Army Muslim Chaplain: No Hostility Since Shooting

Chaplain Maj. Dawud Agbere, one of the 10 Muslim chaplains employed by the U.S. military, flew to Fort Hood, Texas, to support members of the military in the wake of last week's killings. Agbere says he has not faced any hostile comments since the shooting.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

In the days after the shooting, the Army sent a number of chaplains to Fort Hood. Their job was to counsel soldiers. The chaplains included Major Dawud Agbere. Hes a native of Ghana, in West Africa. Hes now served a decade in the United States Army, and hes one of the Armys six Muslim chaplains. There are chaplains from a variety of religions. Major Agbere says hes been moving around the base, meeting troops at Fort Hood. Above all, he listens.

Major DAWUD AGBERE (Army Chaplain): You have soldiers who are just asking why, just like everybodys asking why. Why should such a thing happen? And we give them other perspectives, the big picture, so that they just dont concentrate on just one single event. We want to encourage them to keep on going and see this as out of human life.

INSKEEP: We should make clear for people who may not know: Youre not just seeing Muslim soldiers, are you?

Maj. AGBERE: Exactly. So, you know, I tell people all the time, I am not a Muslim Chaplain. I am a Chaplain who happens to be of the Islamic faith. So, yes, the Christian chaplain will take care of the Muslim soldier. The Jewish rabbi will take care of the Mormon soldier. So sometimes, I find myself in a unit, and Im the only Muslim in that unit.

INSKEEP: And Islam has enough in common with Christianity and other religions that you have no trouble giving all kinds of people advice that youre comfortable with and that theyre comfortable with?

Maj. AGBERE: Exactly. I mean, look at human situations. You know, when you talk of divorce, financial problems, these things dont have religion. These are things human beings go through. So for example, as a Muslim chaplain, I do not baptize, as baptism is not part of my beliefs.

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

Maj. AGBERE: But I have soldiers who come to me for their children to be baptized. So I can call a chaplain who can baptize, and then, you know, schedule an appointment where these soldiers will be taken care of.

INSKEEP: Have you received questions in the last few days about Islam itself and what it stands for?

Maj. AGBERE: Definitely, because, you know, we live in a country where people love to label things. Hopefully, very soon, when we are done with everything that is going on, things will become normal. But here, because of this specific situation in which we are, people tend to take that route.

INSKEEP: Since last weeks shooting

Maj. AGBERE: Yes, sir.

INSKEEP: Has anyone in the last few days been openly hostile toward you?

Maj. AGBERE: Personally, no. I tell you, Im coming from Fort Leavenworth, and Ive been going around the post talking to people. Interesting, last night, I was in Wal-Mart, a soldier saw me, because it was the first time he saw the crescent on the uniform. So he asked me, what does that mean? And I told him, you know, I go to the moon every month. He said, really?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Maj. AGBERE: And I said, thats a Muslim chaplain. He said, oh, I have not seen that before.

Even though Ive seen a Muslim chaplain, we only have six Muslim chaplains in the Army. You know, its not always just easy to come into contact with them. Personally, no. Soldiers who see - I mean, they see me and they salute me. I have not personally received any hostile statement.

INSKEEP: What are you hearing from your fellow Muslims in the military, if anything?

Maj. AGBERE: Definitely, Muslim soldiers do have their specific challenges they face as Muslims, just like Jewish soldiers, Mormon soldiers. The reality is if youre a minority, there are some specific challenges, especially this has to do with young soldiers. Sometimes its just perception, sometimes it may be real.

INSKEEP: What are some of the specific complaints youve heard from Muslim soldiers when it happens to be a Muslim whos talking to you?

Maj. AGBERE: Okay. So they will come to me and say, hey, my colleague or my comrade says negative things about me. And sometimes, like in a joke, people will make statements. And sometimes, what other people think is a joke, for some people is serious business. Or somebody will say, hey, you know what? You know, I want to go and pray at this time at night. My leadership is not trying to help me to do that, or they refuse to allow me to do that. Sometimes when you explore these things, they just misunderstand the here and there. But again, ignorance is big, and so we have to educate people through the when people get to understand where others are coming, its easy for them to begin to accept them.

INSKEEP: Thanks very much.

Maj. AGBERE: Thank you, sir.

INSKEEP: Thats Major Dawud Agbere, an Army chaplain who is Muslim. He spoke with us from Killeen, Texas.

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For Muslims, Fort Hood Case Sparks Fresh Fears

There are thousands of active-duty Muslims in the U.S. military, and thousands more who work for the government. Their experiences and backgrounds are as diverse as any other group's.

But after the shootings at Fort Hood, many service men and women fear they're in for some unpleasant scrutiny.

'I'm An American First'

Specialist Naveed Ali Shah, based at Balad Air Base in Iraq, was online with his wife and their 18-month-old son when he heard about the Fort Hood shooting. His family was chatting with him from Texas.

"My immediate reaction is, 'Oh my God, where is this happening?' " said Shah. "Not knowing where the shooters were, I felt like they were in my own backyard. I told my wife to go lock herself in the bathroom."

Meanwhile, he scoured news Web sites for details. Eventually, the alleged shooter's religion was revealed. Debate filled the airwaves over the tension American Muslim soldiers face fighting in Muslim countries. But for Shah, there is no contradiction.

"When I joined the military I put on the uniform knowing I'm an American first and my religion has nothing to do with it," said Shah.

He doesn't see the U.S. military's war in Iraq as a war against Islam.

"I see it as I'm fighting for American freedom and American ideals to succeed," said Shah. "I just don't think that this is a religious war in any sort of way."

There's been little reaction from non-Muslim soldiers at his base, Shah said. He thinks most of them understand that whatever the shooter's background or beliefs, he doesn't represent all Muslim soldiers.

Shah is more concerned about how to raise his son without having him influenced by negative Muslim stereotypes.

I think with this incident there are going to be a select few who will object to Muslims in the military and Muslims in America," said Shah. "And for my son's sake, that's the only reason I worry."

Nonmilitary Muslims Affected, Too

Irfan Nourredine is a contractor for the Defense Department in Washington, D.C. He was traveling at the time of the shootings, but his wife, a devout Shiite Muslim, had to go to the government department where she works after the Fort Hood tragedy.

Nourredine said his wife called him because she was unsure of what to do. "'Should I go to work? If I go to work should I take off my veil?'" she asked him. "For someone of her position," he said, "to wear a veil — it's not common."

The situation echoes the aftermath of Sept. 11. When Nourredine finally made it into his office this week, he went over talking points in his head.

"I was very apprehensive in the morning," Nourredine said. "Definitely nervous walking in, especially working on a base, you know, it's just one of those things you have to go through and persevere through."

But for Nourredine, what he needed to say was obvious, and he wasn't going to package it into tidy slogans. He believes the Fort Hood attack, which left 13 people dead, actually did have something to do with Islam.

"To say it has nothing to do with the faith of that individual would be dishonest," Nourredine said. "It may not represent the faith of Muslims around the world or American Muslims, but it does represent his faith and probably people of like mind — the fringe of the community, people who are on the outskirts, who we may not pay as much attention as we need to."

There are extremist Islamist elements in America, he says. And he wishes Muslims would accept that and begin dealing with it. For too long, some Muslims have stayed silent about radical beliefs they may not endorse because they don't want to appear un-Islamic, he says. For some Muslims in the government or in the military, that's a battle that can't be won.

"You're looked at as a suspect in your own society," he said. "Then you're looked at as a hypocrite in your community."

Thousands of Muslims have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. At least seven have been killed. But many also question their country's foreign policy. They seek guidance on what the Quran says about fighting in Muslim lands. And at the same time, they feel the constant need to prove their patriotism.

The shootings at Fort Hood now only heighten all those concerns.

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