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Muslim US Army Chaplain Sets Out to Bridge Cultures


Inside the Pentagon's 9/11 memorial chapel, built where Islamic extremists attacked the building nearly 15 years ago, sounds of the Muslim call to prayer softly welcome passersby at around 2:00 p.m. each day.

The prayer service is led by Dawud Agbere, one of five Muslim Army chaplains or imams. Since being stationed at the Pentagon, Agbere leads afternoon prayer to give fellow Muslims a chance to connect with their creator.

Abdul Zaid, an IT contractor who works in the building, credits Agbere with "running interference" to make the prayer service available. He calls Agbere a spiritual leader who cares, consoling his fellow Pentagon employees during times of grief and occasionally taking them for cookies or ice cream in times of celebration.

Dawud Agbere, stationed at the Pentagon, is one of five Muslim Army chaplains or imams. (Photo courtesy of US Army)

Dawud Agbere, stationed at the Pentagon, is one of five Muslim Army chaplains or imams. (Photo courtesy of US Army)

"It's about the community that he has built here," Habiba Heider, another Pentagon contractor, told VOA.

Unusual path to service

Agbere will be the first to say he's not a typical U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel. Born and raised in the West African nation of Ghana, Agbere won the U.S. Diversity Visa lottery, which randomly selects immigrants from countries with historically low rates of immigration to the United States.

"When you are growing up in Ghana — in Africa, not just in Ghana — America is the land of prosperity," he said.

He eagerly accepted the visa and got a job teaching high school students in New Jersey, but after months with the unruly students, he yearned for a job with more discipline and order.

"So when I saw the Navy was hiring people, I said, ‘That's where I belong,'" Agbere said.

He went to boot camp with the Navy until he discovered he could not become an officer without U.S. citizenship. Rather than make him wait, his superiors allowed him to switch to the Army, which did not have the same restriction.

Bridging the gaps

His Army career has taken him to war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq. As a fluent Arabic speaker and oftentimes the only Muslim in his unit, Agbere says he works to "bridge the gap" between cultures. He said many in the allied armies he worked with "never fathomed" they'd see a Muslim in the U.S. Army.

Dawud Agbere, a fluent Arabic speaker and oftentimes the only Muslim in his unit, says he works to "bridge the gap" between cultures. (Photo courtesy of US Army)

Dawud Agbere, a fluent Arabic speaker and oftentimes the only Muslim in his unit, says he works to "bridge the gap" between cultures. (Photo courtesy of US Army)

"Then they see one; they are shocked," he said.

Only a small fraction — less than 3,600 — of the U.S. Army active duty and reservists self-identify as Muslim. Despite Agbere's ever-present optimism, his minority status has not always been a positive experience. When he deployed to Iraq, for example, one of Agbere's military leaders was extremely apprehensive of him even before they met.

"He had his own misconception about who that Muslim guy is going to be," Agbere said, "but today, he's one of my best friends."

Adding Agbere's time in the Army and the Navy, he has served in the U.S. military for nearly two decades. He says he doesn't judge those who have sought to vilify his faith during this turbulent political time, choosing instead to point out the "beauty" of American diversity.

"Definitely some of these things are based on ignorance, and I always see this as an opportunity to teach people," he said.

"I want to be able to define my story. I don't want my story to define me."

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    Carla Babb

    Carla is VOA's Pentagon correspondent covering defense and international security issues. Her datelines include Ukraine, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Korea.

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