The woman refused to sell Captain Saleha Jabeen a hijab to don with her military uniform. While many civilian Muslims tell Jabeen she makes them proud, others are horrified by her decision to serve. “You’re gonna go kill Muslims,” the store owner told her that day.
Major Rafael Lantigua Jr. has experienced the flip side of that struggle. Angered by an attack on U.S. troops in Iraq, a fellow service member once barked at Lantigua: “Why can’t you call your people and tell them to stop?”
The words stung. Just as Jabeen thought the woman saw her as a bad Muslim, Lantigua felt the implication of the outburst directed at him was: You don’t belong. (The service member later apologized).
In the years since, Jabeen and Lantigua have become part of the small group of Muslim military chaplains who tend to the souls and spirits of U.S. troops of all faiths and no faith — their work highlighted in a new film that offers a peek into their worlds. Among other duties, they give talks on suicide prevention, provide counsel on relationships, and advise commanders on matters of religion and morale. When the going gets tough, they offer comfort, hope and companionship.
They sometimes break barriers and celebrate milestones, like Jabeen becoming the first female Muslim military chaplain a few years ago. At other times, they navigate tensions stemming from the views some have of their faith or their service when those get questioned, scrutinized, debated.
“We’re bridge builders,” Lantigua said in an interview. “We’re trying our best in this tension to get like-minded individuals to see the humanity of the other.”
Jabeen and Lantigua are featured in “Three Chaplains,” a documentary that recently aired on PBS and is now available online. (The third is Army Col. Khallid Shabazz). In the film and in interviews, they provide a window into the struggles and victories of Muslim chaplains and service members in one of the most American of institutions.
Lantigua said his familiarity with Islam has helped him maneuver through this “tension” — that fraught space, squeezed between skepticism by some non-Muslims and dismay by some civilian Muslims, especially over U.S. wars in Muslim-majority countries.
The friction, he said, ebbs and flows. It was heightened during such times as 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the aftermath of a 2009 deadly shooting rampage on a military base in Texas by a Muslim Army psychiatrist.
“These voices from both sides of the aisle start piling on upon Muslim service members,” Lantigua said.
That can be especially hard for new troops, said Lantigua, who’s served for nearly three decades, including deployments in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan. Born to a father from the Dominican Republic and an African American mother, he was raised as a Christian before becoming a Muslim.
Lantigua said he reminds those with concerns over Muslim service members of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom. Similarly, he tells disapproving Muslims that there are Muslim-majority countries that have been part of military coalitions alongside the United States, that the U.S. military has rules of engagement that service members must abide by and that breaking these rules carries repercussions.
In the film, one retired lieutenant colonel talks about feeling proud wearing her uniform, but becoming disillusioned when reports of inmates’ abuse in the now-infamous Abu Ghraib prison emerged after the U.S-led invasion of Iraq.
“I don’t think I would join the military today ... but, at the same time, I am so happy that you’ve answered the call to break that barrier,” Shareda Hosein told Jabeen on camera.
“Three Chaplains” director David Washburn, who has done previous work on Muslims in the military, said he found that the chaplains “occupied a space where all sorts of compelling story lines intersected: religious freedom, Islamophobia, interfaith dialogue, diversity in military today.”
Jabeen, who was born in India, sees the curiosity that comes with her being a Muslim female religious leader. Sometimes, questions follow, over lunch or chats, about the place of women in her faith. She shares stories about her life and strong Muslim women from the Prophet Muhammad’s wife, Khadija, to American Muslim politicians and community leaders today.
“They’re like … ‘That’s interesting. We never thought,’” she said. “We connect on a whole different level.”
Jabeen said she’s also “bringing Islam to the table, so when decisions are being made, I’m a part of it.”
Recently, a Muslim service member sought her help. The woman was worried — could her loyalty be questioned if she appeared sad or teary-eyed over the war in Gaza?
“You make us all proud,” Jabeen told her. “You belong here. You’re part of this military.”
The woman broke into tears of relief.
With the Israel-Hamas war, Jabeen said she also checked in with a couple of Jewish service members. “We had good conversations about `You know what, it is actually hurting; everybody’s hurting.’”
She had also worked through her own emotions. She happened to be on leave and with a female Christian military chaplain when she learned of the Oct.7 Hamas attack on Israel. They talked, held each other’s hands, and prayed.
“We were cut out to bring hope to our people in the middle of madness,” Jabeen said. “We were like ... ‘We’re exactly where we’re supposed to be. Now is the time for us to go work.’”
Not long ago, being a Muslim military chaplain was uncharted territory. Retired Lt. Col. Abdul Rasheed Muhammad said he became the first to hold that position in the 1990s. The 1991 Gulf War, in which U.S.-led forces expelled occupying Iraqi troops from Kuwait, highlighted the need for military Islamic chaplaincy, he said.
In the beginning, Muhammad was inundated with questions from commanders and troops on everything from prayers and fasting during training to pork-free meals. There was scant knowledge about Islam or how Muslim soldiers’ religious freedom could be protected, he said. He gave presentations on the faith to various military units.
“Before 9/11, Islam was just this religion that was more and more associated or affiliated with Buddhism and Hinduism than anything else,” he said. By that, he said, he means that people knew little about its culture, holidays and religious requirements.
In those early years, a senior noncommissioned officer once asked him “why can’t you all worship on Sunday” instead of Friday?
“I would imagine that there’s much more sensitivity today to these things than there were when I first came in,” Muhammad said.
Curiosity about Islam intensified after the Sept. 11 attacks. So did mistrust by some.
“Islam — and Muslims, to a very large degree — was looked at as the enemy,” Muhammad said. “The good news is that many of the commanders and officials ... made sure that we didn’t have problems.”
During a particularly tense time, Muhammad prominently represented his country and faith, reciting from the Quran during a high-profile memorial service at the Pentagon one month after 9/11. He also helped care for soldiers recovering remains from the Pentagon’s plane crash scene.
Then and now, he said, the presence of Muslim military chaplains helps chip away at misunderstandings, fears and bias.
“They get to see you as a human being and they see your work,” he said. “Prejudice, racism, Islamophobia, all of those things, begin to dissipate because now they have to deal with the reality of things, not what they imagine.”
Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.
Mariam Fam, The Associated Press