For more than two centuries, only two faiths were represented by officers in the United States Navy Chaplain Corps: Christianity and Judaism. But the U.S. Navy was not alone in this regard. Until the early 1990s, in fact, only Chaplains from these two faiths were found in any of the branches of the United States Armed Forces.
The winds of change began to blow in 1990 when the Armed Forces Chaplains Board started the wheels in motion that would enable the appointment of the first Buddhist Chaplain in the United States Military. Without a named candidate for such a position, the U.S. Army was instructed to create an insignia for Buddhist Chaplain; it gave the task to The Institute of Heraldry, which submitted a design that was approved in August, 1990.
It was not until December, 1992 that a request was submitted by the U.S. Army’s Chief of Chaplains for the creation of an insignia for a Muslim Chaplain. The Department of the Army quickly approved the request, and the resulting design—a silver crescent—was officially approved on January 8, 1993.
The first Muslim Chaplain in the United States Armed Forces, Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad, was commissioned as a U.S. Army Chaplain in a ceremony held at the Pentagon on December 3, 1993. It would be more than a year-and-a-half later before the Navy would perform a similar ceremony—but it was shrouded in a bit of secrecy both then and later.
In March, 1996, a Chaplain candidate identified simply as Imam M. Noel, Jr. took part in a frocking ceremony conducted by U.S. Navy Chaplain Arnold Resicoff at the U.S. Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton, Connecticut. Frocking is conducted when a person has been nominated for promotion and is allowed to wear the insignia for the new rank, but has not yet been commissioned. It wasn’t until some five months later, on August 8, that the Imam—whose full name was Imam Monje Malak Abd al-Muta Noel, Jr.—was commissioned as a Lieutenant (jg) in the United States Navy Chaplain Corps.
But as terrorist acts committed by Muslim extremists increased in the late 1990s, culminating at the end of the decade with the attack on the USS Cole and the subsequent terror attacks on September 11, 2001, the Navy felt it would be best to keep Chaplain Noel’s full name concealed in order to prevent possible retaliation by those who might consider his service to the U.S. as an act of collaboration. In a 2001 USA Today article following the launch of the invasion of Afghanistan, Noel was referred to as “Lt. Muhiyyaldin,” though the article did divulge he was the Navy’s first Muslim Chaplain. And in a Stars and Stripes story that was published in June, 2003, he was called Lt. “Muhiyyaldin Ibn Noel;” at the time, he was one of only three Muslims in the U.S. Navy.
While Muslim Chaplains do not face the same suspicions today as they did at the start of the 21st century, their situation is still unique among Navy Chaplains in that the religion they represent is being used as a false justification for terrorist acts. Besides providing Sailors who practice Islam with religious guidance, the Navy’s Muslim Chaplains are also an excellent source of understanding when it comes to the cultures and practices of different area in which the Navy is carrying out operations in the Global War on Terror.