Muslims in the armed forces: A proud tradition

The increasing number of Islamic recruits in our forces believe that there is no contradiction between being a Muslim and joining the British military


Imam Asim Hafiz is not surprised that more and more Muslims are joining the British military. He is in no doubt, either, that British Muslims can be good soldiers. That is not because Mr Hafiz was the first Muslim chaplain for the Armed Forces when he was appointed in 2005. Nor is it because he is now an Islamic adviser to the MoD. Rather, it is because, as with an increasing number of Muslims, he believes that there is no contradiction between being of Muslim faith and choosing to defend Britain.

Hafiz was invested as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire earlier this month, during a ceremony that coincided with Islam Awareness Week. To mark this, the MoD announced that, since 2007, the number of Muslims serving in the British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force has risen by more than 40 per cent. It goes against public perception, but Mr Hafiz says that it is to be expected. "The increasing number of Muslims in the armed forces is a natural change, because society is becoming more tolerant and young Muslim men and women feel more able to come forward and serve," he says.

According to the imam, who served as a chaplain in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011, Muslims serving as soldiers do not have to reconcile their beliefs in order to fight hardline Taliban militants. "I've met many Muslims in the military who are very devout, because to Muslims a love of your country and serving your community is an important part of your faith," says Mr Hafiz. There is still work to be done in Muslim communities to encourage family members to be more accepting, he says, but the chain of command inside the military is "getting better every year at accommodating Muslims".

Today, Muslims in the forces are able to pray five times a day and fast (as long as there is not an overwhelming operational requirement against either), are provided with halal rations, can seek support from Muslim chaplains and use prayer rooms on base (one of which was recently made available on a naval warship). Despite this, the figures in absolute terms are still small, with around 650 Muslims in the 200,000-strong military making up less than 1 per cent of its ratio strength. In society as a whole, they comprise 4.8 per cent of the general population, and Mr Hafiz is optimistic that more can be done fully reflect that in enlistment figures.

Which does not mean that he is shying away from tackling the issue head on. "The military needs to do more to be representative of the society it defends," he says. "By far the biggest problem is that there has been a big misrepresentation of what has been done [in Iraq and Afghanistan]. We are not fighting Muslims... [in Afghanistan] we have been fighting criminals who happen to claim the Muslim faith."

Not everybody is a tolerant as Mr Hafiz, though. In 2008, a member of an "Islamic extremist cell" was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to planning to seize and behead a British Muslim soldier, while last year there were "fears" of a backlash against Muslims after the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in Woolwich.

To Captain Naveed Muhammad, 45, a practising Muslim soldier who has served in the Royal Signals regiment for 27 years, these elements are a "tiny minority". Rather, the captain focuses on the "wonderful career" that the army has given him and speaks passionately about his role in helping young soldiers forge a future, taking groups of young Muslim children on trips to Flanders and serving his country in Iraq, the Balkans and, most recently, Afghanistan.

"Our faith teaches us resilience. Of course, taking life is something you think about when you first deploy operationally... but Britain is a special place to be and we all have to contribute to keep it like that."

On the delicate subject of taking Muslim life, Mr Hafiz is frank. "We can't shy away from the dangers out there, but the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been misunderstood as wars against Muslims," he explains.

"Soldiers, whether Muslim or not, don't talk about taking life openly, but just because a Muslim or a person of faith joins the military, it doesn't mean they lose their soul… our armed forces train soldiers to be conscious and ask moral questions about the rules of war – I think that says something about the quality of our armed forces."

Service in the British military by Muslims isn't new, with tens of thousands fighting and dying since the days of the imperial raj. That is a tradition that British Muslims such as Corporal Saleem Muhammad, 25, who has served with the RAF in Afghanistan, are "proud" to continue. Corporal Muhammad's brother also served in the RAF, but it is his grandfathers who "protected Britain" during the jungle campaigns against the Japanese in Burma during the Second World War to whom he looks back. "We're a family with a military history, so my parents have been very supportive. A few friends said things, but once I explained why I was joining, the community was very understanding. I'm just following on from my brother and grandfathers."

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Assistant

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have previous experience...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Shia LaBeouf is one of Brad Pitt's favourite actors in the world ever, apparently  

Shia LaBeouf to Luis Suárez: Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Ellen E Jones
Gwyneth Paltrow and Coldplay's Chris Martin “consciously uncoupled” in March  

My best and worst stories of 2014

Simmy Richman
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015