UK's Muslim soldiers ‘fighting extremists not Muslims'

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Private Shehab El-Din Ahmed El-MiniawiImage source, Other
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Pte El-Miniawi said he'd "happily die for and kill for" his country

With more than 600 Muslims in the British Armed Forces, do those that are deployed on the front line in Afghanistan have to reconcile their beliefs in order to fight hardline Islamic Taliban militants?

"My home is the UK. As a Muslim, that's the place I'd happily die for and kill for. That's the same way it's going to remain until my dying day.

"My entire soul belongs to the UK and I'm more than proud to fight for this country."

Pte Shehab El-Din Ahmed El-Miniawi, is serving with 2nd Battalion The Parachute Regiment in Helmand Province, a Taliban stronghold and scene of some of the heaviest fighting in the nation.

The only practising Muslim in his battalion, Pte El-Miniawi is on his first tour of Afghanistan.

"I came with no perception of what this place was going to be like, be it hot, be it cold, be it dangerous, be it IED (improvised explosive device)-ridden, whatever," he said.

"If you narrow it down, we're not just fighting Muslims we're fighting extremists. Every culture, every faith... has an extremist background in it.

"That's something I personally feel should be eradicated, so this is why I'm here to fight this war really."

Pte El-Miniawi said his religion was often an advantage out on patrol and the Afghan people warmed to him once they realised they shared the same faith.

"The bosses, the officers who have helped me out on the ground, have pushed me forward to talk to and engage with locals and that breaks the ice.

Image source, Other
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Pte El-Miniawi said being Muslim helped him communicate with Afghan people on the ground

"They know who I am, they know my background, so they tend to come to me thinking I'm some sort of a commander," he said.

"It's been extremely hard work, I wasn't expecting this much responsibility as an infantry soldier."

While out on operation he has been attempting to stabilise and rebuild a desolate village in Helmand, so local villagers can return.

"We're looking to support the locals, clear the compounds of IEDs, then hold the area.

"It requires a lot of talking to the locals as well, understanding what their background is like, looking at what they want from us."

He said his fellow soldiers had joked with him about being Muslim, but it was not a real issue.

"You're seen as one of the blokes. You mingle with everyone, you're all the same people, doing the same job, so why should you be treated any differently?

"At some points you're always going to expect some kind of banter but it's nothing you should be downhearted by, because you're going to get it either way, be you any faith, any colour, fat, thin, small, tall, it's all the same really.

"So me being Muslim, a bit darker than everyone else and a bit hairier, its no big deal at all."

Muslims in the military have faced criticism from members of their own communities in the UK, who are against what they see as taking up arms against fellow Muslims in conflicts such as Afghanistan and previously Iraq.

Zeeshan Hashmi was one of the first British Muslim servicemen to be deployed to Afghanistan, in 2002 and was in the Intelligence Corps for five years.

His brother L/Cpl Jabron Hashmi also served in the Army, but was killed in 2006, becoming the first British Muslim soldier to die in Afghanistan.

Although there was an outpouring of sympathy from his local community, there was criticism too.

"There were certain remarks put on the internet, on a given website, certain people see my brother as a traitor because of his role as a soldier, because of his role in the armed forces, in Afghanistan," said Zeeshan Hashmi.

Being a Muslim in the British Armed Forces is not without its risks.

Aside from the obvious dangers all troops deployed in Afghanistan face, such as roadside bombs and suicide attacks, on their return to the UK some Muslim soldiers have experienced threats from extremists within their own community.

A Birmingham man was convicted in 2008 for his involvement in a plot to kidnap and behead a British Muslim soldier.

Stationed at Camp Bastion in Helmand, Royal Navy serviceman Able Rate Boubakr Kanye said such criticism was made by groups desperate for attention.

"We're just going to focus on what we do here, they have to read and see the good things people are doing here.

"Most of the time people come to me to shake my hand.

"I've been receiving so many e-mails, from the Mosque, saying thank you very much for all the jobs you guys are doing."

Image source, Other
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Able Rate Boubakr Kanye said he got e-mails from a Mosque commending his work

Cpl Raziya Aslam has been deployed in Lashkar Gah in Helmand as a linguist since November 2010.

"I don't see it as a war against Islam," she said.

"Some of the work is helping people and hopefully Afghanistan to progress."

Cpl Aslam, who was born in the UK to parents who emigrated from Pakistan, was so eager to travel to Afghanistan she spent a year studying Pashto.

Her job sees her acting as an interpreter at a village meeting, known as a "shura".

At the small military base in Lashkar Gah her living quarters are a row of green tents beneath the shadow of a local mosque.

"We've got eight in our tent. You're working long hours, 12-13 hours a day. You have a shower, wind down and go to sleep. It's just sleep and work"

She joined the RAF 11 years ago because of the opportunities to travel a life in the forces offered.

Her family is supportive but she admitted they would have preferred her to "get married and settle down".

Dr Joel Hayward is dean of the RAF College, Cranwell and a Muslim himself.

He said there was no conflict for a practising Muslim to serve in the British armed forces in Afghanistan.

"There's a direct correlation at least in my mind, as a scholar and as a Muslim, between those first persecutors of the Muslim community, and for example the terrorists and the insurgents that try and destabilise our world, or try and prevent Afghanistan from finding a proper place as a free nation in the community of nations.

"And so I have no worries in that sense about telling brother Muslims, or sisters, who are going out fight in Afghanistan that this is not incompatible with Islam."

But Muslims are still under-represented in the armed forces.

Gen Sir David Richards, Chief of the Defence Staff recently paid tribute to serving Muslim soldiers and called for more to join up.

"We've got a very bright, vibrant and growing number of Muslims in the British armed forces and they are a very important part of our lives.

"They are very proud members of the British nation but they happen to be Muslims as well, they don't think there's any contradiction at all."

Asian Network Reports: Muslims on the Frontline is broadcast Monday 21 February at 1800 GMT.

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