French, U.S. imams talk about being Muslim military chaplains

June 8, 2009

imams-threeBoth are Muslims. Both are chaplains. Both are in the military. But one is French and one is American. That alone ensured there would be enough to talk about when Mohamed-Ali Bouharb and Abu- hena Saifulislam met in Paris to discuss their work with chaplains and academics from the United States.
(Photo: Bouharb (l) and Saifulislam with CIEE’s Hannah Taieb. Note the Islamic crescents on Bouharb’s cap and Saifulislam’s sleeves, 7 June 2009/Tom Heneghan)

Muslim chaplaincies are relatively new additions to the armed forces in Europe and North America. Establishing their place alongside the traditional Catholic, Protestant and Jewish offices of religious services has not always been easy, even though both imams reported the top brass in their countries strongly supported the effort. While they tend to the spiritual needs of their co-religionists in the ranks, as other chaplains do, these imams also spend much time explaining their religion and its practices to their non-Muslim superiors.Both spoke of the obvious issues such as getting halal food or having time and space for Muslim prayers. Both had encountered questions from both within the forces and outside in the Muslim community asking why they had agreed to work as imams in the military. Their presentations were part of a seminar entitled “Religious Diversity in Everyday Life in France” organised by the U.S.-based Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) and the Institute for the Study of Islam and the Societies of the Muslim World in Paris.Bouharb, 32, is a French-born Muslim with Tunisian roots who studied Islam at a private Muslim institute in Paris and graduated from a special training course for imams at the Catholic Institute here. He is chaplain to the National Gendarmerie, which comes under the Defence Ministry. France only launched its Muslim chaplain corps in 2005 and it is still finding its way. “I first got a two-year contract. It’s just been extended by four years. Nothing is certain. We’ll see the results in 20 years,” he told the meeting on Sunday. Bouhard stressed how tricky the issues he faces can be as he discussed the delicate bridge function he has to play with the example of five French Muslim soldiers who refused to go to Afghanistan:

“If a Muslim soldier doesn’t want to go to Afghanistan for religious reasons, that’s his right. My role is not to convince him. But if he doesn’t want to go, he shouldn’t be in the army. That’s not a religious opinion. Sometimes the Muslim chaplain has to put aside his religious role and deconstruct what is religious and what is not. What I do is go see the soldier and ask him about his vision of Islam. I can help him to understand things better, but not to make a decision… If a soldier’s not clear in his mind (about shooting at Taliban), he might hesitate for a moment. That could endanger the troops around him…“To the commanders, I say I’m not the representative of a Muslim soldiers’ trade union. When those five refused to go, people said the Muslim chaplains weren’t doing their jobs. It was all over the media. But the chaplain’s duty is not to ensure the cohesion of the troops. (The doubting soldier) could endanger others. My religious duty is not to put those others in danger… We Muslim chaplains asked for a right to reply to the media but the Defence Ministry press office said it was not worth the effort… They were right. A few weeks later, all was forgotten.”

Will Obama address the Muslim world or the Arab world?

June 2, 2009

obama-faceWhen President Barack Obama delivers his long-awaited speech in Cairo on Thursday, will he address the Muslim world or the Arab world? In the pre-speech build-up, it’s being called a speech “to the Muslim world” or “to the world’s 1.x billion Muslims” (the estimated total mentioned in different articles fluctuates between 1and 1.5 billion). But the venue he’s chosen — Cairo — and all the focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict make it sound like a speech to and about the Middle East.

U.S. troop conversion allegations diplomatic minefield

May 4, 2009

U.S. President Barack Obama may face a new minefield on the battlefields of Afghanistan — one that combines a potent mix of religion and culture.

Soldier says rabbis pushed “religious war” in Gaza

March 20, 2009

gazaOur Jerusalem bureau has sent a very interesting report about criticism within the Israeli army of the Gaza offensive in January. What caught my eye was that it brings up the issue of a religious war, a term usually used in relation to Muslims.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

After cricket, an attack on a revered Sufi shrine in Pakistan

March 9, 2009

The bombing of the mausoleum of a renowned Pashto mystic poet outside the Pakistani city of Peshawar has darkened the mood further in a nation already numbed by the attack on cricket, its favourite sport, when the Sri Lankan team were targeted in Lahore.

The more you look, the less you see in Swat sharia deal

February 26, 2009

Ten days have passed since Pakistan cut a deal with Islamists to enforce sharia in the turbulent Swat region in return for a ceasefire, and we still don’t know many details about what was agreed.  The deal made international headlines. It prompted political and security concerns in NATO and Washington and warnings about possible violations of human rights and religious freedom.

Religion and politics behind sharia drive in Swat

February 16, 2009

Pakistan has agreed to restore Islamic law in the turbulent Swat valley and neighbouring areas of the North-West Frontier Province. What does that mean? Sharia is understood and applied in such varied ways across the Muslim world that it is difficult to say exactly what it is. Will we soon see Saudi or Taliban-style hand-chopping for thieves and stonings for adulterers? Would it be open to appeal and overturn harsh verdicts, as the Federal Sharia Court in Islamabad has sometimes done? Or could it be that these details are secondary because sharia is more a political than a religious strategy here?

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Pakistan agrees to sharia law to end Swat fighting

February 16, 2009

Pakistan has agreed to introduce sharia law in the Swat valley and neighbouring areas of the north-west in a peace deal with Taliban militants. Religious conservatives in Swat have long fought for sharia to replace Pakistan's secular laws, which came into force after the former princely state was absorbed into the Pakistani federation in 1969. The government apparently hopes that by signing a peace deal in Swat it can drive a wedge between conservative hardliners and Islamist militants whose influence has been spreading from the tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan into Pakistan proper.

Militants killing laughter and music in Pakistan region

February 11, 2009

It’s hard to write about the Taliban on a religion blog without giving the impression that this militant movement in Afghanistan and Pakistan is basically religious. It’s certainly Islamist, i.e. it uses Islam for political ends. But it’s hard to find much religion in what they’re doing, while there’s a lot of power politics, Pashtun nationalism and insurrection against the Kabul and Islamabad governments there.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Pakistani Taliban force girls’ schools to close

January 17, 2009

Taliban militants have banned female education in the northwest Pakistan valley of Swat, depriving more than 40,000 girls of schooling. Last month, the Taliban warned parents against sending their daughters to school, saying female education was "unIslamic".  The warning was reiterated by a close aide to militant leader Mullah Fazlullah in a message broadcast through an illegal FM radio station on Friday night. Government schools have been shut down and some 300 private schools due to reopen next month after the winter break will probably remain closed, a senior official said.