Both 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.”