In 2005, I had the honour of becoming the first ever imam to the UK Armed Forces. I was working as a Muslim chaplain in the Prison Service when I first heard about the role and felt a sense of calling, of duty.
The values of the UK Armed Forces include honesty, courage, discipline, commitment, and devotion. These are values that I hold dear as a human being and as a Muslim. I feel that what I’m doing is part of my faith and what my faith expects me to do.
There are more than 800 Muslims serving in the UK Armed Forces, stationed in Britain and around the world. It is my responsibility to counsel and support them.
During my twelve years in the role, I’ve been deployed to provide pastoral and spiritual care to Muslim personnel around the world. I’ve visited British Military personnel helping to tackle Ebola in Sierra Leone. I’ve seen soldiers step in to help the community during the floods in Cumbria, England. An estimated 50,000 people were helped in the Philippines when HMS Daring and HMS Illustrious stepped in to assist victims of Typhoon Haiyan. I’ve witnessed Afghans visiting a health clinic for the first time in their lives thanks to the British Military.
The UK Armed Forces exist to act in defence of justice, to stop the persecution, to protect UK citizens – including people of all faiths, of course – and act to strengthen international security and stability. There is a wonderful, humanitarian aspect to their work. It’s certainly not just about war.
I’m proud to be a part of it. I’m proud to see the remarkable, positive contributions Muslim serving personnel make to the UK Armed Forces. I’m proud that Britain is a multicultural, multi-faith country which recognises the importance of diversity not only in society but also in its Armed Forces.
Some of the most memorable and moving experiences in my role were while leading a delegation of Muslim members of the UK Armed Forces through their Hajj experience. I travelled with serving personnel of different ranks, disciplines and ethnicities, for whom Hajj represents a unique and highly emotional experience. The British Ministry of Defence made it possible for the trip to happen and supported the serving Muslims in their pilgrimage. One of the men on our trip commented afterwards that his “spiritual uplift” will make him a better person and a better soldier.
There are, of course, more challenging times. After just a few months in the role, the first serving British Muslim was killed in Afghanistan. His name was Lance Corporal Jabron Hashmi and he was just 24 years old. I was honoured to be able to support his family and ensure their son’s body was cared for in a way appropriate to his faith.
An important part of my role is to build bridges. There’s no denying there have been some sensitivities between British Muslims and the Armed Forces. Along the way, I have challenged misconceptions, showing them that there is an imam in the forces, there are indeed serving Muslim personnel and that the UK Armed Forces supports and respect all aspects of our faith.
It’s a wonderful job and I haven’t looked back. I feel blessed to represent British Muslims in the UK Armed Forces and to ensure our faith is better understood. Interfaith relations are vital and lead to a strengthening of our armed forces.