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"Nothing out of the ordinary" - Navy's highest-ranking Muslim speaks about his promotion

1st Sep 2006

Promoted yesterday, Thursday 31 August 2006, Rear Admiral Amjad Hussain is now the highest ranking Muslim serving in the Armed Forces.
Rear Admiral Amjad Hussain talks to the media as the highest ranking Muslim serving in the Armed Forces. 

Rear Admiral Amjad Hussain yesterday, 31 August 2006, become the highest-ranking Muslim ever to serve in the UK Armed Forces.

Born in a village in Pakistan 48 years ago, Rear Admiral Hussain's background is not what you would expect from a typical Naval Officer. His was a spartan upbringing - his village didn't have running water, gas, electricity or even communications and basic sanitation.  He came to Britain at the age of five and, after a standard education, joined the Navy at the age of 18.

Rear Admiral Hussain's father, Mazhar Hussain, initially worked in an Army Stores depot before becoming a railway signalman. Mazhar then worked in a post office as a sorter, at the same time setting up a small property business.  The Royal Navy sponsored Amjad to read Engineering Science and Business Administration at Durham University.

So for Rear Admiral Hussain the huge interest, particularly from the media, in this recent promotion has been a big surprise. Currently, there are over 300 Muslims serving in all branches of the Armed Forces.  Rear Admiral Hussain sees himself as just another Naval Officer doing the job he is paid to do:

"We didn't publicise the selection because to us this is nothing out of the ordinary. I have been taken aback by the interest and really astonished at the number of people not acquainted with the military who have expressed almost shock that we have a Rear Admiral in the Royal Navy from a background like mine.

"There are heaps of people with backgrounds like mine who are just working quietly and patiently in their chosen careers and walks of life. They are in every part of society whether in the civil service, military, NHS or as prominent businessmen or bankers. And at a time when there is lots of talk about the bad news elements we forget too easily how many people are just going about their normal business who don't think my promotion odd or unusual at all.

"For those kids who have limited their ambitions because they think parts of society or walks of life are closed to them, for kids with backgrounds not dissmilar to mine, there are lots of opportuntites in the UK.

"Certainly I and my family think we have been very fortunate. We are fortunate to be here and to be part of society in the UK. I think I am quite lucky. I work in an organisation that is very focused on promoting on merit and very focused on encouraging hard work and team work.

"For those kids out there, I just want to make the point that they shouldn't let their futures and ambitions be imprisoned by their own prejudices. It's too easy to make that mistake."

On promotion to Rear Admiral, has he received any negative criticism from the Muslim community?

"None whatsoever. In fact, my parents have had people who they haven't seen for thirty years contact them to congratulate them. They have had not a single negative comment other than congratulatory."

But why did he join the Royal Navy?

"I didn't want a nine to five existence getting on the Waterloo and City line everyday. I needed to get out and see the world and do something a bit exciting, something that had purpose to it.

"My family had something of a military background, I have uncles in the Pakistan Forces and my father was in the army. A careers master also recognised that this was probably what I was going to be best at so I was pointed in that direction.

"If this is a life that appeals to you and teamwork appeals then go and have a look. There are lots of schemes to get a taster first. Go to your careers office and talk to people. It's not an ordinary job and does require commitment so you will need to make sure you are happy with it. The best way to find out more is to talk to people.

"I am proof that the door is very firmly open. You don't have to batter it down and if this is a career that you want to consider, there is no reason why you shouldn't if you're from anything other than an Anglo-Saxon Background."
"We are doing an awful lot. There are two outreach programmes I know of, one in Tower Hamlets and one in Small Heath in Birmingham where they are really engaging with the kids. Unfortunately, they often meet a closed community that doesn't necessarily want their help.

"That's a difficulty we are just going to have to keep working against by carrying on with good policies and treating people equally. It's a really important point for us because we rely on teamworking and teams work best if everyone is treated equally. Slowly that message will percolate.

"The outreach programmes are working. We're not achieving our targets but each year is better than the year before. It's a slow gradual programme but it will have an effect."

Does he believe the Navy, in particular, is still very traditional?

"Certainly, for those who are not acquainted with the military there is a perception of the Navy as very old school so they are surprised when they see Asians in the NHS and the military etc. It is a closed book to them. Talking to some of my friends in other European countries, promotion to Rear Admiral with my background wouldn't happen there so I think it's a mark of how far the Armed Forces in the UK have come."

On a practical level,  has a career in the Royal Navy made being a practising Muslim difficult?

"Nowadays, there are prayer facilities for everyone.  We've got halal food available and even special ration packs.  We've moved a long way so I don't think it's difficult. 

"If you want to practise rigidly, a watchkeeping system isn't consistent with praying five times a day but not many Muslims do pray five times a day otherwise our hospitals and schools wouldn't function.  You have to adjust."

"Certainly I and my family think we have been very fortunate. We are fortunate to be here and to be part of society in the UK."
On the UK Armed Forces's involvement in Iraq, he appreciates that it is not a policy unanimously popular with all sections of UK society:

"Large parts of the community of the UK are not completely content with our involvement in Iraq and we saw that beforehand in the demonstrations in London. There is a sense that perhaps this is a part of a foreign policy that certain groups find difficult.

"For me personally, I feel like the barrister who carries on with the job irrespective of what it is. The whole fabric of our country relies on us all doing what we're meant to do. If you disagree with foreign policy then there is an obvious route to voice your concerns. You can demonstrate, write to your MP, write to the media, start your own political party, all manner of activities, but it's in the political and media domain where this can be taken forward.

"Society doesn't work if those of us who are then implementing those decisions disagree with them and don't follow them through. For me personally, I am in the implementation business and I get on with it.

"In terms of the implementation in Iraq, I know lots of people who are doing a really good job out there. The first province has been handed back to Iraqi control. Lots of my colleagues are working very hard under very difficult conditions and doing a superb job."

During his career, Rear Admiral Hussain has completed many operational and support jobs, most recently as Naval Base Commander, Portsmouth, where he was responsible for supporting the majority of the surface fleet, and for the efficient running of the Navy's large and complex Portsmouth site.

His new assignment sees him take up the post of Director General Logistics Fleet at the Defence Logistics Organisation on 5 September 2006.