Page last updated at 09:10 GMT, Wednesday, 2 July 2008 10:10 UK

Muslims in the military

By Gordon Corera
BBC News security correspondent

Imam Asim Hafiz
Imam Asim Hafiz ministers to Muslims in all three services

A country house in Hampshire was the rarefied setting for the second conference hosting Muslims serving in Britain's armed forces.

Those who gathered at Amport House - the home to military chaplains from all faiths - came for a mix of practical advice and spiritual support, talking of how the military had done much to accommodate them but arguing that there was more to be done, including in the field of recruitment.

Close to 400 Muslims serve in the military - about 300 in the Army, 50 in the RAF and 40 in the Navy.

Many come from the Commonwealth as well as from Britain's established Muslim communities - Gambia and Ghana were well represented.

The Navy and RAF have a sprinkling of high-ranking officers, including group captains and rear admirals, but the Army appears to have somewhat fewer role models for young Muslims joining up.

Potatoes and peas

Imam Asim Hafiz, who has served as the Muslim chaplain for the last three years, organised the conference and is in charge of ministering to the spiritual needs of Muslims in all three services.

"They are soldiers but at the same time they have a faith identity, a Muslim identity," he told the BBC.

He went on to explain that the conference provided Muslims with advice on tackling some of the issues they may face - like how to talk to superiors about getting regular prayer time, or having halal food available or fasting.

Some of the older officers explained that when they joined the issue of halal food was not understood at all, leading to a diet that consisted largely of potatoes and peas.

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But while progress has been made, there was a sense that more work needed to be done to educate officers on how to deal with Muslims in their ranks and what it means to practise a religion.

"It is an education for the individual on how to raise these issues and an education to the hierarchy that these are just different requirements that need to be considered," explained one flight lieutenant in the RAF.

The proportion of Muslims in the armed forces is far from reflecting the numbers in society as a whole, and recruiters acknowledge the Muslim community is harder than others to operate in.

"When they go back to those communities they are making the statement that there is a possible career within the armed forces," explained Imam Hafiz.

Kidnap plot

"Not only Muslims, but also the wider community, think that Muslims do not serve in the military.

"I think that's one of the strong messages they take back - that Muslims are just as committed to the security of this country and the defence of this country."

There may be few of them but some Muslims in the military have made the news.

L/Cpl Jabron Hashmi, from Birmingham, died two years ago in Afghanistan, one of the first soldiers to be killed as part of the deployment to Helmand province.

There was also the conviction of a Birmingham man in January 2008 for a plot to kidnap and behead a British Muslim soldier, which has raised issues of security and leads some attending the conference to prefer to talk anonymously.

If I can show them I can be a good soldier to the best of my ability, they won't have any qualms with me doing whatever else I want
Muslim soldier

And beyond the headlines there are also deeper questions for Muslim soldiers when Britain is currently engaged in two major military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, both predominantly Muslim countries.

Those attending the conference acknowledged that the political nature of these conflicts did raise issues and lead to more questions from friends and family.

Bob Ainsworth, who spoke at the conference as minister for the armed forces, acknowledged the challenge.

"I think it is important that we do our best to make ourselves attractive to Muslims in terms of our recruitment," he told the BBC.

Reflecting society

"And then once we have got people in, that we support them appropriately. Politics enters into it. Other issues enter into it.

"Pressures come to bear and we don't get the proportion of the Muslim population in Britain joining the armed forces that we would want and that would reflect our society.

"We need to aim for that. We need to get it there."

Amport House Armed Forces Chaplaincy Centre
The Armed Forces Chaplaincy Centre supports military chaplains

One army recruit talked of going to religious elders for advice on whether or not to join.

They had no objection to his signing up, but the main advice they gave him was not to lose his religious identity when he joined, something he said was a danger, particularly with some aspects of army life such as the enjoyment of alcohol.

Once he joined, he found that engaging in army banter soon helped overcome initial distance from his comrades who quickly became used to his beard and the practising of his faith when it came to issues like food and prayer.

"If I can show them I can be a good soldier to the best of my ability, they won't have any qualms with me doing whatever else I want."

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