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Yahya Abdul-Qaadir, youth sports coordinator at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, said the Ramadan month of fasting tests Muslims’ faith and will. “It’s the time of year you sort of re-jump-start your spiritual life,” he said.
Yahya Abdul-Qaadir, youth sports coordinator at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, said the Ramadan month of fasting tests Muslims’ faith and will. “It’s the time of year you sort of re-jump-start your spiritual life,” he said. (Nancy Montgomery / S&S)

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Around 4:15 a.m. Monday, Yahya Abdul-Qaadir sat down with his family for breakfast. He ate chicken and rice. Then he was done with food and drink for the day — no coffee, no water, nothing until sunset. That’s the schedule he’ll be keeping all month.

Abdul-Qaadir is one of, at most, a handful of practicing Muslims on base; services conducted in the base chapel each Friday usually consist of him, he said, and one or two other men.

But Abdul-Qaadir writes the weekly religion column included in the base newspaper every Friday — and for last Friday’s edition he wrote about Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. He wrote it for two reasons, he said: to educate readers about the holy month, and to reach out to “undercover” Muslim sailors and civilians he’s sure exist on base and the 7th Fleet’s ships.

“It’s the time of year you sort of re-jump-start your spiritual life,” said Abdul-Qaadir, a youth sports coordinator for the base Morale, Welfare and Recreation department.

“A good friend of mine on the Kitty Hawk told me there were plenty of Muslims on the Kitty Hawk but they never revealed themselves. Another brother — he’s from Egypt — he keeps a low profile. When Ramadan comes, it’s also a way to reach out to sailors who’ve gone undercover.”

The month started Saturday and will conclude about Nov. 16 with Eid ul-Fitr, or Feast of the Fast-breaking, a celebratory banquet, gifts, family visits and prayer. In the meantime, all sane, healthy, adult Muslims are supposed to fast every day from before the morning prayer until sunset as a way to purify themselves as they rededicate themselves to faith, charity and goodness and to test their faith.

“You have good days and bad days,” Abdul-Qaadir said. “The first day is always great. You call everybody — all the Muslims you know. The second day is great. Some days you have bad days — you have to exert yourself physically. For instance, Thursday I do a PE class for home-schoolers,” he said. “I was shocked how tired I was just running around for an hour.”

Petty Officer 2nd Class Umar Hicks, who worships with Abdul-Qaadir most Fridays and works for Commander Naval Forces Japan, said for him, the first day of fasting is among the hardest. After that, he gets used to it except for one thing: “I miss water,” Hicks said.

The rigors of Ramadan vary with the time of year in which it occurs. Winter is easier because the time between sunrise and sunset is shorter. “If it falls in the winter month, you’ve got it real sweet,” Abdul-Qaadir said. “When I first became Muslim, it was in August and September. Your eyelids will get dry. You get cranky and irritable. That’s part of it — you have to show that self-restraint. If you can’t take it and you cussed somebody out, you will have broken the fast and have to make that up.

“One of my first Ramadans, I had just bought a new mountain bike,” Abdul-Qaadir said. “I rode it from the store to my mother’s house to my apartment. I almost passed out.”

Abdul-Qaadir, 35, is from Philadelphia and converted to Islam from Christianity when he was 20. “I was always a religious person. But Christianity just wasn’t doing if for me,” he said. Before he converted, his first name was John. He declined to say what his former last name was.

What does do it for him in Islam, he said, is its prescriptions for the way to live in all of life’s aspects.

“It’s a whole way of life. There’s no separation between church and state. Everything that encompasses someone’s life can be found in the Quran. I find it’s the ultimate guidance.”

But since the United States was attacked three years ago by Islamist terrorists, and after the United States went to war first against the Taliban in Afghanistan and then against Iraq, being openly Muslim can be an act of courage.

“It’s pretty difficult,” Abdul-Qaadir said. “The funny thing is … a lot of people don’t know I’m Muslim until they see my wife [who wears a scarf over her hair]. Then sometimes attitudes change. There can be intrusive stares. We live off-base and here in our neighborhood, everybody’s friendly. And the chaplains are very supportive.”

Lt. Cmdr. Philip Pelikan, a Charismatic Episcopal Church chaplain, agreed it was a tricky time to be a Muslim.

“I just counseled a couple that’s getting married. The guy is a sailor, an officer on base here, and his fiancée is from Malaysia. She couldn’t even get a pass to come on base because she’s from Malaysia,” Pelikan said. “It’s a predominantly Muslim country and has a Muslim government, and it’s difficult to track the terrorist groups [operating there].

“Anybody from Malaysia is on the list. We don’t have time to check if you’re a terrorist or not. That’s the way it is. When you’re at war, some things aren’t fair,” the chaplain said.

Abdul-Qaadir said when he arrived a year ago, six or seven Muslims attended Friday prayer services but they since have been assigned elsewhere. “I’m basically friends with two families and that’s about it,” he said.

Lt. Cmdr. Brook DeWalt, USS Kitty Hawk spokesman, said there were no Muslim religious services requested during the last under-way period but there had been such services the time before that, led by a lay reader.

There is a Muslim imam, or prayer leader, serving in the region: Lt. Muhiyyaldin Ibn Noel, of Camp Courtney, Okinawa. Noel, one of three U.S. Navy Muslim chaplains, declined to speak to a reporter without approval from the base public affairs official when he was reached Monday evening. Public affairs officials did not return phone calls.

According to one estimate, from 4,000 to 10,000 practicing Muslims and about a dozen Muslim chaplains serve in the U.S. armed forces. One of them, a U.S. Army Muslim chaplain, Capt. James Yee, 35, spent 76 days in custody after the military linked him to a possible espionage ring at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Yee was charged with mishandling classified material, failing to obey an order, making a false official statement, adultery and conduct unbecoming an officer. Eight months later, the charges were dismissed.

Hicks said that in Norfolk, Va., where he served previously, there were at least 100 Muslims and he was surprised there were so few here. Hicks said he’s generally been treated well. Commander Naval Forces Japan has accommodated his twice-daily prayers during the workday and prayer services on Fridays, he said. And on the last ship he was on, the galley opened early just for him during Ramadan so he could get something to eat before his daylong fast.

People do joke, though. In housing, he said, someone saw his Arabic clock and said, “I’m going to turn you in to Homeland Security.”

Hicks was not amused. “I didn’t say anything,” he said.

The largest denomination on Yokosuka base is Roman Catholicism — some 500 attend Sunday services, in part because of the large Filipino presence on base. Next largest is evangelical Christians — about 200 worshippers each Sunday — followed by mainstream Protestants — about 170, Pelikan said. There are about 20 Jews who attend Sabbath services each Friday, Pelikan said.

Abdul-Qaadir said he hopes his article in the base paper will inspire Muslims who haven’t been practicing to start doing so.

“There are plenty of mosques in Japan,” he said. “Hopefully, somebody will call me and want to go to the Eid.”

Migrated
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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
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