Archive for November, 2009

A Muslim Soldier’s View From Fort Hood

Saturday, November 7th, 2009

Major Nidal Malik Hasan is a murderer and has brought great shame upon every American Muslim in the armed forces. 

There are currently over 10,000 Muslim soldiers in the U.S. military, men and women who are patriotic and love their country and their fellow service members. Hasan’s evil actions, the murder of his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, have now brought those honorable soldiers’ loyalties into question. 

The Islamophobe community on the Internet is trumpeting how Hasan’s behavior is reflective of the threat Americans face from their Muslim neighbors, and how radical Islamists have infiltrated the ranks of our military. Calls for purging the military, and perhaps even the United States, of its Muslim members have already begun. 

Today there are dozens of families mourning the attack on their loved ones by a fellow-in-arms. And there are hundreds of Muslims at Fort Hood who knew Hasan and are stunned that he would betray their country and their community with such cold, calculated ease. Hasan’s rampage has truly shattered many more lives than we can begin to imagine.

I spoke today with a friend who is a Muslim soldier stationed at Fort Hood. He is a 22-year veteran of the U.S. Army and a recent convert to Islam. He agreed to share his perspective with me if I granted him anonymity. So we will call him Richard.

Richard is exactly the kind of soldier we need to protect our country from those that seek to do us harm. A combat veteran who has served in Iraq, Richard became interested in studying Islam initially as a strategic means of understanding his adversary in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. But as he began to study the religion’s teachings, he became struck by how different they were from what was being claimed by men like Osama Bin Laden. 

Instead of a religion of hatred and misogyny, he found an Islam of love, wisdom, and human empowerment. His strategic analysis blossomed into spiritual identification, and Richard embraced Islam just over two years ago. As a “revert” (as Muslim converts like to call themselves, since Islam believes everyone is born a Muslim), Richard was faced with the added challenge of being a soldier in a conflict in which members of his new faith were on the other side.

Richard decided that the best way he could be true to his military oath and his religious convictions was to use his position as an American Muslim soldier to build bridges of understanding. He currently works as a liaison between the U.S. military and Muslim leaders in the Middle East to garner their support against the common enemy – the Islamist radicals who oppose both the American military and the mainstream Muslim community that wants nothing to do with their extremism. Richard has very much been in the forefront of our military’s efforts to win hearts and minds in the Muslim world.

Richard first met Major Hasan in July 2009 when the latter arrived at Fort Hood. According to Richard, there are between 300-500 Muslim families that live at Fort Hood, and everyone in the community is associated with the base either as a service member or in a civilian support capacity. The Muslim community is largely South Asian, hailing from Indian, Pakistani, and other sub-continental backgrounds. The community is prosperous, with many doctors and professionals at its core. The Muslims at Fort Hood live in harmony with their neighbors, and from Richard’s experience, most were happy to be associated with the U.S. military and viewed their work through a lens of profound patriotism.

Richard assumed that the newcomer, Nidal Malik Hasan, shared the values of the other Muslim community members. He found Hasan to be a friendly man who did not initially appear to be a radical, and they bonded as fellow Muslims on the base. Richard and Hasan would often pray together, and during the last 10 days of Ramadan, the two men secluded themselves inside the local mosque for a period of reflection and worship. 

And, fatefully, Richard and Hasan prayed side-by-side at the mosque the morning of the massacre, after they had engaged in a friendly competition to see who could recite the azan, the call to prayer, first. After prayers that morning, Hasan left while Richard and a few others remained behind to recite the Qur’an. Hasan appeared relaxed and not in any way troubled or nervous. 

A few hours later, Hasan fired two guns on his fellow soldiers and forever shattered dozens of lives, as well as the peaceful community of trust and respect that Muslims had built at Fort Hood.

Richard said that he and other members of the Muslim community are struggling to understand how this happened. Looking back, Richard said that he did find some aspects of Hasan’s worldview troubling, but he had no indication that the man was capable of mass murder.

Richard remembered one of his first conversations with Hasan. The newly-arrived army psychiatrist told Richard that he felt the “war on terror” was really a war against Islam, and that perhaps Muslims should not be part of the US military. 

Richard told Nidal that he disagreed. First, he did not believe as a Muslim that the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are part of a grand conspiracy to destroy Islam. And second, even if a Muslim believed that a specific military action was wrong, he could not escape responsibility for it just by resigning from the military. The reality was that his or her taxes would still be used to fund the campaign, and so American Muslims were invested in the situation whether they liked it or not.

Richard’s view as a Muslim was that he had a responsibility to do good in whatever situation he found himself in. He was a Muslim in the American military at a time when the United States was in conflict with areas of the Muslim world. Richard’s role was to do his part as a Muslim by creating new friendships and partnerships between the American military and the Muslim community.

But Hasan clearly did not share Richard’s point of view, and Richard decided not to get into an argument with a fellow solider he had just met. And so the two moved on from their dispute and established a friendship as fellow Muslims in the Fort Hood community.

As Richard got to know Hasan better over the next several months, he found the major to be a pious man who was at the mosque daily. But Richard also began to garner a sense of Hasan’s political views that troubled him. A black-and-white outlook on Islam and life that had no room for nuance or debate. Hasan had apparently attended a mosque led by an imam named Anwar Al-Awlaki, a Yemeni scholar whose political views Richard disagrees with. 

Awlaki is a controversial figure among Muslims, and has been accused by the Congressional Joint Inquiry on 9/11 of serving as a “spiritual advisor” to two of the September 11 hijackers. While Richard is careful to say that he respects much of Awlaki’s historical scholarship, he rejects his political ideology, which posits a black-and-white, us versus them, view of America’s relationship with the Islamic world.

Richard’s own study of Islam has revealed that such a harsh dualistic approach to religion is very much against the history of Islamic thought and practice. Indeed, debate is central to the Islamic tradition, and mainstream Muslims have always understood that true faith requires openness to nuance and subtlety. In my novel, Mother of the Believers, which tells the story of Islam from the perspective of Aisha, Prophet Muhammad’s wife, I discuss how the early Muslim community engaged in profound debate and discourse in the search for truth. An embrace of subtlety and intellectual sophistication is inherent to the Islamic tradition.

But this kind of subtlety is anathema to fundamentalists of any religion or ideology, who are incapable of seeing other points of view. And the backlash against my book by Muslim fundamentalists reveals the deep-seated fear that such people have of mainstream Muslims’ efforts to take back the discourse from those who cannot accept shades of grey in life and faith.

Richard does not know how heavily Hasan was influenced by fundamentalist thinkers like Awlaki. But the major’s views were definitely troubling. Richard described an incident where Hasan made some anti-Semitic comments about Jews as a nation being “cursed by God” in Islam. Richard responded that the Qur’an does not condemn any group of people collectively, and that no one is born “cursed” by their ancestry. 

Indeed, even though there are verses that are critical of some Jews who were political opponents to Prophet Muhammad, the Qur’an states very clearly that it is speaking only in relation to those who do evil, not those who do good, and that God judges people by their actions. (3:75-76). Another verse is even more explicit:

“Those who believe (in the Qur’an), and those who follow the Jewish scriptures, and the Christians and the Sabians — any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.” (2:62)

When Richard made this point, Hasan became flustered and simply responded that as a “revert” Richard clearly did not know Islam as well as he did, someone who had been raised as a Muslim. But from Richard’s point of view, Hasan was simply regurgitating cultural attitudes and prejudices and cloaking them in the form of religion. And in the process he was blinding himself to what Islam actually taught.

A second incident that revealed the hints of radicalism inside Hasan’s worldview took place when Richard once asked a group of Muslims on the base whether they would consider the Taliban to be members of “Ahl-as-Sunna,” the Arabic term for those who follow the Prophet’s tradition and life example. It is a short-hand among many Muslims to denote those who are “mainstream” versus those who are “misguided.” Hasan became angry that Richard could even ask such a question, but the other Muslims rose to Richard’s defense, pointing out that the Taliban are a patchwork of a variety of groups, many of whom are clearly way out of the mainstream Islam as practiced by the vast majority of believers. Richard was taken aback by Hasan’s sudden anger at what had been seconds before a friendly discussion.

Perhaps most troubling are Hasan’s views on suicide bombing. The major has posted his opinions on the Internet, suggesting that he viewed at least some suicide bombers as the moral equivalent of soldiers who throw themselves on grenades to save others. Readers of my work will know that I have stated very clearly and with deep conviction that suicide bombing is a violation of Islam’s basic rules of war (and I have received death threats from radicals who disagree with me).

Richard shared my views, and when Hasan attempted to rationalize suicide bombing in a conversation, Richard told him in no uncertain terms that suicide is forbidden in the Qur’an (4:29). An argument ensued, and then an Islamic scholar who was present told Hasan that Richard was right. Suicide cannot be defended under traditional Islamic law, regardless of efforts by some modern scholars to rationalize it. Hasan was unhappy to hear this point of view, and the men decided to change the topic.

I asked Richard whether he believed that Hasan was motivated by religious radicalism in his murderous actions. Richard, with great sadness, said that he believed this was true. He also believed that psychological factors from Hasan’s job as an army psychiatrist added to his pathos. Hasan had spent months listening to horror stories from returning soldiers about their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it had hardened his position on these wars. The news that he would be deployed overseas to Iraq, to a war that he rejected, may have pushed him over the edge.

But Richard does not excuse Hasan. As a Muslim, he finds Hasan’s religious perspectives to be fundamentally misguided. And as a soldier, he finds Hasan’s actions cowardly and evil. Hasan was not being sent into combat – he would have been working in a secure office in the Green Zone far away from the life and death dangers that Richard and his fellow combat veterans face every day. For Richard, a Muslim convert and patriotic soldier, Hasan’s actions were those of a sinner and a villain, one who will be held accountable by the U.S. justice system in this world, and by Allah in the Hereafter.

Listening to Richard’s perspective, I felt many emotions. Sorrow that good men and women like him will now have to defend their patriotism from those who want to use one madman’s actions to target an entire community. Pride that Muslim soldiers like Richard continue to do their duties with honor, despite the two worlds they are forced to straddle.

And hope. That despite the clouds of evil that seek to hide the truth, the message of Islam, a faith of love, wisdom and community, will always shine through.

Thank you Richard for your service. May Allah bless you and all your fellow soldiers who risk their lives daily so that people of all faiths can be free in the United States of America.