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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 May 2007, 00:13 GMT 01:13 UK
Armed forces Imam 'doing duty'
By Karen Rollins
BBC News

Imam Hafiz and the then defence secretary John Reid
Imam Hafiz was appointed by the then defence secretary John Reid
Imam Asim Hafiz was appointed Muslim chaplain to the British armed forces in November 2005. In his first full interview since taking up the role, he speaks to the BBC about his work.

Since his appointment, Imam Hafiz has kept a low profile as he provides "spiritual and pastoral" support to 340 serving British Muslims.

And he says that while the decision to appoint an Imam was "long overdue", he acknowledges that many feel there is no room for an Imam inside the armed forces.

Imam Hafiz graduated from an Islamic college in Lancashire in 1999. Since then he has held several positions in mosques, a Muslim boarding school and the NHS.

There will always be a minority of Muslims and non-Muslims who feel there is no place for an Imam in the armed forces
Imam Hafiz

He was also the first full-time Imam for Wandsworth prison before taking up his current post at the age of 29.

Now his 'parish' consists of the Army, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force.

When asked why he was attracted by the job, he says he felt it was a "duty" to serve his community and society.

The military's decision to appoint an Imam was "long overdue", he says, pointing out that Muslim soldiers seeking religious guidance had been forced to look outside the services.

He says: "On the whole I have been welcomed by the military. People have been engaging, getting in touch and using me as much as possible.

"However, like any change it can take time for people to adjust and there will always be a minority of Muslims and non-Muslims who feel there is no place for an Imam in the armed forces but I feel my appointment has boosted confidence and morale among serving Muslim soldiers."

Imam Hafiz
Imam Hafiz describes his army role as 'rewarding'

After 18 months in the post, Imam Hafiz says he has already made personal contact with over 100 serving British Muslims. He says their problems were probably similar to other soldiers as they seek religious perspective and moral guidance on their role.

He insists that if they are worried about serving in Iraq and Afghanistan it is not necessarily because they are Muslims.

"At some time any soldier may question the conflict they are fighting. If they are concerned about killing other Muslims I tell them that Islam regards all life as sacred and no life should be wasted unjustifiably.

"But I can't advise them on how to do their job and it is not for me to say which conflict they should or should not fight in."

The British military is trying hard to encourage people from differing ethnic and religious backgrounds to join up and Imam Hafiz says any Muslim considering it would be able to practise their beliefs freely.

He says soldiers are given room to pray five times a day and are allowed to fast during the religious festival of Ramadan as long as it does not interfere with military duties.

"They are soldiers and Muslims and one does not take precedence over the other as they need to be just as good at both. But they understand that they are soldiers and in the end they have a job to do," he adds.

Even though the armed forces are currently predominantly deployed in Islamic countries, Imam Hafiz says he has not met any Muslim soldiers who do not want to serve anymore because of a conflict of interest, although he accepts that some Muslims outside the military may question their loyalty.

"If we, as Muslims, are to live in the UK then we should contribute to all aspects of British society including the military," he says.

He accepts that operations in Iraq and Afghanistan may discourage Muslims from signing up, but points out that any war discouraged new recruits. "I would tell any Muslim considering joining the armed forces that it is a great career," he says.

Imam Hafiz
Imam Hafiz: "Muslims have a sense of duty to the UK"

When he took up the role he faced personal criticism but says people usually saw the point once he explained what he hoped to achieve. He stresses that he wanted to show "the true face of Islam" and felt communicating and educating others about Islam was a major part of the role.

He does not believe that some people in the UK are scared of Islam but claims most are misinformed and accuses the media of "demonising" the religion.

He says: "The media does not provide a balanced view of Islam. They concentrate on a small minority who are not in step with what most other Muslims think and believe.

"Some politicians also question the loyalty of Muslims to the UK which is unfair. The vast majority of British Muslims have a great sense of citizenship and duty to this country."

He added: "We all have a duty - Muslims, non-Muslims and politicians - to promote social cohesion and integration.

"We must all work together to identify those who are doing Muslims a disservice by portraying us as rigid, inflexible and hateful towards other faiths."




VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Imam to the British armed forces talks to the BBC



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