The U.S. military is getting its first Muslim division-level chaplain in history this summer.
Army Lt. Col. Khallid Shabazz received a call in January that he was selected to become the spiritual leader of more than 14,000 mostly Christian soldiers, McClatchy reports.
When he received the news at his desk at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, he said he found it hard to contain his excitement. From McClatchy:
“I’m on the phone saying, ‘Thank you, I appreciate it. I’ll serve honorably,’ and then I hang up the phone and I’m jumping all around like a little kid,” Shabazz, 48, recalled in interviews in February. “I was running around the office saying, al hamdulillah, al hamdulillah, praise be to God!”
Shabazz, from Alexandria, Louisiana, is one of only 10 Muslim chaplains in the entire U.S. military, and one of five of about 1,400 in the Army, according to the news outlet.
He will become chaplain of the Army’s 7th Infantry Division at Lewis-McChord. He said senior officers gave him a standing ovation when the news was announced at a meeting at his base.
However, he said he recognizes he’ll have to overcome some hurdles.
“Islamic guy in a leadership position?” he told McClatchy. “If I think about it too much, it’ll get overwhelming.”
Shabazz was born as Michael Barnes into a devout Lutheran family. He enlisted in the Army when he was 23 years old and served in an artillery unit, according to NPR.
After he had joined the Army, he challenged a Muslim soldier to a debate and lost so badly he felt shamed into studying more about the religion. After two years, he converted to Islam and changed his name. He told McClatchy about the debate:
“It was all-out cognitive dissonance, depression and shame, honestly,” Shabazz said, recalling his feelings at that moment. “I thought I had a stronghold on the truth. And, for the first time, my confidence was shaken in who I was as a human being and what I believed.”
Shabazz said he has sometimes been treated unfairly because his leadership did not appear informed on Islamic practices, such as needing time to perform the traditional Friday prayers, fasting during Ramadan, and abstaining from eating pork.
“When you have an unknown there, sometimes the leadership kind of treats you unfairly because they’re not educated into what you’re doing,” he said, but added, “In defense of them, I didn’t explain it very well, either. I was growing. There were some tough days.”
He said a passing chaplain noticed his distress one day, and they had an hour-long chat. The Christian chaplain mentioned the Army had received its first active-duty Muslim chaplain and suggested a similar path. Shabazz said it was like a revelation from God.
“Once it came out of his mouth, I said, ‘That is my calling. That is what I want to do for the rest of my life,'” he said.
Shabazz has been in the Army for 26 years and has spent 18 years as a chaplain. He has deployed to Iraq, Kosovo, and Guantánamo Bay Naval Station, he said.
The Pentagon has more than 6,000 self-identified Muslims, out of a total of 1.3 active-duty troops and more than 800,000 guard and reservists.
He declined to discuss whether anti-Muslim hostility has worsened because of President Donald Trump.
Criticism of the White House is taboo in the military, even during private sessions with soldiers, he said.
“Regardless of what they might think, he’s our commander in chief,” Shabazz said.