Muslim clerics in the British Army may be deployed to Afghanistan in a "hearts and minds" mission to highlight the part played by Islam in UK society.
The scheme is believed to have the support of the head of the Army, General Sir David Richards, and was proposed by a delegation of Muslim scholars from Afghanistan during a visit to Britain, The Independent has learnt.
The army currently has just one imam in its ranks but the numbers are expected to increase with a drive to attract more Muslims into the armed forces, along with others from the ethnic and religious minorities.
General Richards, the patron of the Armed Forces Muslim Association, held a two-hour meeting with the ulama, or senior clerics, from Helmand at the Ministry of Defence in London.
The clerics suggested that the presence of Army imams in Afghanistan would help to counter Taliban claims that Muslims are denied the right to practise their religion and face persecution in the UK – while at the same time explaining Islamic customs to soldiers.
The ulama's views would strengthen the hand of Gen Richards and others in the military who want to project the role played by Muslims in the Army, expand the number of imams and deploy them on missions abroad. Others in the hierarchy say the imams should concentrate on pastoral care at home.
There are around 350 Muslims serving in the UK armed forces. In July 2006 Lance Corporal Jabron Hashmi, a British citizen born in Pakistan, became the first British Muslim soldier killed in Afghanistan. Overall, the Army has around 9 per cent of its ranks from ethnic minorities, the Navy 2.7 per cent and the Air Force 2.3 per cent.
In their first trip to the West, organised by the Foreign Office, the delegation met Jewish rabbis and Christian priests, British Muslim community leaders, members of the Afghan diaspora in this country, ministers and Foreign Office officials. The clerics visited Westminster Abbey and the Regent Park Mosque as well as the Houses of Parliament.
Afterwards Haji Mullah Meherdel Kajar, the deputy director of Hajj and religious affairs in Helmand, said: "We were very interested in seeing the different communities and religious institutions here. I particularly enjoyed meeting the Christian and Jewish priests."
One of Haji Meherdel's areas of interest was the news coverage in England. "There is such a wide variety of things being reported," he said. "There is a lot to think about. I heard there is concern about law and order problems here. What they consider as problems is perhaps a bit different from what we say are problems in Afghanistan."
The Haji's son was kidnapped by insurgents who threatened to kill him and only freed him after prolonged intercessions by tribal elders. The Haji himself has survived assassinations attempts and is currently under a Taliban death sentence. "We face violent people and we have to defend ourselves. But we should also fight them with ideas," he said. Haji Mokhtar Ahmad Aqqani, the director of Hajj for Helmand, said: "The Taliban are spreading lies that Nato is trying to destroy our religion in Afghanistan. We can take back the message that in Britain the Muslim people are free to practise their religion."
However, Shah Wali, a former senior prosecutor and authority on Sharia law, warned: "The Afghan people want to see real progress, and more done against corruption. If this does not happen people will become more dissatisfied and the Taliban will try to exploit that. The Western countries must be very careful that does not happen."
Gen Richards, who was head of Nato forces in Afghanistan four years ago, said: "It is imperative that the forces as a whole should have good understanding of Afghan culture and their religion; each side will take away something very useful for these visits."
Haji Meherdel was particularly taken with the way historic architecture has been preserved in Britain: "I saw the fine buildings in Cambridge and in London; it is good to see them being preserved. So many of our old buildings have gone, some of it deliberately by the Taliban. That has been the curse of the wars we have had – we have lost so much of our history. We are an ancient nation; we need to preserve what we have left."Reuse content