By Poonam Taneja
13 January 2014
The British armed forces' first Muslim chaplain says there is no conflict in being a Muslim and fighting for Britain.
Imam Asim Hafiz, an Islamic adviser to the Ministry of Defence, says Islam encourages the defence of life and country.
Muslims in the British military have been criticised by hardliners within the community, who have viewed their involvement in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq as a betrayal of their faith.
Last month two men were convicted of murdering Lee Rigby, a British soldier, outside Woolwich barracks in south-east London.
They are due to be sentenced later this month.
Mr Hafiz, who was appointed by the MoD in 2005 and is one of two Muslim chaplains, says of the Afghanistan conflict: "There is no doubt a misunderstanding among the Muslim community that this is somehow a war against Islam.
"The military is out there trying to support Afghanistan and the Afghan people. They are not fighting a religion or a culture."
There are more than 650 Muslims in the British armed forces, up from 305 in 2005.
Mr Hafiz says: "Just because they join the armed forces doesn't mean they lose their soul or lose their faith. I've met many Muslims (in the forces) who are very devout."
But he said they did seek advice on how best to practice their faith within the armed forces.
"They come to me to ask, 'Do I have to fast when I'm on basic training and have to run eight miles?' Or, 'How do I pray when I'm on exercise?'" he says.
He admits Muslim soldiers are troubled by moral anxieties but they are the same ones that challenge all soldiers.
"Many soldiers come to me before deployment. When I ask, 'Are you scared about being killed?' they say, 'No, I'm worried about killing'," he says.
"It's that burden and that responsibility they carry with them - and that encourages me that service personnel don't go on deployments just because they want to get into a good fight but they go there with a sense of duty, with a sense of service, to try and do the best they can for the people they are going to serve there."
Mr Hafiz says the armed forces have become a more welcoming employer for Muslims.
"It's not perfect yet, there's more that can be done," he says.
"The armed forces caters for all the needs a Muslim might have. So fasting during Ramadan, praying five times a day, going to the mosque on Friday for weekly prayers."
Over his nine years as chaplain, Mr Hafiz has had to deal with some tragedies.
"Supporting a family when their son, brother, uncle has been killed on operations has been the most difficult pastoral case, particularly at a time when there are individuals who question that sacrifice," he says.
"Being there at the aircraft when the body comes back home and receiving it is the most challenging."
He believes providing pastoral care to a bereaved family is the most valuable part of his role.
Mr Hafiz has served in Afghanistan on several occasions and is now an adviser to senior British military officials.
As part of the deployment he has met Afghan religious leaders to discuss the role of Islam in bringing peace to the country.
"They did understand some individuals may manipulate the faith to encourage people to take up arms and fight but overwhelmingly were keen to promote that Islam is not at war with the world," he says.
"We did discuss the idea of jihad and what we understand is that jihad is not about fighting, it's not about prolonging conflict. Jihad is about seeking peace and that's one of the things we were trying to promote," he says.
His duties have earned him recognition in the New Year Honours list after he was awarded an OBE: "I feel really humbled but I'm grateful for being recognised for the work I've done over the last nine years."