Story and photo by 1st Lt. Timothy Irish
FORWARD OPERATING BASE JACKSON, Helmand province, Afghanistan – A U.S. Navy chaplain met with leaders of Sangin District, Helmand province, Afghanistan to discuss faith in a manner unique to his status, Sept. 3.
Lt. Asif Balbale, a Muslim chaplain and an Imam, spent time with the deputy district governor, the leading mullah, an Afghan National Army religious advisor, local elders from the district of Sangin and U.S. Navy chaplains from Regimental Combat Team 8.
“The purpose of that visit was to talk to them about their daily lives,” Balbale said. “It was also for them to be able to see the diversity we have in the U.S. Armed Forces. Just for them to see an Imam in the U.S. Armed Forces is a shock value for them. They had never imagined that is even possible.”
Mullahs and Imams, Muslim religious leaders, in Sangin are considered to be key influencers of the population. These leaders have grown in importance after years of war removed the permanent government and military officials that would normally share power in the tribal and religious based society.
U.S. service members are dissuaded from discussing religion with local Afghans especially if they are not Muslim. This leaves a whole range of issues and communication that will go unspoken. Saturday’s visit was meant as a way to introduce the chaplain and to begin a religion based dialogue.
Balbale’s youthful features made the gathering skeptical at first. The audience consisted of older Pashtun men whose tribal beliefs value the experience of age more than the formal education Balbale possesses.
The meeting consisted of a meal and private conversation amongst the military, political and religious leaders.
The elders began the meeting by questioning Balbale on his knowledge of the Quran. He responded in Urdu, a language Balbale learned while living in India, and cited passages from the Islamic holy book.
Questions then took on a more inquisitive nature after the initial skepticism wore off. A flurry of dialogue proceeded.
“Is your wife Muslim?” asked the leading mullah and Islamic religious leader of the district.
“How do Christians get married [in the U.S.]?” inquired a local elder.
“When a Muslim commits a crime in America do they get special treatment?” asked the local district chief of police.
Balbale answered the questions in rapid order but with a relaxed demeanor that put the participants at ease. His message was simple, Muslims should unite in their brotherhood and avoid violence towards one another.
“I’m glad that they asked those questions because we certainly respect the diversity in our nation. That is why people like me have immigrated to the United States,” said Balbale. “They were pleasantly surprised. Among the Muslims there is a sense of brotherhood no matter where you come from.
“This country has been through many wars and unfortunately there hasn’t been a steady influx of information into this country. So they are not aware of Muslims living in the United States being able to peacefully live side by side with different faith communities,” said Balbale.
Balbale will return to the United States in two days after little more than a month in Afghanistan. He chose this month for his trip to celebrate the Islamic holy month of Ramadan through religious outreach engagements across Helmand province. Sangin was the last stop for him.
More photos here.