BETHESDA, Md. -- One day back in 1979, Qaseem A. Uqdah was in the mess hall line at the Parris Island boot camp when a cook slapped a piece of ham onto his outstretched tray.
A convert to Islam, Uqdah refused to take the pork, which the religion forbids. A Marine drill sergeant noticed and wasn't happy. He chewed out Uqdah until a Roman Catholic chaplain stepped in and persuaded the sergeant to lay off.
To Uqdah, who now helps select Muslim chaplains for the military, the memory shows how unprepared the armed forces were for Muslims a few decades ago -- and how much has changed. Yet the tide of world events has again put Muslim soldiers in an awkward position.
The military now provides packaged Meals Ready to Eat, or MREs, that meet Muslim diet requirements. Muslim women wearing head coverings serve alongside other soldiers. An Islamic crescent now sits beside the Jewish Star of David and Christian cross at the National Naval Medical Center chapel in Bethesda.
But now Muslims have been called to fight for their country against an enemy that has couched the struggle in terms of Islam vs. the West, and has urged all Muslims to fight as one against the United States.
The situation may be the most delicate for 14 Muslim chaplains in the armed forces, who counsel and minister to 4,000 or more Muslim troops. (Most Muslims in the military are black, with smaller numbers of whites and Arab-Americans).
Many chaplains have responded by echoing the words of Muslim leaders worldwide, who have condemned the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as a twisting of Islam -- an attempt to use religion to justify the taking of innocent civilians.
While Muslims are encouraged not to fight against each other, Islamic law also has strict guidelines that forbid the killing of noncombatants, said James J. Yee, chaplain at Fort Lewis, an army base outside Tacoma, Wash.
Yee has been busy recently, speaking with soldiers and conducting seminars on Islam in an effort to educate troops on a religion that most Americans know little about.
A Chinese-American and West Point graduate, Yee converted to Islam in college and became a chaplain after spending several years in the Army. Between Fort Lewis and nearby McChord Air Force Base, he ministers to about 150 military personnel and their families.
His message to people of all faiths on the American response to the terrorist attacks: "The idea of rooting out people who take innocent civilian lives, that is agreed on by Muslims and other people alike."
There are more than 250 religious denominations represented in the U.S. military, said Jack Williamson, head of the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces, an Arlington, Va.-based group that helps civilians becomes chaplains.
Chaplains are often called on to counsel soldiers whose religious beliefs come into conflict with their military duties, he said.
"The chaplain's role is to help that person clarify whether it is an authentic religious tenet or conviction, or something that pushes them out of their comfort zone," he said.
In the case of U.S. military action against an Islamic country, some chaplains have sought clarity themselves from outside sources.
Capt. Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad, a Muslim chaplain at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, asked a panel of international Islamic scholars whether Muslims should participate in the strikes on Islamic countries or people.
The religious scholars issued a fatwa, or religious opinion, on Oct. 11, saying it was the duty of all soldiers to fight terrorism. But to Uqdah, who now heads the American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council, the issue should have been handled within the military. Airing it in public undercut the chain of command, he said.
"This was a pastoral issue. One that should have been answered within the service, and not in the media," he said.
As head of the Virginia-based council, Uqdah picks and helps train Muslim chaplains. He guides Muslim candidates to seminaries and makes frequent visits to military bases to check up on chaplains and meet with soldiers.
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