Muslim Chaplains Play Key Role

Serving their congregations, they also explain their faith to the military brass and fellow soldiers

Camp Pendleton, Calif.--Muslim chaplains in the U.S. military are stressing to troops of different faiths that Osama bin Laden's brand of violent fundamentalism does not represent the Islamic religion. "Not only is it not the mainstream of Islam, it is not any part of Islam," said Abuhena Saif-ul-Islam, a Muslim chaplain here. "What has been done (at the Pentagon and World Trade Center) is a crime against humanity and is strictly against Islamic doctrine."

To Saif-ul-Islam and other Muslim ministers in the military has fallen the role of explaining Islam to the vast majority of troops who know little or nothing about the ancient faith. The Navy lieutenant, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Bangladesh, will leave soon to join troops in Egypt for a multinational training exercise.

Muslim chaplains and assistants at numerous bases are carrying President Bush's message that the conflict is not between religions but between the United States and terrorism. Muslim chaplain James Yee, an Army captain, has lectured troops at Fort Lewis in Washington state. And at Fort Campbell, Ky., Army Staff Sgt. Taqwa Ali, a chaplain's assistant, is briefing soldiers who may soon deploy to the Middle East.

Qaseem Ali Uqdah, a retired Marine Corps gunnery sergeant and director of the Virginia-based American Muslim Armed Forces & Veterans Affairs Council, plans an Islamic education program for bases across the country. He says that while there have been isolated cases of Muslims in uniform being subjected to insulting comments, he remains confident that military commanders are dedicated to a zero-tolerance policy toward such harassment. "This horrific event is not going to divide Christians, Muslims and Jews," Uqdah said.

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To accommodate an increasing number of Muslims in the U.S. military, the Pentagon in recent years has redoubled efforts to add Muslim chaplains and educate military personnel about the religion. Officials hope that those efforts will now help blunt the potential impact of fiery rhetoric from bin Laden and others that the United States is planning a holy war against Muslims. "Now is a good time for Muslims in the military to be a moderating voice, to play a role in showing everybody that Islam is not a religion of extremists," said Ingrid Mattson, Islamic studies professor and director of a program at the Hartford Seminary training Islamic chaplains for the U.S. military.

Of 1.4 million active-duty personnel, the Pentagon estimates that 4,000 are practicing Muslims. Uqdah's group puts the number at closer to 10,000. There are 17 accredited Muslim chaplains in the military and possibly double that many chaplain assistants. The first Muslim chaplain joined the Army in 1993. Saif-ul-Islam was the second Muslim chaplain in the Navy and the first to serve the Marine Corps.

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Tony Perry
Los Angeles Times
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