Muslim airman grounded after beard row

Islamabad, Pakistan - The Pakistani government defended on Monday a decision to forcibly retire an air force officer who refused to trim his beard on religious grounds.

Squadron Leader Mohsin Hayat Ranjha was retired in October and four of his colleagues were grounded for violating a Pakistan Air Force (PAF) dress code that allows trimmed beards, but bars long beards on the grounds they pose a safety risk.

"There is no ban on any Pakistan Air Force personnel of any rank keeping a beard, but there has to be a limit on the length of a beard," Tanveer Hussain Syed, parliamentary secretary for defence, told parliament after an Islamist opposition lawmaker raised the issue.

Oxygen masks worn by airmen flying at high altitude can malfunction as a result of beards being too bushy, Syed said, after Islamist politician Liaquat Baluch accused the air force of enforcing un-Islamic rules.

Many strict Muslims believe that their faith compels them to wear a beard.

Syed said Ranjha was asked to trim his facial hair as a long beard made it difficult to fix the mask tightly on the face, which could be dangerous for both the pilot and the machine.

"He not only refused to do it, in violation of the dress code of a PAF officer, but he also incited others to grow similar beards."

PAF spokesperson Air Commodore Sarfaraz Ahmed Khan confirmed Ranjha had been forced into early retirement and that the cases of four other PAF officers, including another squadron leader, were still under consideration.

Several low-ranking PAF and army personnel were involved in an al Qaeda-inspired assassination attempt on President Pervez Musharraf's life in December 2003, and a number have been executed.

Musharraf came to power in a military coup in 1999, and enraged many Pakistani militants, who had previously enjoyed close ties with the military, by joining a US-led global war on terrorism in late 2001.

Musharraf has also sought to reverse the Islamisation of the armed forces that took place in the 1980s under Pakistan's last military ruler, President Mohammad Zia ul-Haq.