The British armed forces wants to convince more ethnic minorities -- particularly Muslims -- to sign up. But with wars raging in primarily Muslim Iraq and Afghanistan, that's not an easy task.
Will more Muslims soon be among British military ranks?
The British military has an image problem: potential new recruits think it's primarily interested in signing-on more white soldiers. Now, the military leadership is hoping to change that. In the past year, the Ethnic Minorities Recruiting Team, the division charged with bringing diversity to the ranks, has focused on drawing new soldiers from the Muslim community.
But with tighter security measures since Sept. 11 often targeting Muslims and the ongoing debate over British involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, getting Muslims to enlist is not an easy task.
Diversifying the ranks
There are only 120 Muslims currently serving in the British Armed Forces, and Warrant Officer Ashok Kumar Chauhan, the second in command of the Ethnic Minorities Recruiting Team and a Hindu of Indian origin, is one of the people charged with changing that. To get the word out -- that the British military is open to all -- he has started to bring his show on the road.
On one such occasion in London's Gunnersbury Park on a recent Sunday afternoon, Chauhan manned an information booth at the Mela, a huge multicultural festival that attracts thousands of Muslims of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan and Nepalese decent. Here, Chauhan did tried to make his message clear.
"We want people to know there are blacks and Asians in the Army, as well as Hindus Muslims and Sheiks, and they're all working together," Chauhan told Deutsche Welle. "When many look at the army, they see that it's predominately white…but the only way to change that is for people to come and join, to reflect society."
Challenges of convincing Muslims
Is the effort working, despite the ongoing tensions in primarily Muslim Afghanistan and Iraq?
According to Chauhan, those conflicts have not made his job more difficult. But that has not been the experience of some of his staff.
Ali Mogul, a Muslim soldier of Pakistani origin who normally serves in the Dental core but has recently been attached to Chauhan's recruiting team, has noticed a difference.
"When we go to events like this, we do get questions from Muslims," Mogul told Deutsche Welle. "They think there wasn't a good reason to go to war in Iraq and that Britain -- and the British Army -- is against Muslims."
Potential recruits have mixed feelings
Mogul's experience reflects a growing reality. Even for those young Muslims for whom the idea of signing up is not unthinkable, they admittedly worry they'll be called upon to fight against people with the same religious beliefs.
Abdullah, a 17-year-old Somali Muslim who was at the event in London, for example, said he did not have a problem with the idea of being a Muslim soldier in the British military. But the thought of fighting against other Muslims, say in Iraq, made him more than a little uneasy.
"I would feel uncomfortable, like I was fighting my own people," he told Deutsche Welle. "If fighting means killing other Muslims, I don't think I could do it." Given that Britain will likely to be involved in Afghanistan and Iraq for a long time to come, the unease Muslims like Abdullah feel could remain an obstacle to the British army's efforts to bring Muslims into the army.