Muslim Troops Highlight Nation's Diversity
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 26, 1999 Qaseem Ali Uqdah and Abdullah Hamza Al-Mubarak share a common goal. Both former enlisted men aim to help make life a little easier for people in the armed forces who share their faith.
Uqdah, a former Marine, and Al-Mubarak, a former airman, are followers of Islam, a religion based on the teachings of the prophet Mohammed. The 1.2 billion who practice the faith worldwide are known as Muslims. They believe in one God, Allah, and abide by religious laws written in the Koran, Islam's holy book.
Islam is the fastest growing religion in the United States. The Council on American-Islamic Relations here estimates there are now 6 million Muslims in America compared to 2 million in the early 1970s. Nearly half are African-American converts. The rest are immigrants from such countries as India, Pakistan, and Arab and African nations.
Uqdah and Al-Mubarak converted to Islam and while on active duty often found themselves with nowhere to turn for religious guidance. For the most part, Muslim chaplains were unheard of in the armed forces. When the two service members left the enlisted ranks, they set out to help their religious brethren in uniform.
Uqdah, a 21-year Marine Corps veteran, today heads the American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council, based in Arlington, Va. Al-Mubarak is now an Air Force Reserve second lieutenant and attending the School of Islamic and Social Sciences in Leesburg, Va. Upon completing seminary training in May, he will become the Air Force's first Muslim chaplain.
"When I started at Parris Island [Marine Corps Recruit Depot, S.C.] in 1975, there was no support for Muslim service members," Uqdah recalled. The former gunnery sergeant has worked to change that since he retired eight years ago. "It's been a labor of love. This is like Christian missionary work. We have to have someone focus on it. If you don't, it's going to fall short."
Since Uqdah and Al-Mubarak served in the enlisted ranks, military leaders have come to recognize Muslim service members' religious needs. Things have improved somewhat for the estimated 4,000 Muslim service members now on active duty. Two Muslim chaplains serve the Army and two serve the Navy.
Along with Al-Mubarak, two more Muslim chaplain candidates are in training, one for the Air Force and one for the Army. The first permanent Islamic mosque, the Masjid al Da'wah, opened at Norfolk Navy Base, Va., last November for the estimated 750 Muslim sailors there.
Al-Mubarak said he experienced "a certain level of anxiety and emptiness" not having a chaplain of the same faith. He said he missed having someone who could facilitate his religious needs and understood his religious etiquette.
In 1995, he took the initiative to find out why there were so few Muslim chaplains and got the ball rolling to do what he could to change that. Two years later, he picked up his commission and entered the Air Force chaplain candidate program. The program allows the military and the candidate to look each other over while the candidate's enrolled in seminary, he said.
Today, Al-Mubarak goes on active duty during seminary training breaks and works with chapel staffs. "In my case, whatever base I go to, it has been something new for everybody," he said. "Other chaplains have been fantastic at showing me what it takes to be a chaplain -- how to help airmen, how to work within an ecumenical environment to facilitate other faith groups without compromising your own."
Uqdah and Al-Mubarak recently helped senior military leaders recognize Muslim service members. Deputy Defense Secretary John J. Hamre and Vice Adm. Vern Clark, director of the Joint Staff, invited them and about 25 Muslim service members to the Pentagon Jan. 15 in honor of the month-long celebration of Ramadan.
During Ramadan, Muslims do not eat, drink or have sexual intercourse from sunup to sundown. After sundown, they break the fast during "Iftar." This was the second annual Ramadan Iftar hosted at the Pentagon.
Uqdah said the event is designed to remind commanders and senior enlisted members that they have Muslim service members within their ranks.
"Often, Muslim service members have the support of the chaplain, but the one who truly makes a difference is that commanding officer," he said. "When an issue comes up with respect to religious accommodation, ... the chaplain will make a recommendation, but the commanding officer is the one who says, 'This is what's going to happen.'"
By recognizing Muslim service members at the Pentagon, military leaders send a clear signal to the field that "Muslim soldiers are there; take care of them," Uqdah said.
Before dining, the Muslim troops turned toward Mecca, the Muslim holy city in Saudi Arabia, and chanted prayers led by Army Muslim Chaplain (Capt.) Mohammed Khan of the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion, Fort Bragg, N.C. Khan also led prayers during the first Iftar at the Pentagon.
Khan, an 18-year Army veteran born in India, said he originally worked in preventive medicine in the Army Nurse Corps. He said he became the Army's second Muslim chaplain in May 1997.
"They were looking for chaplains, so I switched over," he said. "I was already serving the Army, educating commanders and troops about Islam, especially during Desert Storm. I was writing articles about Muslim events like Ramadan and dietary requirements for Muslim soldiers."
Khan said the annual Pentagon celebration of Ramadan is very encouraging and supportive for Muslim soldiers. "It indicates the integrity of the armed forces that they're committed to all faiths," he said.
One guest who accompanied Khan from Fort Bragg echoed the chaplain's view. Army Pfc. Boukassim Khalid of C Company, 1st Battalion, 321st Field Artillery, said the Iftar celebration gave him a chance to meet some fellow Muslims and discuss religious issues. Originally from Morocco, Khalid said he joined the military two years ago to earn education benefits. "Muslim troops are a minority, but they are a part of the military," he said.
After Muslim service members said prayers and broke their day's fast with water and dates, Clark expressed his appreciation for their contribution to the nation's defense. "I'm thankful that we're here where it's all right for us to have different views and different faiths," he said. "Diversity is part of our greatness."
Hamre, who also spoke at last year's event, told the group, "we come together as people of faith who have assumed a larger responsibility -- service to our country."
Hamre said the fundamental principles expressed in the Constitution -- liberty, justice, equality and opportunity -- are the same fundamental values of Muslims, Christians and Jews. "We are faithful to our Constitution only if we recognize the religious freedoms and rights of all of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines," he said.