Why an imam joined the frontline of the British Armed Forces

1 / 5
With military personnel outside Number 10 Downing Street in London. (Crown Copyright)
2 / 5
Meeting with local Hajj members, supported by Major Walker, the Queen’s Royal Lancers. (Crown Copyright)
3 / 5
Hafiz is made an OBE by the Duke of Cambridge at Buckingham Palace. (Crown Copyright)
4 / 5
Imam Asim Hafiz. (Crown Copyright)
5 / 5
Meeting Afghan troops in Helmand
Updated 01 September 2018
0

Why an imam joined the frontline of the British Armed Forces

  • There was a big misconception about what my job would be. Many people thought my job was about encouraging Muslims in the British military to go and kill other Muslims
  • Just because someone joins the British military doesn’t mean they have lost their soul or their faith

CAUX, Switzerland: As the first Muslim chaplain to the British Armed Forces, Imam Asim Hafiz has made it his mission to increase religious understanding in the middle of conflict, trauma and destruction, breaking down perceived barriers between Muslims and the military.

It is a role that has thrust Hafiz into the spotlight. As the Islamic religious adviser to the Chief of the Defense Staff at the UK Ministry of Defense and founder of the Armed Forces Muslim Association, a service personnel support network, he has faced criticism from his peers along with public misconception about his role in an institution that goes to battle against people of a shared faith.
His story began in 2005, when the Ministry of Defense started to appoint an imam for the British Armed Forces. “At the time, the war in Iraq was messy and the war on terror with many Muslims was perceived to be a war against Islam, particularly in the UK and many parts of the world,” he said.
Hafiz, then a full-time Muslim chaplain in Her Majesty’s Prison Service, saw a newspaper advertisement asking for people to apply to become an imam for the British Armed Forces. “I thought, ‘This is amazing, what a great opportunity,’” he said. “But my peers thought differently. They said, ‘No, you can’t work for the British Armed Forces; it is wrong.’”
“I didn’t believe those opinions, so it actually encouraged me to apply for it even more,” he said.
At the time, Hafiz said, there was “a big misconception” about the role of the British Armed Forces. “People didn’t understand what they do, why they do it and what they are all about. And there was a big misconception about what my job would be. Many people thought my job was about encouraging Muslims in the British military to go and kill other Muslims. That was not what it was about: It was about caring for the individual.
“There are people out there — a tiny minority — who just don’t get it. For them, the norm is confrontation. What I say to them is that if your life is about building barriers to communities, if it is about building wars in communities and dividing communities, then essentially, I believe you do not have a faith. However, I think most people have true values, true faith and morally support me to do what I do.” Despite the opinions of his peers, Hafiz, born in East London in 1976, said that he “never looked back” after taking on the role.
However, having experienced several deployments to Afghanistan, Hafiz has seen the human side of soldiering first-hand and knows the personal toll it can take. “Just because someone joins the British military doesn’t mean they have lost their soul or their faith. Actually, I found out that people who serve in the military serve with the values with which the military is established. The British military is established with certain values such as integrity and selfless commitment. I found these values identical to the values of Islam.”
Hafiz describes military personnel as “the best humanitarians.”
“People wonder what I mean when I say that, and yes, they are trained to kill, but they are not murderers. They are trained to use that armed force, not because they want to, but because they have to use it within a certain framework. There is a difference between murdering and taking a life when you need to.
“I also understand that when they do the job they do, sometimes the burden of that responsibility makes them more aware of the issues between life and death, the issues between conflict and peace, and how important it is to avoid conflict and promote peace.”
Having grown up in a religious household, Hafiz spent a decade in an Islamic boarding school before qualifying as an imam at 23. He worked at two East London mosques before becoming the first full-time imam at Wandsworth Prison, the largest in the UK.
This, he recalls, did little to prepare him for the mental toll that the brutality of war would bring. After a series of visits to Afghanistan between 2010-2012, Hafiz started a seven-month deployment in 2012. Leaving his family behind in the knowledge he was going into a conflict zone, was, he admitted, extremely difficult.
“Of course I was worried about my safety, and my family were worried, but then you get into the job you are doing and you know that you are there to try to build bridges between communities,” he said.
Aside from the tragedies of war, Hafiz said one of the hardest things he had to come to terms with was “the huge amount of ignorance” between the coalition forces in Afghanistan and the Afghans themselves.
“They all wanted to end the conflict. The coalition wanted to come home, the Afghans wanted the coalition out. The Afghans wanted their own political system, and the coalition wanted political stability in the country.
“I just thought, ‘Why are you guys fighting? You all want the same thing.’” Going into local communities, going into villages, sitting with commanders, was a real privilege and a real blessing for me — to try, in a very small way in this massive conflict, to help people to bring some sense.”
Hafiz, who was awarded an Order of the British Empire in 2014 for his services to defense, admits he has often questioned his career path. “Professionally, I still ask myself questions when I go to sleep at night,” he said. “I was ultimately working for an organization that is trained to kill. The job for these people is to be able to pick up a gun and defend the values they believe in and the values of their nation and its people.”
“Some people ask me, ‘How can Muslims join a non-Muslim military?,’” he said. “I say to them, ‘Listen, this is not about being Muslim or not being Muslim. Would you rather fight in a Muslim military that is unjust, or a non-Muslim military that is just?’ Ultimately, you have to choose justice.”
Hafiz recalled a moment that made every personal doubt, and every criticism from his peers, vanish. “The man who appointed me called me into his office one day and said to me, ‘People like you are important to me,’” he said. “He told me it is because the British military is not only about fighting wars, it is about preventing wars, and because the understanding I had given him — of my faith, of my culture and of how the Armed Forces should interact with Islamic Muslims when deployed in different parts in the world — helped him to understand the situation and to save lives.
“When he said that to me, I fully understood. It had taken me about nine years to do that. I knew what I had done — and what I will continue to do — is the right thing. This was why I had taken on the job and why I do what I do. And if I can save one life with the work I am doing, all the criticism that people have had for me means nothing to me.”


China summons US ambassador over Huawei arrest

Updated 19 min 42 sec ago
0

China summons US ambassador over Huawei arrest

BEIJING: China summoned the US ambassador on Sunday to protest the arrest of a top executive from telecom giant Huawei in Canada, as Washington’s top trade negotiator rejected suggestions that the case could affect talks aimed at settling a trade war.
The arrest of Huawei’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou has infuriated Beijing, which demanded Washington drop its extradition request, and stoked tensions during the trade war truce between China and the United States.
Meng faces US fraud charges related to alleged sanctions-breaking dealings with Iran.
But with negotiations underway against a “hard deadline” of March 1 to settle the tariff dispute between the world’s two biggest economies, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said he did not expect the arrest to disrupt the talks.
Meng, the daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, is in custody awaiting a Canadian court’s decision on bail on Monday.
Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng summoned US ambassador Terry Branstad one day after he called in Canadian envoy John McCallum to voice China’s displeasure.
“Le Yucheng pointed out that the US side has seriously violated the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese citizens, and the nature of the violation is extremely bad,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
“The Chinese side firmly opposes this and strongly urges the United States to attach great importance to China’s solemn and just position,” it said.
China also urged the United States to “take immediate measures to correct wrong practices, and revoke the arrest warrant against the Chinese citizen.”
The statement warned that Beijing would make an unspecified “further response” in light of the US actions.
In a case which shook investors and rattled the markets, Meng was arrested in Vancouver while changing planes on December 1, the same day that US President Donald Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping agreed to a truce in their trade battle and gave negotiators three months to find a compromise.
Although Trump last week tweeted that the talks would end after 90 days “unless extended,” Lighthizer said on Sunday that March 1 is a firm deadline.
“When I talked to the president of the United States he’s not talking about going beyond March,” Lighthizer said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
“If there is a deal to be gotten, we want to get it in the next 90 days.”
He also said that Meng’s arrest “shouldn’t really have much of an impact” on the talks, although he conceded that the Chinese might see it that way.
“For us, it’s unrelated” to trade policy matters. “It’s criminal justice.”
Separately, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow denied reports that Trump was “livid” that the arrest of Meng occurred while Trump dined with Xi.
“He didn’t know,” Kudlow told “Fox News Sunday.” “He learned way later.”
The world’s top two economies have exchanged steep tariffs on more than $300 billion in total two-way trade, locking them in a conflict that has begun to eat into profits.
Since taking office, Trump has waged an often-fierce offensive against Chinese trade practices, which he regularly brands as “unfair.”
He sees the US trade deficit with China as a particular sore point, and the imbalance ballooned to a record $35.6 billion in November, official data showed on Saturday.
Analysts say Meng could become a bargaining chip in the negotiations.
In a bail hearing that was adjourned on Friday, Canadian Crown prosecutor John Gibb-Carsley asked for bail to be denied, saying Meng has been accused of “conspiracy to defraud multiple financial institutions.”
He said if convicted, she faces more than 30 years in prison.
The extradition process could take months, even years, if appeals are made in the case.
Canada has a long-standing extradition treaty with the United States, requiring it to cooperate with US Department of Justice requests to hand over suspects.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said politics played no part in the decision to arrest Meng.
Huawei said Friday that it would “continue to follow the bail hearing,” expressing “every confidence that the Canadian and US legal systems will reach the right conclusion.”
Huawei has denied any ties to the Chinese government, but many in Washington and other Western capitals are skeptical and have raised security concerns.
US federal law already bans military and government use of devices made by Huawei and fellow Chinese firm ZTE.
Influential Republican Senator Marco Rubio told “Face the Nation” that he plans to reintroduce legislation that would ban companies like Huawei from doing business in the US because they “pose a threat to our national interests.”