GAINING ACCEPTANCE IN SERVICE
When Lt. Abuhena Saif-ul-Islam first arrived at the Camp Pendleton military base in California, recruits often asked the Muslim chaplain what the crescent on his lapel meant. Saif-ul-Islam, a Bangladeshi immigrant, jokingly told them he was an astronaut.
Nowadays, fewer sailors find the Islamic symbol unfamiliar. But Saif-ul-Islam, a U.S. Navy chaplain since 1999, still is questioned often about his religion during training sessions he conducts at bases across the nation.
“They want to know if non-Muslims can go into a mosque,” Saif-ul-Islam said. “They ask why people in Iraq are behaving [violently] if Islam is so peaceful. It’s a genuine question.”
Though the questions are constant, his role as chaplain has changed since the early days, Saif-ul-Islam said Wednesday at a conference of Muslim chaplains in Rosemont, attended by dozens of chaplains assigned to hospitals, universities, prisons and military bases nationwide.
He still spends time doing what any military chaplain would do: providing counseling, facilitating at funerals and assisting soldiers who might suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Like other chaplains, he provides these services to all soldiers, regardless of religious denomination.
As a Muslim chaplain, he spends time teaching non-Muslim soldiers about religious customs that would help them serve in places like Iraq, such as not wearing shoes in mosques and providing lighter duties for Muslim soldiers who might be fasting during Ramadan.
But as the number of Muslim chaplains has grown–and the Muslim community has become more familiar with the role of a chaplain–Saif-ul-Islam and others also can turn attention to details that before might have been neglected, Muslim scholars say.
“We’re beyond a lot of the basic challenges,” said Ingrid Mattson, director of the Islamic Chaplaincy Program at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, who was elected last week to head the Islamic Society of North America, the largest Muslim organization on the continent.
Now, a Muslim chaplain also would think to provide for the needs of soldiers belonging to a particular sect of the faith, Mattson said.
“It’s very important to recognize diversity” within the Muslim community, she said. “You might not agree with a certain practice, but your role as chaplain is to support and accommodate.”
Those finer points are a long way from the early days, when hospitals, prisons and military bases lacked rudimentary Muslim prayer space and a chaplain was a foreign concept to Muslims used to dealing with an imam.