Jailing of cleric who worked at Guantanamo prompts review
For the last five years, Qaseem A. Uqdah, a Marine Corps veteran, has been visiting military bases around the world in search of Muslim officers and enlistees who might make suitable chaplains.
In his role as a recruiter, Uqdah is not employed by the military. Instead, he is an independent middleman who runs a group that is authorized by the Pentagon to nominate Muslim chaplain candidates. He is paid nothing for his efforts, he said, and is motivated by his belief in Islam.
One of the clerics Uqdah recommended to the Pentagon — Capt. James J. Yee, a Chinese American convert to Islam and a graduate of West Point — is now locked in a brig in South Carolina as government officials investigate whether he engaged in espionage while ministering to Muslim prisoners at the military camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“I wholeheartedly believe in his innocence,” Uqdah said. “I would never abandon my chaplains, but if I believed Yee was guilty of something, then I would say something.”
Neither military nor civilian authorities have brought formal charges against Yee, but after his arrest the Pentagon says it has begun a review of the admittedly ad hoc process it has used for years to select and train chaplains of all faiths.
The review accompanies an assessment of all security procedures at Guantanamo Bay begun in light of the arrests of Yee on Sept. 10 and Air Force Special Airman Ahmad al-Halabi, an Arabic translator, on July 23. Before working at the Cuban facility, al-Halabi had been stationed at Travis Air Force Base in Solano County.
Whether the chaplains are Christian or Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist, the military relies on religious groups themselves to recommend and to educate their own candidates. The military says that because of the constitutional provisions that govern the separation of church and state, only churches and religious organizations can ordain or appoint their own clergy.
With Muslim chaplains, however, this has proved particularly problematic, especially since Islam has no centralized hierarchy. Most other faiths and denominations have a single authority responsible for chaplains, like the Roman Catholic Archdiocese for the Military Services. But in the absence of such an equivalent Islamic authority, the military has relied on grass-roots Muslim groups.
After more than 10 years of accepting the recommendations of Muslim groups, the military says it will now re-evaluate the requirements for individual chaplains and the religious groups that nominate chaplain candidates to the military.
Uqdah and another person who did not want to be identified said some Muslim chaplains had told them that they had recently been pressured by military intelligence officials to share information about Muslim military members. Information that military chaplains learn in counseling sessions or in confession is supposed to be confidential.
Two senators — Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. — have begun a Senate investigation into the way the government chooses Muslim clerics, or imams. Schumer has been saying for at least six months that the Muslim groups now responsible for choosing and training chaplains are all affiliated with a militant form of Islam popular in Saudi Arabia that some call Wahhabism.
“The people who believe in Islam should have a right to a chaplain of their own religion,” Schumer said in an interview. “But what the military has done is taken a narrow, fundamentalist and extreme band of the spectrum and said those groups have a monopoly on who becomes an imam in the military.”
But leaders of the Muslim groups, and several scholars who study Islam in America, said Schumer was engaged in a witch hunt. They said they would welcome any review by the military because they were confident it would prove that they were not Wahhabis, were loyal to the American government and had served the military well.
“If I was a Wahhabi or a religious fundamentalist, I don’t think I would have the relationships I do with the military right now, nor would I have spent 21 years in the military,” said Uqdah, an African-American convert to Islam who was a Marine Corps gunnery sergeant.
Military chaplains must be nominated by a “certifying agent” with a religious organization approved by the military. There are two religious organizations now approved to nominate Muslim chaplains. One is the Islamic Society of North America, a large umbrella group based in Plainfield, Ind. The other is Uqdah’s group, the American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council, which is based in Virginia and, he said, operates on such a shoestring that he had to take out a second mortgage on his house to keep the organization afloat.