A rich voice sang out from a tent, over the bowed heads of elders sitting on carpets and out across the moonscape of rocks, dust and jagged mountains. It was a Muslim prayer, but the kind of prayer never before heard in this part of southern Afghanistan.
"Oh God, help us," Captain Suleyman Demiray said. "Help the Afghan forces and coalition forces root out all kinds of terrorism from this country."
In his Canadian Forces fatigues, Capt. Demiray, 39, looks like any other soldier, except for his white skullcap and the embroidered crescent moon on his chest. As the only military imam in Afghanistan, Capt. Demiray is one of Canada's secret weapons against the insurgency.
Journalists in Afghanistan are forbidden from photographing him, and he hasn't given an interview since he arrived here in early March because he fears making himself a target.
But after watching the warm reaction of elders who listened to his prayers on Saturday during the official opening of Forward Operating Base Martello, Capt. Demiray cautiously agreed to talk about his work.
"The religious language is so powerful," he said, quietly. "It's a common language for connecting with these people."
Brigadier-General David Fraser spent part of the afternoon sitting cross-legged on carpets at the new base, picking at a bowl of grapes, oranges and kiwi fruit, and talking with men in turbans who represent the local tribes. The success of FOB Martello, perched on a rocky outcrop about 200 kilometres north of Kandahar, depends largely on the goodwill of the elders who can advise the nearby villagers whether to help the Canadian newcomers or the Taliban insurgents.
The elders seemed argumentative with the Canadian commander. But when Capt. Demiray stepped into the circle and started reciting verses of the Koran, a hush fell over the tent and the bearded men lifted their hands in supplication.
"I was watching the eyes of the people in that tent," Gen. Fraser said afterward. "They were listening to our imam very carefully."
Among dozens of countries fielding armies in Afghanistan, Canada is the only one to experiment with using an imam to deliver a message of peace. This is an area where Canada brings something new to the battlefield, Gen. Fraser said, because of the country's strong tradition of multiculturalism.
"We bring that very fabric to everything we do," he said. "It's an understanding and a sensitivity to the people, and it's one of our real strengths."
One measure of Capt. Demiray's influence was his effect on Mullah Yara Jan.
The 60-year-old used to preach at a village mosque not far from the Canadian base, but he was forced to quit a year ago when his 30-year-old son was arrested on suspicion of helping the Taliban. The loss of a working son obliged Mr. Jan to leave his mosque and start working at a pharmacy to support his family. He had every reason to hold a grudge against the foreign troops, but he showed up at Saturday's ceremony to help Capt. Demiray sing the prayers.
"I am angry about my son," Mr. Jan said. "I can hardly sleep. My eyesight fails, I get so angry. . . . [But]it's very good work here. They are trying to enforce security."
Capt. Demiray was born in Turkey and immigrated to Canada in 1993. He joined the military a decade later, becoming its first Muslim chaplain. Beyond saying prayers with elders, Capt. Demiray ministers to the 200 Muslims among Canada's 60,000 military personnel. He also advises the forces on cultural issues. He recently tried to persuade the chain of command that soldiers shouldn't give away copies of men's magazines to their Afghan allies, because the photos of scantily clad women could tarnish the Canadians' image among devout Muslims.
Religion could become a more powerful tool against the insurgents, Capt. Demiray said, if the Afghan government took more control over spiritual discourse in the country. The government already supports the Islamic Scholars' Council, or ulema, which has been attacked several times by the Taliban because of its success with persuading radical preachers to tone down their rhetoric.
But the government could go further, Capt. Demiray said, by putting mullahs on the public payroll and checking to ensure that they're not supporting terrorism.
He acknowledges that it's an unusual idea, and it would only be a temporary measure until Afghanistan is pacified.
In the meantime, he added, he'll continue singing prayers, and continue watching for reaction among his listeners.
"You see it in their faces," he said. "They want to say so many things to you. You can feel it."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai says his government will give weapons to local tribesmen so they can help fight the biggest surge in Taliban violence in years. However, Western diplomats briefed on the plan worry it could fuel factional fighting by giving weapons to forces loyal to warlords with a long history of factional disputes. A government spokesman said Mr. Karzai is confident that would not happen because the recruits will be loyal to Kabul.
A British soldier was killed and two more seriously wounded in a battle with Taliban forces in southern Afghanistan yesterday, the British Ministry of Defence said.
Another coalition soldier was killed when a bomb hit an armoured vehicle during a search of a village in southern Ghazni province, the U.S. military said in a statement without disclosing the soldier's nationality.