Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot!
In January, Lt. Col. Khallid Shabazz received the call every Army chaplain dreams of, the call that validates years of intense study and hard work toward keeping the U.S. military in good spiritual health.
He was offered the job of chaplain for an entire division, an honor for anyone in his field but a milestone in his case. After a ceremony this summer, Shabazz will become the first Muslim division-level chaplain in the history of the U.S. military – a Muslim spiritual leader for more than 14,000 mostly Christian soldiers.
Shabazz, who’s dedicated his life to working across religious lines, found it hard to keep calm as he received the news at his desk on Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington.
“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!”
To get a sense of what a long shot this might’ve seemed like to Shabazz, consider the numbers: He’s one of only 10 Muslim chaplains in the entire U.S. military; of the Army’s 1,400 or so chaplains, just five are Muslim.
“When you get the call saying you have been bestowed a division, the news is kind of like, unearthly,” Shabazz said. “The list is so small and it’s such a tough cut.”
With four months until the ceremony that will make him chaplain of the Army’s 7th Infantry Division at Lewis-McChord, Shabazz has plenty of time to think about taking on such a visible role in an age of open anti-Muslim hostility. He’d like to think his transition will be as smooth as those of his Christian peers, but he knows that not everyone will welcome him as warmly as the senior officers who gave him a standing ovation when the news was announced at a meeting on base.
“For me, a regular old guy from Louisiana, I look to the heavens and say, ‘Why me?’ ” Shabazz said. “As the day gets closer, I’m sure I’ll have more anxiety and think about it more. I’m extremely proud to have been on this journey for 20 years and never would’ve imagined that I’d be chosen to be the first.”
“Islamic guy in a leadership position?” he said. “If I think about it too much, it’ll get overwhelming.”
Shabazz came into the world as Michael Barnes, born into a large Lutheran family in Alexandria, Louisiana, about three hours from New Orleans.
Faith was at the center of the household. His mother took the family to church three times a week and recited prayers with her children each night. Shabazz, a lifelong athlete with a 6-foot-5-inch, 255-pound frame, had to study catechism before he could play football and basketball on Saturdays.
Shabazz began studying Islam on his own, determined to correct the lack of knowledge revealed in his debate with the Muslim soldier. He’d work all day and then stay up well past midnight paging through the Bible and the Quran. He described it as going into a “cubbyhole.”
After two years, Michael Barnes, the devout Christian reared in a Louisiana church, decided to convert to Islam, taking the name Khallid Shabazz to complete his transformation. He said that there had been no single tipping point in his thinking, just a deep identification with Islamic tenets, such as the lack of a clerical hierarchy and the emphasis on charity.
“One of my favorite passages in the Quran asks if the man who thinks and the man who does are the same,” Shabazz said. “It’s the thinking component in Islam that really intrigued me. I am in control of my grace, and I don’t have to answer to the imam. I tell my congregation, ‘Listen, you have to do your own research.’ ”
“My job is not to convert anybody to Islam. God guides people. My only goal is to have people leave my office stronger than when they came in.”
Sometimes, though, soldiers do convert and turn to Shabazz for guidance as they enter Islam. One of the most unusual conversions came just three months ago, Shabazz said. A master sergeant in the Special Forces – a man who’d come to no Friday prayers or study groups – showed up, crying, to meet with Shabazz. He told the imam he was ready to take shahada, the modest ritual to officially accept Islam.
“He said, ‘I heard you’re a good chaplain. I’ve been thinking about Islam for about three years,’ ” Shabazz recalled. “I took him down to the mosque, he took shahada and I’ve never seen him again.”
Much of Shabazz’s workload involves the rejection of Islam rather than the embrace of it. He writes a newsletter that goes to all the commanders on base and he offers cultural awareness classes in hopes of “getting out ahead,” staving off the anti-Muslim incidents that have made headlines at other bases. He writes memos in support of soldiers seeking halal meals or prayer breaks, hoping to bridge the communication gap with officers that existed when he was a young enlisted Muslim.
“Some of the challenges will be really changing perceptions, changing mindsets, showing that I am something other than what they see – the guy on TV, the boogeyman,” Shabazz said. “I have a real opportunity to be an ambassador for the Army and for my religion.”
His religion is antithetical to all others.