Since then the high-school graduate has been trying to find work and is studying property management.
“Whenever someone comes to us with a claim we want to see some evidence,” said Hamack. “The biggest thing Jonathan showed us was cell phone video of the building he was forced to be in.
Based on the evidence he gave us we felt it was substantial that he had a case. I think if the military thought he was a horrible person then why would he be put in a position of training recruits?”
The former naval officer has no intention of shaving off his beard or otherwise capitulating to bigotry.
“I’ve had two friends that gave their lives in Iraq, and they were Muslims. There are many Muslims who have died. You pray with them, you eat with them. At Friday prayers in Kuwait we’d have 20 to 30 guys. Especially in the last 10 years the military has made an effort to hire Muslims as cultural ambassadors, whether in Afghanistan or Iraq.
“Islam doesn’t equal being a terrorist. Islam is about ordinary people trying to live their lives according to what is correct.
“There are six million Muslims living in America and they are just trying to go about their lives.
“The story of Islam in America goes back hundreds of years. We’re not going anywhere.”