Stateside Podcast: The U.S. military's Muslim chaplains
Out of approximately 3,000 chaplains serving in the U.S. military, less than 20 are Muslim. A new PBS documentary, titled Three Chaplains, highlights the work of three Muslim chaplains as they balance their commitment to their faith and to their roles in the military. Stateside spoke with the film’s producer, Razi Jafri, and director, David Washburn, about their filmmaking process and objectives in making this documentary.
In considering which chaplains to feature in this film, Jafri and Washburn said they wanted to represent the diversity within the Muslim community. The film focuses on three chaplains: Saleha Jabeen is an immigrant from India; Khallid Shabazz is an African-American from Louisiana; and Rafael Lantigua is an Afro-Latino from Texas.
“Islam is the most diverse religion in America, and I think that's reflected in the experiences and in the representation that we see on screen,” Jafri said. “I think it [the film] cuts across some stereotypes as well, that Muslims are predominantly Middle Eastern or South Asian.”
The film also explores broader questions about how religious minorities might experience military service. Washburn said that Muslim chaplains in the U.S. military occupy a space where questions about religious freedom, Islamophobia, and diversity converge.
“At the core of this film, for me, not being Muslim, but being from a Jewish background [is] this the sense of, how do we practice? How do we live out this idea of religious freedom and pluralism?” Washburn said.
Jafri and Washburn also wanted to flip the script on what a documentary about military service should be: they were interested in creating a film that was focused on how Muslim members of the U.S. military heal instead of how they experience combat.
However, both Washburn and Jafri pointed out the difficulties for Muslim members of the U.S. military to align with a military that has supported and enacted mass violence on Muslim-majority communities — both presently and in the past.
“There's a lot of people in the Muslim community who disagree with Muslims being involved in the military,” Jafri said. “I think right now with what we're seeing with the actions and the bombardment in Gaza, that kind of apprehension, to put it mildly, is only going to increase. I think it's one of the things that has raised the stakes for Muslims in the military with whatever role they might be serving in.”
The stakes have been high for every step of the filmmaking process.
“We were filming during the previous president’s Muslim travel ban, and we were editing during this current president's pullout from Afghanistan, and now we're promoting the film during this conflict in Gaza and Israel … Each one of those reframes how viewers might think of the film, how we as filmmakers see the film,” Washburn said. “I think one thing for me as the director of the film [that] remained consistent through all of those [moments] is that we need to see accurate and humanizing portrayals of Muslims, particularly Muslims in leadership, to counterbalance everything else we're seeing.”
In a time of increased Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, Jafri expressed the importance of further humanizing Islam and continuing interfaith work. Jafri and Washburn plan to take the documentary to libraries and community centers, as well as interfaith events.
“We hope that we get people from many different backgrounds that will join us in having perhaps some really difficult conversations, but conversations that will continue to build bridges and build peace,” Jafri said.
- Razi Jafri, producer of Three Chaplains
- David Washburn, director of Three Chaplains