A different kind of outreach
August 8, 2013
FORWARD OPERATING BASE LIGHTNING, Afghanistan (June 19, 2013) - For many American service members a Muslim mosque is not a place that they usually enter.
"Salaam Alechiem," said U.S Army Maj. Dawud Agbere.
But Agbere is not your average soldier.
"W'alechiem Salaam,' replied the room full of Afghan National Army soldiers in unison.
More than 100 Afghan National Army soldiers crowded into the large room used as a mosque by the ANA's 203rd Corps' Engineer Kandak and silently listened as Agbere began to speak.
"My name is Dawud. I am your Muslim brother from America," said Agbere, "I am honored to stand before you this afternoon so we can share ideas. There are things you can learn from me and there are things I can learn from you."
Agbere is the chaplain for Task Force Triple Nickel, 555th Theatre Engineer Brigade; he is also one of four Muslim chaplains in the U.S. Army. Part of the job of a chaplain in the American military is to aid in the spiritual well-being of service members, regardless of their religion; or in this case the country they serve. The reason Agbere was visiting FOB Lightning can be described with two words: mentoring and outreach.
"What does it mean to you to be a Muslim?" asked Agbere, "I'm asking you this question because sometimes we think to be a good Muslim, is to pray five times a day, to do Saum (fasting), to do Zakaat (a charity tax), to do Hajj. Do you know what you are doing in the Army is ibada (religious duty)?
"Yes" ,said one ANA soldier, "We are protecting our land, our country ... our people."
"When you protect your country, when you protect your family; that is ibada. That is [a] very, very important imbada," said Agbere, "don't think what you are doing here, you are doing just for you; you are doing it for Allah."
For nearly two hours Agbere talked to the soldiers, answering questions about Islam and the Qur'an and the teachings of theProphet Mohammad (peace be upon him).
While it might sound strange that an American Soldier is answering religious questions, it is important to keep in mind that many Afghans cannot read their native language, let alone the Qur'an, which is written in Arabic. So most of what they know about their religion has been what someone has told them. As a Muslim Chaplain, Agbere has both the knowledge and credentials to answer questions about the Qur'an.
It is also important to keep in mind that one of the many different jobs of a chaplain is to help keep the troops morale high.
'Do you all want Afghanistan to become a great country," asked Agbere?
Yes, replied the soldiers in unison.
"So what do you think you need to do to make Afghanistan a great country," asked Agbere?
"We want to improve our country and bring peace to our country," answered a soldier, "we have to ... help each other. We can improve our country."
"So, who is responsible [for] making Afghanistan great," asked Agbere?
"We have that responsibility, our leadership has that responsibility," shouted the soldiers, "Start at the soldier up to the president. Each individual living in Afghanistan has that responsibility."
"So ... Afghani's have the responsibility to make Afghanistan great," said Agbere, "people from outside can help ... but they cannot make [Afghanistan] great. Allah said in the Qur'an 'Allah will not change the situation of a people, until they take the initative to change what is within themselves. So every day you wake up, you have to ask yourself a question; 'What can I do today to change my country?'"
The soldiers that were in attendance were young, and Afghanistan is a nation where the older members of a community are respected for their wisdom.
"You are the ones who are going to make Afghanistan great," said Agbere. "Everything you do out there as engineers ... that is what is needed to make Afghanistan independent. I'm not saying that it is going to be easy, but as long as you are committed; you can achieve what you want."
Agbere's message was simple: the Afghan National Security Forces have assumed responsibility for security in the nation and as the majority of the CoalitionForces redeploy back to their countries, the future of Afghanistan rests in the hands of the Afghans. The Coalition will still be there to offer advice, but the heavy lifting will be done by Afghan hands.
There was one question that did not have to do with the Qur'an.
"When did you become a Muslim?" a soldier asked Agbere.
"I was born a Muslim," replied Agbere, "My father was a Muslim and my grandfather was a Muslim, I have always been a Muslim."
The soldiers cheered.
For Agbere having the soldiers know that he is a Muslim is very important, and not because he is proud of his religion.
'When you show up, they [the Afghans] see you as just another American Soldier. It gets them to see a bigger picture, it shatters their perception of the American military. They don't expect [to see] Muslims in this organization. They think America is just a non-Muslim country," said Agbere. "[This] is a strong way of winning hearts and minds, they can see someone like them. Even if he happens to wear a different uniform. "
This Agbere believes is important to the mission of building and strengthing the ANSF for the future.
"Soldering is based on values. In the Army we have the seven Army values. If a Soldier stands before his commander for punitative action, it is because he has violated one of those values," said Agbere. "They [the Afghans] also come from a value background, their religion is the source of their values. So that is where you challenge them ... to think what it means to be a Soldier. I want them to think that being a good Soldier is also being a good Muslim. Treat your neighbor as you want to be treated. This idea of a 'Golden Rule' is central to Islamic beliefs."
Agbere believes that while the coalition is helping to rebuild the country, the real work lies somewhere else.
"Our legacy here is not going to be well served by the monuments we erect," said Agbere, "but by the values, the ideas we sow."
Agbere answered many of the Afghan soldiers questions, but eventually it was time to leave. Up until this point, the Afghan soldiers had sat and listened to Agbere's teachings. Now they crowded around hm wanting their picture taken with the Imam from the U.S. Army. It took 10 minutes and an escort of senior Afghan soldiers (who already had their pictures taken with Agbere), before the chaplain was able to leave the mosque.
"To make a difference, you don't need a gun," Agbere told the soldiers, " you need true character."