Muslim chaplains have been part of the U.S. military clergy since 1993. In the new war against terrorism, they find themselves both providing spiritual guidance to adherents of Islam in the U.S. armed forces and education about Islam to non-Muslims.
Army Captain James Yee is one of 17 Islamic chaplains in U.S. armed forces. Like Captain Yee, many are attached to battalions or battle groups and are a regular part of military life. Along with counseling Muslim service members and their families, he has been spending much of his days since September 11 answering questions about Islam from fellow officers, enlisted men, commanders and the media.
Captain Yee lectures about the meaning of Islam in an attempt to demystify the religion. He finds that many Christians are surprised to learn that Islam is closely related to the Jewish and Christian traditions.
"There are a lot of similarities," he said. "They're actually surprised that Muslims believe in what we might call 'God'. They have this preconceived notion that the world 'Allah' means something strange or something that the god of Islam is something different from the god that a say a Christian or Jew believes in."
The 33-year old Captain Yee was born into a Christian family, but converted to Islam 10 years ago. A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, Captain Yee was a Patriot missile operator. He left the military and was teaching English in Damascus, where he underwent his formal religious training. After becoming a Muslim clergyman, he rejoined the army as a chaplain.
His main goal now is to help Muslims in the practice of their faith.
Captain Yee explains that Islam is one of the three "Abrahamic religions", together with Judaism and Christianity. He says all are based on the teachings of biblical Patriarch Abraham.
He says Islam is a religion of peace, and that the concept of "jihad," which is sometimes translated "holy war," simply means, "to struggle."
The Chaplain emphasizes the vast majority of followers are not violent. "Well, Islam comes from a word, which means peace. The root word of Islam means peace. So, in that sense, Islam is peace in the sense that when you submit yourself to God, this brings peace. And when you follow the laws of Islam, this brings about peace," he said. "So when people like to characterize Islam as being violent, again they're harping off what they see on television, what they see in the movies without studying about Islam from the traditional sources of Islam, the Koran, and the prophetic traditions of the prophet Mohamed and the sources of Islam."
Captain Yee sees an intense curiosity about Islam today as well as a lack of knowledge among many Americans. He says to counter misconceptions, which often come from movies and television, he offers a simple explanation about the fundamentals of Islam.
"The basics, you always begin with the basics when dealing with anything. I discuss the articles of faith, what Muslims believe," he said. "The five pillars of Islam and then of course, I relate it to the events of September 11th to include some of the concepts found in Islam and how it deals with matters of war."
A very busy Captain Yee says he is continuing his duties as a chaplain at Fort Lewis, while he waits to see if his unit is ordered overseas. In the meantime, he says he will continue ministering to the needs of his fellow Muslim soldiers and explaining the Islamic faith to his fellow Americans.