FaithWorld

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

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.”

Another issue was whether Muslim soldiers due for commando training had to fast if the session occurred during Ramadan. “They get up at 3 a.m. and march for 25 kms with backpacks weighing 25 kilos. It’s very difficult to fast,” he said. Muslim soldiers asked him what to do. “I told them that, if you signed up to do this training, you have to respect that contract. You can stop your fast and catch up on those days after Ramadan is over.” Ten Qatari soldiers in France for advanced training could not understand why the session was not rescheduled, as it would be in their majority Muslim society, but Bouharb said it could not be and the Muslim soldiers had to adjust. “There is only one Islam, but there are many ways of expressing it,” he said.imams-twoSaifulislam, who emigrated to the U.S. from Bangladesh in 1989 and became a U.S. Navy imam 10 years later, had a slightly different approach. “If there is special training during Ramadan, I ask the commander if it can be moved to another date,” he said, stressing he was giving his personal opinion and not speaking in an official capacity. “I tell the Muslims that they’re away from home while on training so they can not fast and make it up later. It’s his or her call. I provide the counsel.”
(Photo: Bouharb and Saifulislam, 7 June 2009/Tom Heneghan)

He said there were about a dozen imams in the U.S. armed forces, which appointed their first Muslim chaplain in 1993. That compares to over 800 Christian and Jewish chaplains in the Navy alone, he said. “They don’t necessarily need us for the number of Muslim soldiers but to advise them on religious inclusiveness, like about how Islamic practices can affect a mission, before they deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan. They get training in cultural sensitivity.”Possibly because imams have served in the U.S. military for longer than in the French, the American Muslim chaplains seemed more integrated into the overall chaplain corps. Saifulislam said:

Ninety-nine percent of the people who come to me for counselling are from another faith. They come to you with issues, it could be about family, stress or violence. People can get more religious in boot camp, also in prison. I’ve also been trained in suicide prevention, PTSD recognition and crisis management. We also do grief counselling, regardless of the religion. Of course, we don’t perform services for other religions. You’re not going to see me baptise a baby! But we facilitate things. If someone comes to me as a Wiccan and asks for a place to pray, I help them. The Department of Defense recognises over 290 different religions and denominations. If a Muslim asks one of the other chaplains to help him get a copy of the Koran, he has to help him.”

Will Obama address the Muslim world or the Arab world?

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. (Photo: President Barack Obama, 21 May 2009/Kevin Lamarque)

The Middle East is the heartland of Islam, but Arabs make up only about 20 percent of the world’s Muslims. Not all Arabs are Muslims. And non-Arab Iran is a major part of the Middle Eastern political scene. So is it correct to call this a speech to the Muslim world? Would it be better to call it a speech to the Middle East?

There is such an important overlap between the Arab and the Muslim worlds that it is hard to disentangle them. The Palestinian issue concerns Muslims around the world, but with varying intensity depending partly on whether it figures in regional politics or stands as a more distant symbol of oppression against Muslims. Politics can also poison Muslim relations with Jews, which can range from bitter enmity to interfaith cooperation depending on where, when and how one looks. The U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq may be justified in Washington as operations against international terrorism, but in Muslim countries they are often seen as attacks on Muslims and Islam.

U.S. troop conversion allegations diplomatic minefield

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.

Explosive allegations have emerged that U.S. soldiers have been attempting to convert Afghanis to Christianity, a scenario sure to stir passions and even anger in the overwhelming Islamic country. You can see our story on the issue here by my colleague Peter Graff in Kabul.

USA-OBAMA/

The U.S. military denied Monday it has allowed soldiers to try to convert Afghans to Christianity, after a television network showed pictures of soldiers with bibles translated into local languages.

Soldier says rabbis pushed “religious war” in Gaza

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. (Photo: Israeli air strike near Gaza-Egypt border in southern Gaza Strip, 26 Feb 2009/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)

The story starts off as follows:

Rabbis in the Israeli army told battlefield troops in January’s Gaza offensive that they were fighting a “religious war” against gentiles, according to one army commander’s account published on Friday.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

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

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.

Taliban militants are suspected of being behind the attack on the shrine of Abdul Rehman at the foot of the Khyber pass, where for centuries musicians and poets have gathered in honour of the 17th century messenger of peace and love.

The militants were angry that women had been visiting the shrine of the Rehman Baba as he was popularly known and so they planted explosives around the pillars of the tomb, to pull down the mausoleum in an echo of the Taliban bombing of the giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan in central Afghanistan back in 2001. The structure was damaged and the grave blown up, Dawn reported.

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

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. (Photo: Supporters of Maulana Sufi Mohammad gather for prayers in Mingora, 21 Feb 2009/Adil Khan)

In the blogosphere, Terry Mattingly over at GetReligion has asked in two posts (here and here) why reporters there aren’t supplying more details about exactly how sharia will be implemented or what the  doctrinal differences between Muslims in the region are. Like other news organisations, Reuters has been reporting extensively on the political side of this so-called peace deal but not had much on the religion details. As Reuters religion editor and a former chief correspondent in Pakistan and Afghanistan, I’m very interested in this. I blogged about the deal when it was struck and wanted to revisit the issue now to see what more we know about it.

After consulting with our Islamabad bureau, reading other news organisations’ reports and scouring the web, I have the feeling — familiar to anyone who has reported from that part of the world — that the more you look at this deal, the less you see besides the fact of the deal itself. The devil isn’t hiding in the details because there aren’t many there. He’s playing a bigger political game.

Religion and politics behind sharia drive in Swat

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? (Photo: Swat Islamic leaders in Peshawar to negotiate sharia accord/16 Feb 2009/Ali Imam)

As is often the case in Pakistan, this issue has two sides — theory and practice. In theory, this looks like it should be a strict but not Taliban-style legal regime. As Zeeshan Haider in our Islamabad bureau put in in a Question&Answer list on sharia in Swat:

WHAT KIND OF ISLAMIC JUDICIAL SYSTEM IS SWAT GETTING?

Under Nizam-e-Adl or Islamic system of justice, all judicial laws contrary to Islamic teachings stand cancelled and the courts will decide the cases in line with Islamic injunctions.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Pakistan agrees to sharia law to end Swat fighting

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.

Critics are already saying the deal will encourage Taliban militants fighting elsewhere in both Pakistan and Afghanistan and could threaten the integrity of the country itself. Britain's Guardian newspaper quotes Khadim Hussain of the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy, a think-tank in Islamabad, as calling the peace deal a surrender to the Taliban. It also quotes Javed Iqbal, a retired judge, as saying, "It means that there is not one law in the country. It will disintegrate this way. If you concede to this, you will go on conceding."

News of the peace deal followed an acknowledgement by Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari that the Taliban had "a presence in huge amounts of land" in Pakistan and were trying to take over the country. In an interview with CBS, he said Pakistan was fighting to survive.

Militants killing laughter and music in Pakistan region

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. (Photo: Pakistani pro-Taliban militants in Swat Valley, 2 Nov 2007/Sherin Zada Kanju)

It’s often difficult to separate religion and politics in groups like this, but President Barack Obama gave a basic rule of thumb in his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington last week:

“Far too often, we have seen faith wielded as a tool to divide us from one another – as an excuse for prejudice and intolerance. Wars have been waged. Innocents have been slaughtered. For centuries, entire religions have been persecuted, all in the name of perceived righteousness…

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Pakistani Taliban force girls’ schools to close

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.

The development highlights the extent to which the Taliban have extended their influence from the tribal regions on the border with Afghanistan into Pakistan itself, and their willingness to challenge Pakistanis' way of life.

In the same vein, the blog All Things Pakistan, in a post headlined "Pakistan at War: No Women Allowed" runs a photo of a banner in Mingora, the main city in Swat, which it says reads: "Women are not allowed in the market."  It says the Taliban has banned the entry of women in markets and ordered the killing of women who violate the ban. "From the picture, this is clearly a textile and cloth market -- the type of market where, in Pakistan, you would expect most customers to be women," it says. It also says that most shop owners have sold or shut down their business because of falling sales.