By Megan Smith –
Nate Terani, a Navy veteran, is used to facing challenging situations. Back home, he’s now turning his efforts to a different kind of fight. Terani works as a community organizer, fighting Islamophobia by spreading a message of peace and unity for Veterans for Peace, an organization that speaks out against the costliness of war and the toll taken on service members coming home.
As a child Terani was faced with a life-changing event on a family visit to his motherland, Iran, in 1985. At the time, the region was plagued by war. During a ceasefire he went to visit his grandmother. Terani said, “While at an international school one day, Hezbollah soldiers raided our school and they took the flags of the different nations and set them on fire. They demanded that the kids chant death to America and trample on the flag. I refused to do it and the soldier saw me not complying and started to walk towards me. I grabbed pieces of the American flag and just ran from them around the school.”
Upon returning to the United States he had this odd feeling that the reason he was kept from danger was because he was an American. This stuck with him and he felt he had a debt to pay. Ten years later he joined the military. Terani served in the U.S. Navy for nine and a half years. He enlisted after high school in 1997, had four years of active and duty and served in the Arizona National Guard until 2006. The first thing he did in the Navy was become a member of the Presidential Honor Guard – and he was the first Muslim American to do so. Later, he would come to work in the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Over the course of his military career, and after, Terani learned of friends passing away or coming home with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). He knew it was time to stand for change for all those who served. Then, the Chapel Hill shooting in 2015 was another wake-up call. The present climate was seemingly creating a culture of hate and distrust that Terani felt he could not stand by and watch. For Terani this gruesome, execution-style killing of three Muslim students solidified his resolve to speak out against injustices. “Just for the sake of being Muslim, those students were assassinated,” he said.
Within the last year he began to see that he could speak out to stop hate speech from turning into violent actions. He looked to Veterans for Peace for an avenue to voice his concerns about the widespread impact of violence. Alongside those who saw and dealt in violence for so many years as men and women in military service, Terani decided to speak up for non-violence.
Veteran’s Challenges: Islamophobia is a committee within Veterans for Peace comprised of combat and post 9/11 veterans. Together they hope to challenge Islamophobia and bring to light the methods which the media uses to scare Americans.
“Create this ambiguous enemy in the desert and blame it on a religion and out of that fear people will not question your methods of warfare. By challenging Islamophobia, we can address that,” he said. Terani believes that “stopping Islamophobia starts with words, because hate speech becomes bigotry and discrimination which leads to violence.”
This issue seems particularly pressing in light of election season. “Trump utilizes hate speech to incite the masses,” he said of the presumptive Republican nominee for president.
Recently, Terani attended a Donald Trump rally in protest and received a lot of attention for a simple sign. His sign read, “Vets to Trump: End Hate Speech Against Muslims.” Surrounding attendees were cordial until he unveiled his sign. “When I went there, I was wearing my United States Navy cap. And they were great and friendly up until I took the banner out. And they flipped the switch. They did become violent and did harass.”
Although he has no future plans to protest, “I’ll continue if I have to. If someone needs to stand up to that, then I’ll do it,” he said.
Terani did not always envision becoming an activist. He grew up in New Jersey in what he called a very typical childhood. “I was in a rural area. Our heroes growing up were the cops and firefighters in New Jersey. We listened to country music.” He never saw himself as particularly different. He saw himself as an all-American boy. Others didn’t always see him the same way. Despite his American roots, he recounted a time when his friend’s parents asked him who Allah was and if he was the moon god.
These kinds of questions revealed something he hadn’t recognized before. “There was an ingrained sense that I was a little bit different. This helped make me stronger and let me see a different perspective because of my religion.”
Terani’s unique perspective as a Muslim American veteran continues to drive his conviction to stand up for what he believes in and to combat fear-mongering and Islamophobia by stopping hate at the root of what it is, ignorance and fear.