Captain Askia Toure, assistant operations officer and a Muslim, receives the Quran from members of Helmand province’s Ulema during their visit here, May 3, to speak with key coalition leaders for the first time since the transfer of authority a few months ago. (Photo by Spc. Chelsea Russell)
HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan (May 10, 2012) — A dark teal aircraft hovered above the gravel of the landing pad, kicking up dust and scattering rocks. The rear hatch opened and revealed a group of well-dressed figures draped in white. The Ulema of Helmand province had arrived to speak with key coalition leaders for the first time since the transfer of authority a few months ago.
Members of the Ulema consist of educated legal scholars who have completed years of training and thoroughly studied Islam. Many of the members of Helmand province’s Ulema are also part of the Helmand Provincial Peace Counsel.
Patrick Carroll, the cultural and governance advisor for Regional Command (Southwest), said the Ulema is a council of 72 religious scholars.
“They represent all 14 districts of Helmand province, and their central shura hall is located in Lashkar Gah,” said Carroll. “In general, they are looked on as influential religious leaders who provide moral guidance to the society in Helmand.”
The purpose of the Ulema’s visit was for them to learn about the cultural courses coalition forces go through as part of their deployment training and give them the opportunity to offer suggestions.
Their visit was a visible demonstration of International Security Assistant Force’s respect for the place of Islam in Afghan society. It represents a desire on the part of the commanding general to maintain a strong and positive bond between himself and the Islamic and the Islamic religious leaders of Helmand and Nimroz provinces, said Carroll.
During their visit, the Ulema visited British forces receiving cultural training where they shared their input on issues of cultural sensitivity and asked the instructors questions regarding the information taught to troops. The majority of their questions revolved around how suspected insurgents were treated by coalition servicemembers.
Sergeant “Moff” Moffat, a member of the Military Provost Staff, calmly answered their questions and reassured them professionalism was a key focus during any interaction coalition members might have with Afghan locals.
“It’s dealt with on a very professional basis and we only hold (insurgents) if there is a case strong enough,” said Moffat.
Maulawi Meherdel Farahee, Deputy Head of the Helmand Ulema Council and a member of the Helmand Provincial Peace Council, complimented coalition forces and said they were doing a good job.
“The reason we exchange ideas is to make sure we don’t make enemies,” said Farahee.
Maulawi Khuday Nazar, Head of the Helmand Ulema Council and a member of the HPPC, interjected to explain coalition forces shouldn’t be misled by the actions of a few insurgents because Afghans sincerely do appreciate the presence of coalition servicemembers.
“Every society, you have a group of people that like you and does not like you,” said Nazar. “Generally speaking, the Afghans like what the coalition forces are doing here. They appreciate it. Thank you. You have individuals and groups here that do not like you. Again, that does not mean you can generalize. All Afghans are not like that. Thank you for the sacrifices. Afghans appreciate coalition forces and their efforts here.“
Moffat thanked them, nodding his head in acknowledgement of the Ulema’s praise.
Major Gen. Charles Gurganus, the commanding general for Regional Command Southwest, met with various religious leaders of Helmand province during lunch for the first time, May 3, in an effort to maintain the strong ties between Afghans and military forces stationed here.
The general and members of the Ulema discussed plans for the future and talked of the progress evident here. After lunch, the Ulema members visited with fellow Muslim coalition members where they discussed religious matters over dates, fruit and other confectionary delights. They also participated in mid-day prayers with Afghan military members attending Joint Sustainment Academy Southwest during their visit.
Throughout the course of the day, Farahee and his fellow Ulema colleagues enjoyed talking with everyone about the best way to bring peace and civility to Afghanistan. He said he thinks Afghanistan is close to gaining peace.
“The reality is everybody is looking for peace in Afghanistan,” said Farahee. “We came to talk with Marines, Army and civilians. By talking, we can find the good things about solving our problems. We can teach them. We found that ISAF people coming to Afghanistan are really coming to help Afghanistan and make peace in Afghanistan.”
The visit went extremely well and the six Helmand Ulema members who visited were visibly pleased with everything they saw and with their talks with the general, said Carroll
Haji Abdul Hameed, Helmand Director of Hajj and Religious Affairs, praised the general’s efforts to meet with the Ulema.
“I like the fact that you are trying to make Afghanistan strong,” he said. “I also like you because you have looked at our history and you know that whoever gets the Ulema and Mullahs on their side, you will have success. We are the only ones who can bring Afghanistan back together again.”