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Muslim Chaplain Embraces New Job Ministering to War Detainees

Religion: The Camp Pendleton-based cleric tries 'to look into their souls' and respect their dignity, yet be cautious.

February 03, 2002|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAMP PENDLETON — When he was an enlisted sailor working at the Pentagon, he was part of a small, devout group of Muslims who persuaded the skeptical brass to let them hold Friday prayer sessions.

Later, after becoming a U.S. citizen, an officer and a chaplain, he was selected as the first Muslim cleric assigned to the Marine Corps and 17 months ago was sent to this sprawling base north of San Diego.

Now, Navy Lt. Abuhena Saif-ul-Islam has another assignment with no historic precedent: to provide spiritual guidance and comfort to the captured Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters being held at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo, Cuba.

At first stunned at being chosen for the high-profile assignment, he caught the first military flight to Guantanamo late last month and now tends daily to 158 detainees branded by officials as some of the most dangerous and duplicitous enemies ever encountered by the U.S. military.

"I try not to make any judgments about them," Saif-ul-Islam said in a telephone interview. "I approach them as human beings and try to look into their souls. I see a lot of fear. I see people praying hard for God to help them."

At Camp Pendleton, where Saif-ul-Islam provides counseling to Marines of all religions, including 40 to 50 fellow Muslims, his fellow chaplains are not surprised that he has taken to his temporary duty in a quietly efficient manner.

"When I heard he had been asked, I knew he was exactly the right person for the job," said Navy Capt. Gary Dallmann, head chaplain at Camp Pendleton.

Of the 14 Muslim chaplains in the U.S. military--three of whom are in the Navy--most are converts, according to the Pentagon. The 39-year-old Saif-ul-Islam, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1989 from Bangladesh, was raised in the faith.

Saif-ul-Islam speaks fluent Urdu, the language of Pakistan, and some Arabic, considered the mother tongue of Islam. Translators are helping him communicate with some of the prisoners.

Numerous human-rights groups have decried the treatment of the detainees, who are being held in open-air wire enclosures. But Saif-ul-Islam said the detainees have not complained of their treatment. He meets them daily to listen to their individual concerns.

"The intent is to treat them in a dignified way," he said. "Of course, there is security. But they have been given the very best medical treatment. Some detainees told me they're praying for the guards who are taking care of them and working hard to bring them water and take them to the bathroom."

Saif-ul-Islam said he expected hostility from the detainees and has been pleasantly surprised.

"Before I came to Guantanamo, I had some fear, some reservation," he said. "As an American in uniform, would they accept me? Now, I have no fear. I do not approach them in fear. They know they have no reason to fear me, but still I know it is good to be cautious. The guards are always there."

Although the detainees have been described as boiling with anger at America and Americans, Saif-ul-Islam finds them mostly confused and anxious about the future.

"They're pretty consistent in seeking God's help," he said. "The Koran says God helps those who are patient. They're very patient. Five times a day they are praying to God to forgive them and to help them. They say, 'If I am guilty, let me know my punishment. If I am not guilty, why are you keeping me?'"

Raised in a middle-class family, Saif-ul-Islam came to the U.S. looking for greater opportunities than his impoverished homeland offered. He was attracted to the military because of the job security and opportunity for advancement.

With a business degree from a college in Bangladesh, he enlisted in the Navy and spent five years as a financial analyst, including two at the Pentagon.

Like many immigrants who become Americans by choice, his patriotism and sense of obligation to his adopted country are full-strength.

"It's an honor and a privilege to serve the country," he said of his new assignment. "I hope I make a difference."

Saif-ul-Islam became a citizen in 1998 and thus eligible to become an officer. Even as he adjusted to a new country, his interest in the religion of his upbringing increased. He attended an Islamic institute in Virginia and then chaplaincy school in Newport, R.I.

An estimated 4,000 Muslims serve in the military. The Army commissioned its first Muslim chaplain in 1993, followed soon by the Navy. The Navy provides chaplains to the Marine Corps.

After Sept. 11, Saif-ul-Islam and other Muslim chaplains and chaplain assistants were given a new assignment: explain Islam to troops who know little about the ancient faith, and rebut Osama bin Laden's assertion that Islam condones violence and terrorism.

Saif-ul-Islam was sent to Egypt in early October along with Marines from Camp Pendleton to take part in Operation Bright Star, a previously scheduled multination exercise.

Many of those Marines are now in Afghanistan.

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