Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Navy Muslim Chaplain Finds His Calling In America

Newly promoted Navy Lt. Cmdr. Abuhena M. Saifulislam had always wanted to serve Islam, even as a young boy growing up in Bangladesh. “Islam is not just a religion to Muslims. It is a way of life,” Saifulislam said. “That’s how I was brought up.” Saifulislam, now 44, realized his dream. Today, he tends to servicemembers’ spiritual needs as the second Muslim chaplain commissioned in the U.S. Navy. His current duty station is Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England promoted Saifulislam during a Sept. 11 Pentagon ceremony. Saifulislam also received a Joint Service Commendation Medal, his second, for his work this June at U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. There, he performed death rites for three Muslim detainees who’d committed suicide.The Muslim chaplain was also at Guantanamo when the detention facility first opened in early 2001. He was the only Muslim chaplain there at the time, he recalled, and he set up the diet and prayer regimes for the detainees. Saifulislam took an indirect path to his current calling. He immigrated to the United States in 1989, after earning a Master’s degree in commerce in Bangladesh. He enlisted in the Navy as a payroll specialist in 1992 with dreams of becoming an officer — something he couldn’t yet do because he wasn’t a U.S. citizen. Saifulislam became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1995. Three years later, he signed up for a chaplain’s candidate program that offered a commission as well as a way to serve his fellow Muslims’ spiritual needs. “When I came to America I realized that I had to make an effort to be faithful to my religion,” he said. People shouldn’t associate the worship of Islam with the so-called religious theology espoused by terrorists like Osama bin Laden, Saifulislam said. “Terrorism has no religion, and no religion condones terrorism,” he said. “These terrorists just happen to be Muslims.” Saifulislam’s personal loyalty is firmly aligned with his adopted country, he said, noting his 6-year-old daughter was born in the United States.“My wife is an American; my sister is an American; my nephews and nieces are Americans,” he said. “If I don’t defend them, who is going to defend them?” Today, 8 to 10 million Muslims live in the United States. “They love to live in this country, and other Muslims are trying to come here,” Saifulislam said. U.S. Muslims are as patriotic as any other group, he said. Many of the world’s troubles today seem to be caused by cultural misunderstandings, Saifulislam observed. “The world is becoming so small,” he pointed out. “It is not a choice that we learn how to live together -- it is a necessity. It is always to our advantage when we learn about others.” Terrorism is evil and teaches nothing but destruction and death as it seeks to divide the world’s people, Saifulislam said. That’s why he said he’s committed to preventing Islam from being subverted to serve the terrorists’ agenda. “My fight with them is to protect my religion from that type of hijacking,” Saifulislam concluded.

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