Last Thursday’s shooting spree at the Fort Hood army base in Texas — which left 13 people dead and 29 wounded — was of course the “horrific outburst of violence” that President Obama bemoaned and condemned.
But, because the soldier who was quickly identified as the gunman had a name that led to the presumption that he was Muslim, the incident inspired an all-too-predictable explosion of Islamophobia.
News reports named the man who used two handguns in the assault on his fellow soldiers at a base that is a prime point of departure for troops headed to Iraq and Afghanistan as Major Malik Nidal Hasan. The major, who was wounded during the incident, was identified as a psychiatrist who had served in the Department of Psychology at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress at the Bethesda Naval Facility in Bethesda, Maryland, before his transfer to Fort Hood.
Hours after the incident, and hours after news anchors and politicians cited his religion as an explanation for the shootings, a family member confirmed that Major Hasan was indeed a Muslim.
But that was hardly the only relevant detail about the major.
For instance, Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison reported shortly after the shoorings, Hasan had been preparing to deploy to Afghanistan. The senator said, “I do know that he has been known to have told people that he was upset about going (to Iraq).” Several new reports suggested that the major saw a deployment to the warzone as his “worst nightmare” and recounted how he had treated victims of combat-related stress and was upset about the ongoing U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Military officials at the base and in Washington refused to speculate about motivations or intents in the immediate aftermath of the attack. But Paul Sullivan, executive director of the group Veterans for Common Sense, suggested shortly after the incident that it might well be the latest in a series of stress-related homicides and suicides involving soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan or are being dispatched to those occupied lands.
No matter where the speculation went Thursday afternoon, the bottom line was clear: No one knew on whether stress, fear, anger over mistreatment, mental illness or a warped understanding of his religion might have motivated Major Hasan.
The point here is not to defend the soldier or his alleged actions — the evidence at hand suggests that he was, at the least, a deeply troubled man whose statements and actions should have raised concerns among his superiors long before Thursday’s incident. By Friday, there were news reports that he had shouted “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”) before opening fire. There was clearly something wrong with this imperfect follower of Islam. But that does not mean that there is something wrong with Islam.
Enlightened Americans — at least those who trace their patriotism to Thomas Jefferson, a man fascinated by and respectful of Islam and whose library contained copies of the Koran — should be unsettled by the initial rush to judgment regarding not just this one Muslim but all Muslims.
It should be understood that to assume a follower of Islam who engages in violence is a jihadist is every bit as absurd as to assume that a follower of Christianity who attacks others is a crusader. The calculus makes no sense, and it is rooted in a bigotry that everyone from George W. Bush to Pope Benedict XVI has condemned.
But that did not stop right-wing web sites from responding to the release of the suspect’s name — and no other details — with incendiary speculation about a “Jihad at Fort Hood?” and a “Terrorist Incident in Texas.”
Fox News host Shepard Smith asked Senator Hutchison on air: “The name tells us a lot, does it not, senator?”
Hutchinson’s response? “It does. It does, Shepard.”
With those words, the senator leapt from making assumptions about one man to making assumptions about a whole religion.
What could Hutchinson have said that might have been more responsible response?
She could have emphasized that the investigation of the shooting spree has barely begun.
She might also have noted that thousands of Muslims serve honorably, indeed heroically, in the U.S. military; that American Muslim soldiers have died In Iraq and been buried at Arlington Cemetery; that some of the first condemnations of the slayings at Fort Hood came from Muslim veterans such as Robert Salaam.
“I’m sad for those killed and wounded by a traitor to both God and our country, and I regret that I even feel that I have to write something on the subject. Words cannot express my emotions and the instant headache I received when notified by my dear sister Sheila Musaji over at The American Muslim (TAM) concerning the alleged culprit,” wrote Salaam, who served in the Marine Corps, within minutes after learning the gunman’s name. “They have not yet released further details such as the motive but I will state for the record that no true Muslim could ever commit such a crime against humanity. As Muslims we are reminded that to take one innocent life is as if one killed all of mankind. Muslims are also commanded to keep their oaths when given.”
Salaam is not alone in regretting that, as a Muslim, he feels a need to respond to the incident with an explanation of his religion.
But the conversation between Fox’s Smith and Senator Hutchinson reminds us why it is necessary to respond.
And so Muslim groups have responded quickly and unequivocally.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy group, issued a statement that read: “We condemn this cowardly attack in the strongest terms possible and ask that the perpetrators be punished to the full extent of the law. No religious or political ideology could ever justify or excuse such wanton and indiscriminate violence. The attack was particularly heinous in that it targeted the all-volunteer army that protects our nation. American Muslims stand with our fellow citizens in offering both prayers for the victims and sincere condolences to the families of those killed or injured.”
Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, declared that, “Our entire organization extends its heartfelt condolences to the families of those killed as well as to those wounded and their loved ones. We stand in solidarity with law enforcement and the US military to maintain the safety and security of all Americans.”
Those are sentiments that are worth noting, especially by news anchors and senators who are in a position to inform the discussion of a horrific incident — rather than to inflame it.