We are giving ourselves shallow and untenable choices. Either Islam is a religion that condones violence. Or Islam is a religion of peace. (Click here to follow Lisa Miller).
Either Maj. Nidal Hasan, who opened fire at the Army base in Fort Hood, Texas, last week, killing 12 people, is a victim of extreme posttraumatic stress disorder. Or he is a terrorist, operating under orders from a Yemeni cleric.
Either Americans' reaction to the shootings at Fort Hood are a reversion to the early days after 9/11, when every brown-skinned man in a skullcap was a terrorist suspect. (Earlier this week the director of issues analysis for the conservative American Family Association called for a ban on all Muslims in the U.S. military.) Or Americans are so blindly committed to a politically correct assessment of Islam that, in the word of New York Times columnist David Brooks, "public commentators" absolved Hasan of responsibility, assuming "the air of kindergarten teachers who had to protect their children from thinking certain impermissible and intolerant thoughts." (Article continued below...)
Why do we insist on framing religious issues dualistically, when anyone with a shred of experience of religion knows religion doesn't work that way? In our personal lives, we know how malleable creeds are. We know Jews who follow the laws of kashrut—except on the occasions when they order a cheeseburger for dinner. We know evangelical Christians who believe strongly in the rightness of evolution and Roman Catholics who believe in a woman's right to choose. But we can also point to passages in Scripture that command us to do things we would never dream of doing. In America, we don't stone adulterers. We no longer buy and sell human beings (although students of history will recall that slavery's supporters often used biblical justification for their way of life). Most of us make our peace with these contradictions, most of the time—the contradictions between scriptural mandates and practice, and between the scriptural age and modernity. We don't ask more from religion than religion can give.
Yet when under threat, or when we imagine ourselves to be under threat (for it is unclear what kind of lingering threat Major Hasan's actions realistically pose), we want religion to be definitive. Despite our intimacy with the heterogeneous nature of religious belief, we allow ourselves to be seduced by cartoon characterizations in public: thus, all Mormons hate gays; all Buddhists love peace; all evangelicals believe the earth is merely 6,000 years old. If we have learned anything in this post–9/11 era, it's that there is no definitive religious interpretation. There are only narrow- and broad-minded interpreters.
The Quran does condone violence. "Let those fight in the way of Allah who sell the life of this world for the other," reads Sura 4:74. "Whoso fighteth in the way of Allah, be he slain or be he victorious, on him We shall bestow a vast reward." Islam is also a religion of peace. "Those who invoke not with God, or any other god, nor slay such life as God has made sacred in vain," says the Quran, Sura 25:68. The number of moderate Muslim clerics and organizations who immediately and publicly condemned the violence at Fort Hood is notable. The Council on American-Islamic Relations; Egypt's Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa; the African Council of Imams in America—all these (and more) issued statements in sympathy with the victims' families, condemning such bloodshed as un-Islamic. This is a massive cultural change from just eight years ago, when everyone was asking "Where are the moderate Muslim voices?" Here David Brooks's critique—that we're glossing over serious threats just so we can play nice—falls short. For Muslims to oppose other Muslims in the name of peace is more than PC lip service.
Major Hasan may suffer from loneliness, isolation, PTSD, and a terror of being deployed overseas. He may, indeed, be mentally ill. But he was also allegedly exchanging e-mail with Anwar al Awlaki, a Yemeni-American cleric whose rhetoric urges Muslims to see terrorism as a selfless and righteous act for the greater good of the global Muslim community. In his tract "44 Ways to Support Jihad," al Awlaki writes, "Jihad today is obligatory on every capable Muslim. So as a Muslim who wants to please Allah it is your duty to find ways to practice it and support it." Even if Hasan was not, strictly speaking, an enlisted man in a terrorist cell, he was exposed to these ideas. They may have framed his thinking. They may have given him a "rationale" to act as he did. Either-or choices don't satisfy. Bruce Hoffman, professor at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service, puts it this way: "Just because somebody may be mentally unstable doesn't mean this isn't an act of terrorism."
David Brooks may be right. American pontificators may be, on the whole, too ready to attribute the violent act of Nidal Hasan to any root cause but his particular brand of religion. But he's also wrong. Bias against Muslims in America is not incidental. Sixty percent of Americans believe that "there is a lot of discrimination" against Muslims, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. (That compares, approximately, to Americans' perception of discrimination against gays; few would say we are overcompensating there.) Thirty-eight percent say they think Islam is a violent religion, a more than 10-point increase since 2002. More than 50 percent of Muslims say it's become more difficult living in America since 9/11. The inclination of pundits to shy from religion, then, may reflect a better understanding of reality: that while a small number of dangerous Islamic terrorists continue to wage war on the West, the majority of American Muslims are not Nidal Hasan. They are simply trying, like the rest of us, to get by.
What's wrong with Islam is the strength of its most narrow-minded interpreters. Let's not make the same mistake ourselves.