Swathed in a kaffiyeh, naval reservist Heba Fadil seems an unlikely sailor. The daughter of Palestinian refugees who immigrated to Canada in 1992, Fadil has a unique explanation for joining The Royal Canadian Navy.
“It has a lot to do with the way Palestinians are treated in the Arab world,” she says. “We were deported from the United Arab Emirates in the first Gulf War. I was born there, and it didn’t mean anything. The country that welcomed us was Canada, and I wanted to say thank you.”
Fadil joined the Navy five years ago, and she says she has never regretted the decision. But now, scheduled for a tour of duty in Afghanistan, she feels conflicted. When I start mentioning that I had asked a Muslim cleric for his opinion on Muslims serving in Afghanistan, she interrupts me: “What did he say? No, don’t tell me.”
The issue of permissibility is one of the most painful challenges facing devout Muslims who decide to join the military. Many Muslim clerics regard NATO’s military presence in Afghanistan as a foreign occupation. In classic Sunni Muslim jurisprudence, a foreign occupation of Muslim lands amounts to a declaration of war against all Muslims, who are obliged to expel the occupiers. “This duty falls on those closest to the occupied land, who should be aided by those closest to them, who, in turn, ought to be aided by those closest to them, till it becomes incumbent on all Muslims to take part in Jihad,” wrote Yousef Al Qardawi, a respected Egyptian cleric, in a 2002 ruling (the year earlier, Qardawi had issued a ruling saying Muslims could participate in operations specifically against the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks to bring them to justice). Clerics also like to cite a hadith—a Prophetic saying—to support the mandate against Muslims fighting Muslims: “When two Muslims fight each other and one kills the other,” said the Prophet Muhammad, “then both the killer and the killed are in hellfire.” A companion of the Prophet asked, “We understand that the killer is in hell, why then the one who’s being killed?” The Prophet said, “Because he wanted to kill the other person.”
Unsurprisingly, Fadil’s parents are opposed to her serving in Afghanistan. “Mom is religious,” Fadil said, “and when I told her I was going to Afghanistan she asked the shaykh ”—a Muslim cleric—“and said, ‘Heba, this isn’t going to work, the shaykh said it is wrong to fight other Muslims’.”
Fadil feels no uncertainty about her deployment to Afghanistan. “Our troops need assistance. I’m not convinced it’s unlawful. If I were convinced I wouldn’t go.”
For its part, the Canadian military not only wants more Muslims in its ranks, but seems to have redoubled its efforts to recruit and keep them. Fadil is one of roughly five hundred Muslims in the Canadian Forces, out of a total of 62,000 troops. Although a small minority, Muslim soldiers say the military seems intent on accommodating religious issues they might have.
“On the base when I first joined, the soldiers would go for services every Sunday,” says Fadil. “There was another Muslim with me on the base, and we wanted to test this whole tolerance thing. We asked for time off on Friday for our prayers. The request went up the chain of command and we got a definite yes.”
Accommodating devout Muslims within the military is nothing new, says navy lieutenant Wafa Dabbagh. When she joined the Navy in 1995, Dabbagh was the first Muslim woman to attend her training in a hijab, a head covering worn by many devout Muslim woman.
“People were pleasantly surprised,” she says of her colleagues’ reactions. “They’d tell me ‘we see Muslim women on the street and we don’t get a chance to talk to them. We can talk to you.’ They got to know a person, not what the media portrays as Muslims and Arabs.”
The military appears to take its message on diversity seriously. After Dabbagh joined the Navy, two more Muslims in hijab signed up, and the military began designing military-issue hijabs. “I’m the guinea pig they’re trying them on,” she says.
In 2003, the military also hired its first Muslim chaplain or imam—“a historic decision,” according to a military press release. Yet the appointment of Capt. Suleyman Demiray, who is based in Petawawa, Ontario, was unusual because chaplains are usually appointed when there is a considerable population of soldiers from a particular religion.
Capt. Demiray’s presence was less a response to current needs than a vision of what the military would like to see in its future. Last August, then-Rear Admiral Tyrone Pile, who heads recruitment in the Canadian military, visited an Ottawa mosque and a Muslim fair to pitch enlistment to the congregation, saying it was a “pity” that Canadian Forces were not more diverse.
Ken Charles, responsible for “diversity recruiting” in the Forces, claims that there is no official campaign to target Muslims: the military’s effort to diversify its troops is intended for visible minorities, Aboriginals, and women—not for any religious groups in particular. However, he does say that since the war in Afghanistan there has been more “attention” on recruiting Muslims. Charles also admits that hiring and advertising a Muslim chaplain, and stepping up meetings and communications with Muslim leaders leads to “valuable spin off”: getting Dari and Pahsto speakers into the military instead of using translators from the Afgani; translators, Charles said, who place themselves and their families in danger by working for the military.
Such activities echo similar recruitment efforts in other countries. In 2006, the UK military launched a 90-million-pound campaign to woo Muslims. To date, the campaign has only netted fifteen recruits (which would bring the total number of Muslims in the military to an estimated 330).
The US Army has also tried to encourage more Muslims to join its ranks, opening prayer rooms in military bases and at West Point. Aside from a specific interest in soldiers with much-needed language skills, a Pentagon official who spoke to the Christian Science Monitor said outreach to Muslim Americans sent a message that “Muslims and the Islamic religion are totally compatible with Western values.”
The militarization of that message may not necessarily encounter the hoped-for welcome. Pile’s visit was part of a new mandate to expand to the regular forces by 15,000 members and the reserves by 10,000, but the choice of a Muslim mosque and a Muslim festival led to intense debate both in the Muslim community and among non-Muslims.
“The military said they wanted advice on integrating Muslims,” says Ottawa mosque cleric Gomal Solaiman when asked about Pile’s visit, “and wondered if there was any problem in asking Muslims to join the army. I told them they were welcome to come to the mosque to express their views.” Solaiman tells me that “many young men were excited” to see Pile but “some were not happy with the idea.”
The military’s selling points may be substantial—college tuition and guaranteed employment for twenty years—but doctrinal laws continue to be a deterrent for devout Muslims. A cleric in one of Montreal’s largest mosques, who asked that his name not be published, says: “The big scholars of this age all agree it is unlawful. The Canadian military is non-Muslim. They might get orders to fight innocents—Muslims or non-Muslims. Their goals might conflict with Islam.”
Not all clerics, however, forbid Muslims on principle from fighting in Afghanistan. Solaiman says he opposes the NATO presence in Afghanistan (“I see it as a Western domination,” he says) but believes that there’s nothing from a jurisprudence point of view that stops Muslims from joining the Canadian military—even if their enemy may turn out to be a fellow Muslim. “Let’s be factual,” Solaiman says, “Muslims are slaughtering each other more than anybody else. It’s okay when Muslims are fighting in Somalia, for example, but not okay in Afghanistan?”
Idris Ben-Tahir, a former officer in the Air Force and an activist in Ottawa’s Muslim community, arranged the first meeting with Solaiman and the Department of Defence. Ben-Tahir supports the recruitment drive because he wants to ensure Muslims in Canada are not kept out of the national conversation. “We sit around and bitch we are being sidelined,” he says. “Some people have even told me it’s better to serve pizza than join the Army. How can we have a voice then?”
But many don’t like it. Barbara Kay, a columnist with the National Post, believes that Pile’s visit to the mosque “introduces a new—and I think inappropriate—identity category. It smacks of special treatment, and surely crosses church-state lines.”
Kay argues that if the Canadian military needs skills Muslims can provide then they should recruit for skills, and not for religious affliation. Also, Kay criticizes the effort as an exercise in political correctness, which she says has no place in an organization that should be more concerned with national security than multicultural integration.
The military’s recruitment efforts have also come under criticism from some secular Muslims. “What brought religion into this?” says Salma Siddiqui, Senior Vice President of the Muslim Canadian Congress. “Why focus on Muslims?” She says the military’s efforts to accommodate traditionally devout Muslim concerns, like the hijab, may backfire. “It’s a slippery slope. After the hijab, what next? The niqab?” she says, referring to the face veil.
Fadil and Dabbagh, however, are both pleased with the religious accommodation in the forces, and the support they receive from colleagues. “Sometimes you get indirect pressure,” says Fadil, who often has to remind her friends when they’re out at bars that she doesn’t doesn’t drink. “But it’s not conscious pressure, just different ways of life. Everyone is really supportive, and I’ve never felt I had to prove myself.”
Fadil, who is also involved in Palestinian human rights and attends anti-war demonstrations, says she has never had a problem with colleagues over her activism. “I go to work wearing the kaffiyeh, and no one says anything. Once there was an iffy situation when I wanted to attend a protest in Ottawa against a visit by another country’s president, and I asked my supervisor. He said, ‘All right, just don’t go in uniform.’”
While Fadil supports the presence of Canadian troops in Afghanistan. “Foreign occupation can be demoralizing. But I think the improvements we have made are important.” However, she has qualms about her right to go as a Muslim. “It makes me doubt myself when I hear shaykhssay serving in Afghanistan is unlawful,” she says. “I try to be a good Muslim. But I don’t like to tell people what to believe, and I don’t like them telling me what to believe.”