US, Kuwaiti religious advisers bond to bridge gap
July 29, 2013
KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait - Differences in faith and tradition have been a cause of inequalities and conflicts throughout the history of the world and brought many soldiers to the battlefield for the sake of liberty and justice for all.
It was on the foundation of freedom and serenity that religious advisers of the U.S. and Kuwaiti militaries built a relationship by promoting understanding and appreciation for their diversity.
"Religious beliefs have the capacity to be powerful sources of separation between individuals and groups," said Col. Jonathan C. Gibbs III, command chaplain of Third Army/U.S. Army Central. "I believe that building relationships of trust and mutual respect between religious leaders helps strengthen those bonds by showing that differences in belief don't have to divide us. They only do so when we make them more important than the things we share in common."
Unit ministry teams serving in Kuwait with Third Army/ARCENT and Islamic affairs officers and imams, or Islamic worship leaders, of the Kuwaiti Ministry of Defense started meeting in December 2012 and were brought together by a sense of curiosity and the commonality of location and purpose.
"It's all about developing personal relationships and, as military partners, working together to accomplish similar objectives in support of our two nations' mutual interests," said Gibbs. "Nothing is more critical than unity of effort, because the time to develop trust, understanding and good communication is not when a crisis erupts."
Their partnership has been able to sprout and grow through a multitude of social engagements, educational instruction on religious practices and cultural excursions throughout Kuwait.
"Not only do I consider us friends but also brothers in arms. We are not fighting a war with each other. The battle we're fighting is trying to build and uphold a strong relationship between the Kuwaitis and the Americans," said Sgt. Santana Darby, administration noncommissioned officer for Third Army/ARCENT command chaplain office.
Building a friendship didn't come without challenges as religious advisers from both nations worked around distinct differences in language and tradition to find mutual ground.
"Probably the most obvious difference is the degree of pluralism in our ranks which simply reflects some of the difference between our two countries and armies. The Kuwaiti military imams and Islamic affairs officers are all Sunni Muslims while in our Chaplain Corps we have Chaplains that represent over 150 different denominations and faith groups," said Gibbs. "I think the greatest similarity is the concern and commitment both groups have for the spiritual welfare of their soldiers."
Islamic affairs officers and imams adapted and acknowledged the pluralism of the U.S. military by including quotes from various scriptures and religions in their spiritual lessons while tying it all in to a shared value.
"I believe the Kuwaitis realize that we're a one-of-a-kind Armed Force. They see that we are professionals and care about making a difference in people's lives," said Darby.
The solidification of the friendship couldn't have been possible without the encouragement of Kuwaiti Brig. Gen. Abdulaziz Hassan Al-Rayes, director of Moral Guidance and Public Relations, who also happened to be the first Kuwaiti officer selected to serve as a cultural adviser and counterintelligence officer with the 1st Marine Division during Operations Desert Shield/Storm in 1991.
"The moment that touched me the most was when Brig. Gen. Al-Rayes, after several 'war stories,' expressed his deep affection and appreciation for the American military and the American people because, as he put it 'The Americans gave us Kuwaitis our country back," said Gibbs. "It was one of those moments that just make you proud to be an American."
At a later engagement Al-Rayes made it a point to applaud and thank the American soldiers in attendance for being a part of the military organization that helped liberate Kuwait.
"As the world watches the friendship between the two countries, I pray that one day it influences other countries to realize that so much can be accomplished if we come together as one," said Darby.
Darby participated in almost every engagement but said he was particularly fond of a spiritual instruction about respecting parents given on May 8 at Camp Arifjan, by Mohammad Al-Naqwi, who practices "daawa," or teaching of Islam, with Muslims and non-Muslims.
"This event covered my two most important life values; my religious and family beliefs," said Darby. "This touched home for me to see them being able to express how much family ties into their lifestyles."
From a culturally-rich journey through Bait Al-Othman Museum in Kuwait City to tours around Camp Arifjan and Camp Buehring, each engagement has offered all participants a chance to be more versatile and insightful.
"We need to look beyond the stereotypes and start seeing one another as real people, real human beings. That's not to deny that there are religious and cultural differences between us. But the things we share in our common humanity far outnumber our differences and we should focus more on those things in our dealings with one another," said Gibbs.