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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 June 2007, 08:22 GMT 09:22 UK
Muslim face of the US Marines
By Matthew Wells
BBC News, Hawaii

Chaplain Saif sits on the floor of the Prayer Centre reading from the Koran
Chaplain Saif wants to educate marines about Islam
Navy Lieutenant Commander Abuhena Saifulislam welcomes everyone with a broad smile and prefers to be called "Chaplain Saif".

He is the only Muslim chaplain in the elite US Marine Corps, and one of only two in the US Navy overall.

It is a classic immigrant's tale. He arrived in America from Bangladesh at the end of the 1980s, with a masters degree in business and every intention to serve Wall Street, not his newly adopted country.

As a boy, he had always been fascinated by movie sequences featuring white naval uniforms of the World War II and the code of honour they represented.

"When my family came to know that the navy was going to accept me, they were thrilled," he says, talking in his spacious new home, a short commute from Washington DC.

"I am living the American Dream," he is proud to admit. But his importance as a military role model and ambassador extends way beyond cars, kitchens and new living room suites in suburban Virginia.

Diverse group

There may be more than 100 faiths represented now throughout the armed services, but no relationship is more sensitive than the one between the Pentagon and Islam.

Honour, courage, commitment - those are the same three philosophies that Islam teaches us
Egyptian American soldier

Chaplain Saif is the public face of that - a veteran of hundreds of interviews and sound bites, personifying the notion that there is nothing incompatible about serving both Islam and the US military.

His commitment is much deeper than just public relations.

Until he arrived a few years ago, the vast Marine Corps base at Quantico had nowhere for Muslim service people to pray.

Some just knelt beside their cars or behind buildings on their own.

Now they have a modest prayer centre where several dozen meet each Friday.

It is a diverse group, including an officer from the Moroccan Air Force, and several female servicewomen who change behind a curtain at the back, substituting combat fatigues for ankle length robes.

Chaplain Saif kneels to pray in the Quantico prayer centre
Muslims now have their own prayer room on base

One of them, a Military Police officer, says she looks forward to serving in a Muslim land, such as Iraq or Afghanistan.

"The frightening part is the extremists that make us look bad (there), they create a difference where there really isn't one," she says.

Another soldier - an Egyptian American who has completed a recent Middle East tour - says Islam and the Marines have the same values.

"Honour, courage and commitment - those are the same three philosophies that Islam teaches us. The bond that we have is a bond as Muslims, as brothers," he adds.

The chaplain spends much of his time away from Virginia, lecturing and preparing troops who are heading for war zones in the heart of the Muslim world.

For many of the young faces staring out at him, Saif is the first Muslim they have ever met.

Guantanamo

I caught up with him at a training session at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii.

Several hundred uniformed men sit in a darkened theatre, being given the opportunity to learn the basics of a religion that many media outlets in America's heartland treat with barely concealed hostility.

It was more a practical guide than a theological lesson. The chaplain is realistic about what can be absorbed.

He teaches that the rift between Shia and Sunni has no religious basis but that it cannot be ignored in the field.

He understands that much of the Arab world hates the US military and the occupation of Iraq, but he wants both those cynics and his own soldiers to realise one thing:

"Don't see the entire religion, or judge it, through one set of eyes. The Arabs shouldn't generalise (either)...The majority of Americans may not approve of many things that we do outside, but it doesn't mean that we don't love the country."

A framed picture showing Chaplain Saif shaking hands with US President George Bush
A framed photo of a meeting with President Bush takes pride of place

The biggest test of his diplomatic skills came when he was the first Muslim chaplain to enter the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

During his three-month deployment he introduced the call to prayer, and tried to encourage better treatment of detainees.

There was never any doubt that he was there to follow his commanding officers' orders: "We all agreed that I should be in uniform, because that's what I am."

"There were some who never accepted me. They said, 'he's the devil'," he added, saying that some saw him as a traitor to their fundamentalist doctrine.

"I knew where they were coming from. That's why they ended up being there (in Guantanamo) to begin with."

He believes that Guantanamo served a purpose, but points, diplomatically, to the fact that even President George W Bush has previously expressed a desire to see the prison closed.

You can hear Matthew Wells' documentary profiling Chaplain Saif, on the BBC World Service Heart and Soul programme, which airs on June 23, 24, and 25. Check your local World Service radio schedule for transmission times.


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