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.”