“See I fought for this country and still got condemned / Find myself marching with people who hated me / Yet I managed to call 'em my friend.” That’s how Somli American poet and former marine Shirwa Hersi opens his poem “Terrorism is not a Religion,” about his experiences as a Somali Muslim in the American military.
Hersi, 25, began his military career at the age of 18 and served as a marine for four years between 2004 and 2008. Although born in America, Hersi also grew up in Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates and Somalia before attending high school in the United States.
Upon moving back to America, Hersi said in a phone interview, “I kinda went the wrong route… I involved myself with the wrong people and didn't do so well in school.” In turn, he viewed the military as an opportunity that would allow him to broaden his horizons after college and get him back on the 'right track.' “I wasn't even thinking about war, about any of that… I was just thinking about how I can better myself,” said Hersi.
“See, at first, they would ask me questions like / If we went to war today would you shoot us or shoot them,” continues the poem, which gained a wide Internet audience after its publication on the online Somali arts and culture hub, PoetNation.com, in March. “And such radical quotes were only taken as a joke / But how long can a joke go before you start to think / Is this the only thing they know?”
“The thing in the military I realized is that when you're in it, a lot of Muslim people don't agree with you on it and, the funny thing is, a lot of people in the military also don't agree with you being in it… It's kinda like living on a double edged sword” said Hersi. During his service he faced numerous challenges as a Muslim, including having someone deface his copy of the Quran and even having one of his superiors ask him privately, “If we went to war today, would you be on our side?”
Despite these trying experiences, Hersi does not regret his service in the marines. “If I didn't have a military background, I wouldn't be where I am today,” Hersi said. He was released on honorable discharge at the age of 22 after deciding that it was time to continue his education. Now, in addition to being a poet, Hersi is a full-time student at the University of Minnesota majoring in Psychology and Economics. He performs his poetry in a mixture English, Arabic and Somali.
“I don't agree with a lot of the reasons of why we went to war,” said Hersi of America's current involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. “But now that we're in there, I want to find the best possible approach to bring our people back and at the same time help the people that are in there.”
On the day of 9/11, Hersi recalls watching news updates with his middle school classroom in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. “The teachers started talking about how in Islam these are not the things that we condone… this is a tragedy that occurred and we should see it as a tragedy,” said Hersi.
Reflecting on the last decade, Hersi says he hopes people will recognize that it's “not the religion [of Islam] that causes people to do what they do today.” As he says in the final verse of his poem, “There is terrorism / And there are terrorists livin' / But the last time I checked / Terrorists and terrorism is not a religion.”