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Documentary on PBS highlights 3 Muslim chaplains serving in the U.S. military


Veterans Day is this coming weekend. It's a time to acknowledge and honor those who have served in the military. This year, it comes at a time of serious tensions in the Middle East, tensions that reverberate here in the U.S., where many people are sorting through complicated emotions around identity, history and values. There's a group of people whose work, and indeed their lives, touch on all of these sensitive issues. We are talking about Muslim chaplains serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. Filmmakers David Washburn and Razi Jafri profiled three of them for a new film that premieres tonight on PBS. It's called "Three Chaplains," and I spoke with the filmmakers about it.

OK, David, I'm going to start with you, and forgive me for pointing this out. You're not a Muslim. You're not clergy. You're not in the military. How did you get interested in this story?

DAVID WASHBURN: I did a short film series with Muslim veterans prior to this that was looking at, you know, military life for Muslims in a post-911 era, and through meeting these veterans, I was introduced to Muslim chaplains in the U.S. military. And they're essentially the public face of Islam in the U.S. military. So just by the nature of them being Muslim leaders in the military, they are combating Islamophobia. They're pushing back against misunderstanding every day.

MARTIN: Razi, what about you? I think people may remember because I know that we covered one of your previous films. What about this particular project interested you?

RAZI JAFRI: Yeah. In my previous film, "Hamtramck, USA," we explored life and democracy in America's first Muslim-majority city, and so in the way that Muslims engage with the civic process, the electoral process, you know, one of the most important aspects of American society. And so, for me, it's really important to represent Muslims in ways that were not often seen in media and in the public.

MARTIN: You profile three different individuals, and they all have these really different stories. So let me just play this clip of Chaplain Saleha Jabeen. She's talking about her efforts to become the first female Muslim chaplain in the military. Here she is.


SALEHA JABEEN: When I first signed the contract and I talked to my - some of my close female Muslim friends, and the questions I was asked was, why do you want to join force with a system that is hellbent on destroying your own Muslim sisters and brothers? That was one of the first things that was thrown at - in my face.

WASHBURN: I think Saleha's response would probably be, I'm - as she shares later in the film - like, I understand we need to heal. I understand there's all sorts of tensions going on in civilian life. I want to take some of that healing and do work inside the U.S. military. As the other chaplains articulate in interviews that aren't seen in the film, they essentially say, you know, there's over 5,000 Muslim service members right now in the U.S. military, and if we're not here, who's going to take care of their needs?

MARTIN: It was interesting to hear the other two people that you interviewed - to talk about just how they thrived and survived, but still had to kind of manage these kinds of questions, even to the point of two of them having been sort of publicly held up as examples of - in the conservative media, I should say - as like, what are they doing there? And here's Khallid Shabazz. He is a colonel in the U.S. Army.


KHALLID SHABAZZ: I'm always in this quagmire where you got to prove yourself that you're not what people think. It really just irks me for every time somebody had introduced me to say that I'm the Muslim chaplain. Like, nobody says, this is the Catholic chaplain, you know, this is the Protestant chaplain.

MARTIN: David, you were talking a bit about that because one of the points that you were making is that these chaplains serve everybody. They are there specifically to assist the Muslim service members in the practice of their faith, but they really are there to counsel everybody. And they do.

WASHBURN: Yeah. Their daily life is one of interreligious dialogue. And so that fascinated us as filmmakers also 'cause that's kind of - that's what we want to see in the world. We want to see more interconnectedness between people of different backgrounds, understanding each other's perspective. I'm Jewish. Razi's Muslim. We've had some of these conversations ourself, given the conflict that has risen recently in Gaza and Israel. And so that kind of interconnectedness and understanding that is played out just on our film team is playing out, like, every day for these people on base. And what Khallid articulates in that moment, the sense that he's perceived to be an outsider or the enemy, unfortunately, by too many folks until he proves otherwise.

MARTIN: The third person whom you profile is - Rafael Lantigua is a major in the Air Force, and he says...


RAFAEL LANTIGUA: I'm an American Muslim who identifies as Afro Latino. A hundred and sixty-eight hours in the course of the week, 50 of those hours, I wear the uniform of this country. And wherever I go, thank you, sir, for your service. You're amazing. My kids want to shake your hand. We salute you. But for the rest of those hours during the course of the week, I'm either a light-skinned brother or I'm a undocumented worker from across the southern border or I'm a terrorist from the Middle East.

MARTIN: That was deep. I found myself wondering if doing this film gave particularly the two gentlemen who'd been in longer some sort of release for themselves to articulate these things.

JAFRI: I think it is relieving for them. And I think as the project went on, I think they shared more and more about some of the things that they were experiencing. They're constantly - you know, their loyalty's questioned on, you know, really both - on all sides.

WASHBURN: I think if people watch this film, they will be surprised by the level of honesty in which people in uniform are talking not only about their experiences, but about their - just their vulnerabilities as humans.

MARTIN: This film obviously took some time to develop. I'm just wondering how you think it lands in the current moment.

WASHBURN: Yeah. It did start quite a while ago. I mean, we were filming through the previous president's Muslim travel ban. We were editing during the current president's, you know, pull out of Afghanistan, and now the current conflict in Gaza and Israel. And each one of those reframes how we thought about the film. In some ways, this film is bridging, like, religious conversations. It's also bridging, like, a military-civilian divide that I think is obviously something we need to have in this country so we're understanding, like, what's at stake when our military gets engaged.

MARTIN: That's David Washburn. He's the director and producer, along with Razi Jafri, who's also a producer of "Three Chaplains." It airs as part of the "Independent Lens" series on PBS. You'll want to check your local listings for exact times. David Washburn, Razi Jafri, thanks so much for talking to us.

JAFRI: Thank you for having us.

WASHBURN: Thank you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF KINKAJOUS' "BLACK IDIOM PT. I") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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