Muslim Chaplain Offers American Brand of Islam Maj. Khalid Shabazz is one of only five Muslim chaplains in the U.S. Army. Shabazz says it hasn't always been easy to be a Muslim in the military, and his faith has placed him under a microscope wherever he's been based.
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Muslim Chaplain Offers American Brand of Islam

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Muslim Chaplain Offers American Brand of Islam

Muslim Chaplain Offers American Brand of Islam

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You can learn so much when you just sit down and find out about one other person's life, like this one. Of about 1,300 chaplains in the United States Army, only five are Muslim. And one of them serves at Fort Hood in Texas. He's a big part of the religious life for the Muslim soldiers there. And NPR's Jamie Tarabay has this profile.

JAMIE TARABAY: He wasn't an officer when he joined the Army. He wasn't even a Muslim, and his name wasn't Khalid Shabazz. Once upon a time, Michael Barnes was an enlisted soldier of 23 years of age studying to become a Lutheran minister. Now at 39, he's preparing to pack up his office at Fort Hood, where he's been the Muslim chaplain for the 1-227 Aviation Attack Battalion for the past three years. His office is near an airfield. Outside, someone is mowing the lawn. Inside the room are citations and awards on the walls thanking Shabazz for his service. But it was a different story when he first discovered Islam as an artilleryman. He says when he changed his name after converting, the howitzer unit he was serving with at the time went nuts.

Chaplain KHALID SHABAZZ (U.S. Army, Fort Hood): All the sudden, it was almost like I switched sides to them. They were kind of hurt that I converted, because they thought that maybe I was joining on to the enemy.

TARABAY: There are anywhere between 6,000 and 15,000 Muslim soldiers in the U.S. military, depending on who you talk to. No one knows the numbers for sure, because some Muslims don't want to advertise their religion. Shabazz says it's tough trying to be a good Muslim and a good soldier.

Chaplain SHABAZZ: Going to service on Friday when everybody else is at work, going to the field, where all they were serving was pork for 30 days, so most of the times I would have to fast. It was just getting really tough for me.

TARABAY: He was ready to quit. Then a Christian chaplain pointed him towards a different military career, becoming a Muslim chaplain.

Chaplain SHABAZZ: When the chaplain presented that to me, I thought, wow, what a gift from God.

TARABAY: You got to put down your gun and pick up the book instead.

Chaplain SHABAZZ: Oh, yes. I don't have to carry a weapon anymore. It's great.

TARABAY: But carrying the Koran hasn't been easy, either. It's placed him under a microscope wherever he's been based - Kosovo, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But Shabazz, who hails from Louisiana, uses his Southern affability to help navigate his way through a lot of those challenges - that, and an innate charm that can't help but make you laugh.

We're sitting in Chaplain Shabazz's living room. There's a computer desk in the corner. There's a picture of - actually, a couple of pictures of Muhammad Ali up there.

Chaplain SHABAZZ: I'm up there. He is my father, I tell you. I mean, I'm - we're the same height, same stature, same big square head. And my father - my real father is going to kill me for this, but you know, my mom was in Chicago in 1968.

TARABAY: You think you're Muhammad Ali's love child?

Chaplain SHABAZZ: I do. I do. I absolutely do. I mean, I am 100 percent sure that…

Ms. RHONDA SHABAZZ (Wife of Chaplain Shabazz): The only difference is he doesn't have any money.

TARABAY: That's Shabazz's wife, Rhonda. She's also used to a lot of scrutiny. She doesn't always wear a scarf and says people think she's making a fashion statement when she does. She's used to raising eyebrows among the close-knit community of military wives.

Ms. SHABAZZ: I go into the coffee groups, you know, I'm sure they're probably thinking, okay, she's going to come in here in a scarf. Or we're not going to be able to say this, and we're not going to be able to do that. But then, you know, when I first come in, it's like, oh, she's not quite like that.

TARABAY: Their very American-brand Islam was tested when Shabazz was posted to Guantanamo Bay over four years ago. It was an assignment he was initially really excited about.

Chaplain SHABAZZ: I'm thinking Guantanamo Bay, nice, sunny, beaches. But then when I saw the guy that got arrested and they named his replacement, which was me, on CNN, I mean, I really got really, really scared.

TARABAY: That Muslim chaplain was James Yee, who, in 2003, was jailed for 76 days on charges of espionage and allegedly conspiring with the Muslim detainees. The charges were later thrown out, but whoever was going to take that job after Yee had to deal with the aftermath. Shabazz was nervous, but his wife wasn't.

Ms. SHABAZZ: Well, he does everything with ease most of the time. And when it's a job that comes available, it's like, okay, go ahead and do it. You know, it's not until after he leaves I'm like, he is going into a very hostile situation. Oh, man, his job really is different from everybody else's.

TARABAY: But so is his approach. Shabazz is 6'4", 240 pounds, and a basketball nut. He soon appeared on Guantanamo's courts, sweating alongside other servicemen. Reeling from the scandal over Yee, Shabazz and his commanders chose to limit his contact with the detainees. He focused instead on the American soldiers despite requests from some of the Muslim inmates to see him. He did get involved at least one time, though, with the military police.

Chaplain SHABAZZ: I would have to go down and chastise them guys. Hey man, you know, these guys are praying. Have the decency not to play the national anthem and agitate them while they're praying. Those were really awkward situations, because you're almost seen as a sympathizer.

TARABAY: That's not how he's seen at Fort Hood.

Sergeant JAMIL SABREE (U.S. Army, 1st Class Sergeant, Fort Hood): We need a face here on post for Muslims.

TARABAY: That's Sergeant first class Jamil Sabree. He's at a chapel on base where the roughly 40 Muslim soldiers have the ground floor for Friday prayers.

Sgt. SABREE: When he's in here, it's his voice, his mere presence, plus he's tall, and then his speech. You can't do nothing more but really be like, okay, I'm feeling this message.

TARABAY: He says Shabazz helped him to readjust to life at home after his extended tour, which included missing the birth of his son. Sabree has decided to leave the Army at age 39. He says he's not the only one to lean on Shabazz for support and advice.

Sgt. SABREE: He's been there for all religions, you know, when soldiers come up to him, they're not just coming up because he's a Muslim chaplain. He's someone that they can talk to.

TARABAY: And indeed, that's how Shabazz wants people to see him.

Chaplain SHABAZZ: Even with my memorial services, you know, the Muslim chaplain did a really great job. I'm not the Muslim chaplain. I'm the chaplain that happens to be Muslim.

TARABAY: It's a label he's stuck with, though. He'll be the only non-Christian in his new posting where he'll be studying ethics, and no doubt will again be known as the Muslim chaplain.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR News.

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