Muslim Military Chaplain On Fort Hood Suspect

Imam Yahya Hendi, the Muslim chaplain at the National Naval Medical Center and Georgetown University, talks to host Michele Norris about suspected Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan. Hendi met Hasan through his work at the National Naval Medical Center and says there was nothing about him that could have predicted what authorities say happened. Hendi says he hears every day from Muslims in the military who are subjected to insensitive comments and actions while trying to perform their duties, and he counsels them on how to keep their anger under control.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

There is still no motive for the shootings at Fort Hood. But as we learn more about the suspect, it's become clear that Major Nidal Hasan had conflicting feelings about his military duties and his religious faith. What has also become clear is that the deadly outburst of violence on Thursday could complicate the military's dealings with service members of the Muslim faith.

And to hear more about these challenges, we're joined now by Imam Yahya Hendi. He's the Muslim chaplain at the National Naval Medical Center. He's also the Muslim chaplain of Georgetown University. He joins me here in our studio. Welcome to the program.

Imam YAHYA HENDI (Chaplain): Thank you for having me.

NORRIS: Now, Imam Hendi, you actually have met Major Hasan in the past through your work at the National Naval Medical Center. Does the person at the center of the Fort Hood tragedy square at all with the man that you met?

Imam HENDI: No. You know, I did not meet the man many times, and I don't claim to know him. However, I came across him when he used to come to my Friday services. And I also have a weekly Quran study and has been ongoing for about 13 years at the National Naval Medical Center. Once, he asked me to find a wife for him. And I asked him about what kind of wife he is dreaming of. And he told me two things: Number one, he said in his words, I want someone who is religious. And I told him, well, the word religious is a relative term. What do you mean? He said, I need someone who's spiritual. And I told him, exactly tell me what you mean.

He also told me that he wanted someone who would support him in his work. And I told him, in what way? He said, listen, I work for the Army, I will be deployed many times in my career, and I'm here to serve my country. I'm here to serve the nation. He went on talking about loyalty to the country and how his work would require traveling and deploying, and he wants a wife who understands what it means to marry someone who's connected with the military.

So, that made me think then that he was loyal to his country and to America, and he wants to continue doing so. Once, after a Friday service in another incident, after I gave my sermon literally condemning terrorism and extremism, he came to me after the service and told me how much he supported my ideas. Telling me that Imam, I agree with you, there should be no room in Islam or Muslim life for extremism or terrorism, and we all have to speak one voice of peace and love for all.

NORRIS: Have you kept in touch with him in any way? Was there any indication...

Imam HENDI: No, no, no.

NORRIS: ...that his beliefs had changed?

Imam HENDI: I wish, now, I feel - I wish I had kept in touch with him to help him, to support him, to make sure that he continues to be on the right path, you know. When I saw his picture on TV last Thursday, I was shocked. I said, no way can this be the person who spoke to me in support of my ideas against terrorism and extremism - that softspoken person.

NORRIS: You were shocked?

Imam HENDI: I was shocked.

NORRIS: What then went through your mind? Not just because this was someone that you had known, someone that you had talked to, but also because, I imagine, you probably thought about what this would mean for other service members of the Muslim faith.

Imam HENDI: Of course. There are thousands of Muslims who serve in the U.S. military, and they are all proud of their service. I know many Muslims joined the military after September 11th because they felt that they were called to duty to serve America. I also know that people naturally react to those things. I did not want people to call those Muslim military members names. Tell them, go home, you don't belong to this country, because I have heard this before. I have counseled soldiers and sailors who told me that they were told names after September 11th. They were told, you don't belong to America or are you going to kill us like these nuts or things of that sort.

NORRIS: When you heard these things from the service members that you counseled, what do they tell about the military's reaction to this - that this is happening to them while they were actually wearing the uniform?

Imam HENDI: I do believe that our military is very accommodating to Muslims. You know, at one point we did not have many Muslims chaplains. Now we have, I think, 12 Muslim chaplains in the U.S. military. In almost every military base there is a Muslim lay leader who leads services. I believe the military is very accommodating as an institution.

However, there are individuals who do not listen to the institution, do not obey the orders of the institution. Overall, I believe the military takes it seriously. I have reported, I have spoken to people about people who seem to be disrespectful of Islam. And I always heard statements like, Imam, we take this seriously, we will stand in support of servicemen and women in the military.

NORRIS: We're learning more about Major Nidal Hasan in part by examining his own words. And he raised concerns in a presentation that he made at Walter Reed about Muslim forces fighting overseas and potentially fighting and killing other Muslims. Is this a larger concern that the military needs to examine? Do you hear from service members who struggle with this?

Imam HENDI: Yes, there are Muslim members who struggle with fighting against other Muslims. However, it is not a big concern as Hasan may have made it or Major Hasan or some people may. At the end of the day in Islam, fighting is fighting, wrong is wrong. You only fight in self defense, whether that self defense is against Muslim or non-Muslim. You know, if we really care about Muslims, we need to tell Muslims who do wrong, you are wrong.

Number two, America is our country. It's not about Islam. We are loyal to America. We need to fight for America, and I tell soldiers exactly that. At the end of the day, you are an American and you need fight in self defense to protect America.

NORRIS: Imam Hendi, thank you very much for coming in to talk to us.

Imam HENDI: Thank you for having me.

NORRIS: Imam Yahya Hendi is the Muslim chaplain at the National Naval Medical Center. He's also the Muslim chaplain of Georgetown University here in Washington, D.C.

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