Saleha Jabeen to be First Female Muslim Chaplain in US Military

The Air Force recently announced the commissioning of Saleha Jabeen as a chaplain candidate — which will make her the first female Muslim Chaplain when she completes her program. Jabeen was formerly an enlisted health care specialist in the US Army. Interestingly, Jabeen’s academic credentials come from North Park University (a private Christian school in Chicago), the Catholic Theological Union and Trinity Christian College. Air Force Chief of Chaplains Steven Schaick, who commissioned her in Chicago at the Catholic Theological Union, said

“Any time we advance religious freedoms, it’s a win for all persons of faith. The fact is America is a place where the Constitution guarantees your freedom to embrace or abstain from religious ideals, and the Chaplain Corps, which Jabeen just entered, exists to ensure every Airman has a religious freedom advocate. This is a big day not just for Muslims, but for persons of all faiths. I could not be more proud of our Air Force for being willing to commission and embrace the first female Imam in the Department of Defense.”

It’s an interesting thought. First, biased critics of the military chaplaincy are quick to claim the military chaplaincy doesn’t reflect the religious beliefs of US troops. Yet, those critics have been silent over Jabeen’s appointment — one that certainly reflects the religious beliefs of very few US troops.

Consider, for example, how well a female Catholic chaplain could serve in the US military. Since Catholics don’t have female priests, there would be extraordinarily few practicing Catholics who would submit to a female Catholic chaplain.

The same is generally true for Islam: While there’s no “Pope” in Islam decreeing the gender of Imams, the Islamic faith — which stereotypically separates genders during religious services and requires females to wear covering garments — generally does not permit females to lead religious services; at least, not mixed-gender services. (Stephen Losey at the AF Times noted female Imams are “relatively uncommon.”)

Depending on the numbers referenced, Muslims in the entire US military number in the “few thousand” range, or about 0.5% of the total DoD population. Based on the tenets and practice of the Islamic faith, it seems likely only a small fraction of them would support a female Imam. Assuming a comparable representation within the Air Force alone, and the optimistic assumption 50% would support a female religious leader, Jabeen would be entering the US Air Force to serve a grand total of about 800 Airmen spread around the world — out of an Active Duty Service of about 325,000 (as of January 2020).

That’s not to minimize the necessity of protecting the religious liberty of all troops, including those who are a small portion of the US military. The problem is that by commissioning an “unorthodox” religious leader, the Air Force undermines its own cause and limits the ability of those troops to have a leader in their faith.

There are arms of the Islamic world that are becoming more accepting of women in general, including female religious leaders. Somewhat ironically, Jabeen is endorsed by the Islamic Society of North America — an organization once accused of having very hard-line faith ideas and ties to terrorism. Presumably, they’ve become more… progressive.

With respect to military religious freedom, Jabeen’s commissioning is a good thing. While the tangible impact of supporting an extremely small faith group is limited, the idea that the Air Force would prioritize that faith is admirable, errant theology notwithstanding. Chaplain Schaick’s observation is valid — it’s a good day for all faiths in the military: When it comes to religious liberty, a rising tide lifts all boats. The emphasis on the religious exercise and freedom of Jabeen and those who share her faith also means there should be an emphasis on the same for Christians as they exercise their faith.

“Truth is great and will prevail if left to herself,” and Christians know the Truth. They just need the same opportunity to exercise it.

Also at Air Force Magazine and the Religion News Service.