At 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, Maj. Khallid Shabazz is physically imposing.
But what seems to intimidate some people more than his size is the little crescent moon stitched above the name tag on his uniform.
That crescent identifies Shabazz as one of five Islamic chaplains, called imams, in the Army. It’s a position that often draws considerable attention and sidelong stares given that America’s armed forces have fought Muslim extremists for more than a decade.
Shabazz confronts the issue head-on when he’s introduced to a command staff. While acknowledging the negative, he also demonstrates that there’s more to him than the Muslim label.
“I’m not a Muslim chaplain,” he explains. “I’m a chaplain who is Muslim.”
The Army’s imams are spread out geographically to maximize their impact; Shabazz is at Fort Gordon for training but is permanently stationed in Germany as the European Command’s only imam. It’s estimated that fewer than 1 percent of soldiers practice Islam, so Shabazz is more frequently called to perform Christian services than Muslim prayers. It’s familiar territory for Shabazz, who was born Michael Barnes in Alexandria, La.
Barnes was raised in the Christian church, but some bad choices as a teenager culminated with him getting shot in the back and beaten with a shovel. The Army promised a fresh start, so he enlisted in 1991.
Military life suited Shabazz, but his position in the artillery made him miserable. His search for direction led him to a religious debate with a Muslim, who changed his perspective on the faith and eventually led to his conversion.
His first introduction to the mistrust that often accompanies Islam came almost immediately. When Shabazz told a superior about his decision, the man he had idolized replied: “Why would you do something so stupid?”
Shabazz was crushed, but a Catholic chaplain consoled him and suggested he study to become a chaplain. It was a revelation.
“It just felt like something I was born to do,” Shabazz said.
A major part of this new step involved changing his name. Khallid means “one whose ideas live forever,” a reference to the schooling Shabazz has completed, including two years in Arabic language school in Jordan. Shabazz translates as “King of Eagles,” which Shabazz picked to show his enduring loyalty to America.
One of the biggest tests of his career came in 2004, when he was assigned as chaplain of the detainees at Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba. He was replacing a chaplain named Yusef Yee, who was arrested on sedition charges, which were later dropped. Shabazz shipped out in a week.
“I didn’t have the time to be super scared,” he said.
Shabazz initially felt like an outcast at Guantanamo. As an imam with no beard and an American soldier’s uniform, the detainees generally didn’t trust Shabazz. The guards at Guantanamo weren’t too keen on a man who catered to men America considered enemy combatants.
“It’s one of the toughest times of my life. I’m on nobody’s side,” Shabazz said.
Shabazz eventually won the minds of many at the base through his personality and a knack for organizing intramural basketball games wherever he’s stationed. It’s representative of his goal to be a model ambassador for America, its army and his faith.
“When soldiers interact with me and they get to know me, then I have a ball with these guys,” he said.