In July, the Islamic Association of Raleigh, N.C., hosted “Meet Your Muslim Neighbor”—an event designed to build bridges and educate the non-Muslim community about different facets of Islamic life and culture beyond common negative stereotypes.
Most Muslims are conservative, patriotic and believe in the American Dream, but they don’t always say it out loud. Whether fair or unfair, now, more than ever, they should.
No doubt, Muslim-American hearts collectively sank last week upon hearing the name of U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, accused of killing 13 service members at Ft. Hood. On Thursday, the U.S. Army charged Hasan with 13 counts of premeditated murder.
Though Hasan’s alleged actions shouldn’t reflect on Muslims any more than Timothy McVeigh’s crimes did on Christian Americans, there’s an implicit burden that remains with mainstream Muslims to distance themselves from Muslim perpetrators of violence.
As The American Prospect’s Adam Serwer observes, “This is the paradox of being a minority in America”—it’s our built-in societal hypocrisy—“you’re not only responsible for your own actions as an individual, but the bad acts of everyone in your community.”
But the issue of Hasan’s relationship to his faith can’t be avoided. He reportedly told his colleagues, “It’s getting harder and harder for Muslims in the service to morally justify being in a military that seems constantly engaged against fellow Muslims.”
He was talking about himself. And whether he “snapped” or his alleged actions were a calculated response to a perceived grievance, it appears Hasan, who was deploying to Afghanistan, couldn’t reconcile his duty with his apprehension about why he was going.
If that’s what happened, the answer isn’t scapegoating the Muslim-American community because of the actions of an individual.
But the answer also isn’t to apply the “lone nut” theory. What’s called for is greater dialogue about the conflict between radical Islamic teachings and the mainstream Islamic beliefs that coexist with American political and social values in a secular, pluralistic society.
America isn’t perfect.
Though the majority of Muslim Americans disavow violent acts of the kind that Hasan now stands accused, in some cases, what stokes anti-American sentiment in parts of the Muslim community is frustration over U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the way to change our foreign policy is not to complain about it behind closed doors, and obviously not to endorse violence. It’s by investing in the political process. In Red, White, and Muslim: My Story of Belief, Asma Gull Hasan writes: “Muslims don’t practice Islam perfectly, and Americans don’t necessarily practice American values perfectly.”
We’re a great and powerful country—and sometimes we’re wrong. Muslim Americans have to deal with that disappointment. It comes with being a full-fledged American.
Everything isn’t “jihad.”
“Jihad” is a complex concept encompassing both warfare in the name of Islam and the idea of an individual’s lifelong, personal, internal struggle with piety, right and wrong.
Cynics like the New York Post’s Michelle Malkin have been quick to attach tough-sounding terms like “terrorism” and “jihad” to Ft. Hood. But heinous as Hasan’s alleged actions were, it’s unclear what “goal” he had. Malkin claims any nuance is “a rush to whitewash.” Actually, hers is a rush to make Ft. Hood a proxy fight about “political correctness”—it says more about her patriotically correct agenda than it does about what underlies the tragedy.
Fighting isn’t dying.
Hasan is charged with murder. He can be convicted and executed without any finding that he was part of an extremist conspiracy.
Nevertheless, The Globe and Mail’s Irshad Manji argues, in the big picture it’s still worth taking religion into consideration because “Understanding is served by analyzing, not sanitizing.” She’s right: Nothing is gained by avoiding a discussion of the connection between Hasan’s frame of mind, his version of Islam and his alleged actions.
Arguments about the tension between patriotism and faith that take place in homes, masjids and on Muslim blogs have to be brought out into the public square. If not, then non-Muslims are left to interpret these issues on their own.
Like the National Review’s Andy McCarthy, who posits “there is enormous pressure on Muslim soldiers, from their religious authorities, to sabotage American military operations.”
Tell that to the mother of U.S. Army Cpl. Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan—the fallen Muslim-American soldier made famous by Gen. Colin Powell a year ago. Presumably, Muslim Americans want to dispel this kind of thinking, but how can it be rebutted if Muslims don’t speak out vigorously—and don’t outwardly acknowledge that there is a debate?
Beliefnet’s Aziz Poonawalla explains the basic Qur’anic arguments for and against a Muslim serving in the U.S. military. Ultimately, he says “the Qur’an provides enough rationale to either permit or forbid a Muslim from being in the military, depending on the interpreter’s bias.” It’s a small part of a larger discourse about being a practicing Muslim in America. It’s not new, but it’s to our peril if it takes Ft. Hood for us to start talking.
Americans are receiving a graduate level course in citizenship. If it was easy to be a free, diverse and secure society, we would have already figured it out. By now, we should at least know it takes more than enhanced Homeland Security protocols and soothing words from President Barack Obama.
Some of the voices calling for zero tolerance in the wake of Ft. Hood are the same ones that railed against Secretary Janet Napolitano’s April report on right-wing extremism—even though it anticipated the alleged killings of African-American security guard Stephen Tyrone Johns at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum by a white supremacist, and of abortion doctor George Tiller during Sunday church services.
That’s not zero tolerance; that’s intolerance.
Muslim Americans shouldn’t be asked to do more than their share. But they can take the lead and take ownership of sorting through whatever conflict there is between mainstream American life and holding on to sometimes incompatible Islamic beliefs.
Then the rest of us need to listen, think and respond.
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.