Monday, November 09, 2009

The Fort Hood shooting and the role of Muslim clerics


On Thursday afternoon, when the American people were getting ready to finish one more day before the end of the working week, a horrible event hit the news.

An Army major had opened fire at the Fort Hood military base in Texas, killing a dozen fellow Army soldiers, and injuring tens more. As the hours passed, it became clear that it was in fact a Muslim officer, a doctor named Nidal Malik Hasan, who was the sole suspect, probably acting as a lone wolf in this tragic event.

America is a country that is currently undergoing two wars, once-in-a-lifetime economic crisis and deep political and social divisiveness. Hundreds of thousands of American men and women are in the armed forces to serve their country, including “20,000 Muslims serving with honor in the U.S. military,” according to the American Muslim Armed Forces and Veteran Affairs Council in a 2008 article. While the Fort Hood tragedy is felt on so many levels, the victims and their families and friends come to mind first.

The young men and women who are at the base to serve their country, most of them probably just starting their lives, are surely crushed by what happened in a place they assumed safe, unlike the war theaters into which they are about to be deployed.

American society, collectively, is also hit hard by this event, as are average Muslims-Americans – and especially the ones in the U.S. military. Many fear that this horrific episode will be a factor in marginalizing average Muslim-American soldiers, even though the actions were committed by a single, angry individual.

Whether this incident will cause these Muslim-American soldiers to be screened intensively and viewed as a potential threat, or for them to feel that way for any reason, remains to be seen. So far though, the mainstream American media and the country’s political and military leaders are being very cautious and suggesting calm.

U.S. Army Chief of Staff George Casey told CNN on Sunday that he is deeply worried “that the speculation could cause something that we don’t want to see happen” and added “as great a tragedy as this was, it would be a shame if our diversity became a casualty as well.”

It seems that America’s opinion-makers as well as its military and political leadership know what is at stake and understand that Muslim society is an important part of American society now, and that the only way to continue with this harmony is to marginalize hate-mongers rather than the victims.

It is a well-known fact that there have been other attacks by military personnel in recent years and that they were caused, according to the experts, by the longer and more frequent deployments and the increased numbers of soldiers experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. This is another face of the wars that Americans are trying to deal with.

“Many troops are under great psychological strain and are not receiving the treatment they need,” says Paul Rieckhoff, the founder and head of Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America.

However, I am not here only to praise the calmness and maturity that Americans have shown so far. And I will not argue that it appears it was a mistaken assignment by the Pentagon to deploy Dr. Hasan to Afghanistan, in light of his many conversations and possible Internet postings that have come to light. According to those unearthed pieces of information, and interviews with people who had contact with this man, Dr. Hasan had been going through an internal debate over the U.S. Army’s role in two different Muslim countries.

Therefore this tragic episode brings another crucial point into the spotlight once more: the clash between the literal and strict interpretation of Islam and more modern and consensual interpretations. As we have seen throughout the history of the major religions, the followers of various faiths tend to resort to strict interpretations of their holy scriptures in times of crisis. Religious expert Karen Amstrong and many others have argued that once a religious society feels threatened or under attack, it is likely to find harsher verses in its scripture to apply to its worldview.

So far from the information that has been unveiled, Dr. Hasan was also apparently under the influence of the literalistic school, which claims that many of the Koranic verses should be taken as read, instead of putting them in the context of the conditions under which they were revealed to the Prophet.

Dr. Hasan’s story is still is an interesting one, since he is an American-born and highly educated person who should have been able to have a more multi-dimensional worldview compared to those who are living in countries deprived of the basic needs of modern man and lacking exposure to other cultures. Still, we have seen this before, in the London bombings in 2005, when it became clear that the organizers of those attacks were also home-grown British citizens, rather than exported terrorists.

Therefore, the question is, if a highly educated Army major can become disillusioned by radical interpretations of Islam in a modern society, how it is possible to stop millions more Muslim youngsters around the world from falling into the same trap, since there are plenty of literalistic interpretations of Islam present on the World Wide Web, and reaching them is only a finger stroke away?

American military efforts in Afghanistan are being made to stop ideologically driven Muslim extremists from attacking the American homeland once more. However, it increasingly seems as if there are no boundaries anymore to stop the transmission of those ideas. Consequently, the same American leaders should come to the conclusion that, even if the reasons behind invading Afghanistan sounded right at the time, after eight years, amid new technology and a rapidly changing world, fighting with extreme factions chest-to-chest in other countries does not cut it. It neither brings security to the homeland nor marginalizes extremist ideas.

While cautioning Americans to not draw hasty conclusions about the rage displayed at Fort Hood, U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday pointed out the religious diversity of American military personnel and noted that the U.S. Army contains “Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and nonbelievers.” The majority of Americans seem to agree with their president, and view this tragic outburst as a result of an individual’s madness. So far they have been able to restrain themselves from casting doubt on other Muslim soldiers, if we leave aside the blogs and posts by a minority of American extremists.

Nevertheless, this maturity shown the vast majority of American society will not be sufficient unless Muslim clerics and religious leaders assert their constructive role more often to step up and educate the masses with a modern view of Islam.

If technology can be used for radicalizing people, even ones who live in a modern society, then the same technology must be used to promote more tolerance and consensual approaches. This one is on the Muslim religious leaders.

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