The Strange Case of Chaplain Yee

James Yee’s spiritual journey over the next decade, which eventually brought him to Cuba as the fourth Muslim chaplain assigned in less than a year to Camp Delta’s detainees, seems to have begun almost casually. At first, his conversion “did not feel particularly momentous,” he tells us in his memoir For God and Country. In his description, it sounds more like a consumer than a theological choice: accepting the “simplicity” of Islam’s belief in one God didn’t require trading in Jesus for Muhammad, as he saw it, but putting them more or less on a par as prophets. Although he had been raised as a Lutheran to believe in the Trinity, he had never considered religion to be a major factor in his life and didn’t see why it had to become one as a consequence of his conversion. Islam, at this stage, was a more comfortable creed, not a way of life.

To his apparent surprise, its claim on his attention gradually deepened, particularly when he was assigned to Saudi Arabia, after the first Gulf War, as an air defense artillery officer in a Patriot missile crew. Setting an example of religious tolerance that, needless to say, went unreciprocated, the American command allowed its troops to frequent a Saudi “cultural center” at King Abdul Aziz air base where non-Muslims were quietly proselytized—Yee claims that large numbers of Americans converted during the Gulf War—and Muslim servicemen could sign up for bus excursions to Mecca. Yee, who professes to have felt entirely at home in the relatively homogeneous New Jersey suburb where he’d grown up as a member of an ethnic minority, found a kind of liberation in the “diversity” of Islam. This was real multiculturalism, all those Asians, Africans, Iranians, and Turks mixed in with Arabs and praying on a footing of equality; this was indeed “momentous.” Mecca, as he experienced it on this first of three trips (the first a mere visit, the second two a proper Hajj), was what his father had always taught him America was supposed to be. “The diversity of Islam,” he writes, “was incredible…. I’d never seen anything as truly diverse as this.”

So moved was he that within two years he’d resigned from the army with the aim of pursuing Islamic studies to qualify as an imam and immersing himself in Arabic; within three years, this Chinese-American West Point graduate from New Jersey was enrolled in Abu Noor University in Damascus where he stayed four years, returning home with a Palestinian wife who kept herself covered and spoke only limited English. Captain Yee’s story is remarkable even before he was recruited back into the army as a Muslim chaplain, even before he was sent to Guantánamo. His story up to this point, before it turns really dark, has strong interest as a narrative of one American’s quest in the mall of religions, faiths, and cults that this country becomes for so …

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