Making Sense of the Senseless

Published in Huffington Post. November 13, 2009

The news that one of US Army's very own has shot to death 13 fellow soldiers and wounded 30 others is just as shocking and puzzling as the many random shootings that preceded this. Do we know why the killers at Columbine gunned down their fellow classmates? Do we understand why a shooter at Virginia Tech perpetrated the deadliest peacetime shooting incident by a single gunman in US history? There is a lot of chatter about Maj Nidal Malik. Hasan's motive but they offer little if any clarity to a murky situation.

Could the fact that Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan was allegedly harassed because of his Islamic faith be a motive? Could Hasan's desire to avoid deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan be a reason? Could Hasan's view that the war on terror is merely a euphemism for a war on Islam explain this carnage? No reason can justify the unjustifiable. Hasan was not the first minority to face discrimination.

Moreover, how will killing innocent people stop discrimination? If anything, it will lead to more profiling and more discrimination against Arabs and Muslims. Some Muslims serving in the U.S. military may at times feel conflicted about being deployed to a war zone to fight members of their faith. However, how do such conflicted feelings make one angry enough to pull the trigger repeatedly and indiscriminately killing people? Many people find the tactical aspects of the war on terror troubling and are outspoken critics of it. But no critic of the war of on terror advocates killing innocent people as a way to affect it. Of all people, Maj. Hasan, a person trained by the US military ought to have known better. An Associated Press report suggests that the US military had known about Maj. Hasan's anti-American rants and his many angry outbursts. Why did the military not help Maj. Hasan deal with his inner demons? Why was Hasan not booted out of the service he so ungratefully and desperately wanted to leave (despite owing his education to the US military)?

In the absence of concrete answers, the media is left to speculate. The mainstream US media has acted with great responsibility and professionalism by avoiding excessively sensationalizing the news and taking the time to point out that American Muslims, individually and collectively have unequivocally condemned this senseless killing. However, the usual suspects, like right-wing commentators, Michelle Malkin and Debbie Schulssel, have not missed the opportunity to goad Islam and Muslims. On the Fox & Friends, host Brian Kilmeade asked Geraldo Rivera, "Do you think it's time for the military to have special debriefings of Muslim Army civilian officers, anybody enlisted?" Kilmeade further suggested that "it's time for the military to have special debriefings" of U.S. soldiers who are Muslims.

The tragedy at Fort Hood has evoked fear and anger among many in the American Muslim community. History suggests that their fear of a backlash is no figment of their imagination. Some Muslim leaders have urged American Muslims to pray and take protective measures. While prayer is always good and there is no fault in being careful, the action most urgently needed from the American Muslim community is not to withdraw from public life but rather to reach out and explain to their fellow Americans that the actions of Maj. Hasan are not representative of their faith or feelings about America. Muslims in America do face the problems of discrimination and many feel dismayed about America's policy towards hotspots like Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran or Palestine. But these issues cannot be solved by acts of terror or random violence. Terrorism in the name of Islam has only brought more misery to Muslims at home and abroad. Terrorism is morally bankrupt and strategically unsuccessful.

Most Americans have never met a Muslim and thus it is not surprising that they share a negative perception of Islam. For many their only knowledge of Islam and Muslims is shaped via the media where the news regarding Islam and Muslims is overwhelmingly negative. When a headline grabbing tragedy like Fort Hood unfolds, it is not surprising that many Americans demonstrate fear of and anger towards Muslims. Such fear and anger are not unprecedented. After September 11, 2001 American Muslims faced a similar situation. They responded not by retreating to the comforts of their prayer sanctuaries but rather by reaching out to fellow Americans. Those actions helped. However, the number of open houses and outreach efforts has dwindled in recent years. While the leadership of the American Muslim community has continued their interactions with leaders of the various faith based communities, but interactions at the grassroots levels, where it matters most, are few and far between. This vacuum has and will continue to get exploited by the Islamophobes. American Muslim organizations have been good at fire-fighting, rushing to douse the flames of hate after they have erupted. But they have not shown a propensity to be proactive and persistent with their efforts of ensuring more meaningful and sustained interactions between ordinary Muslims and people of other faiths (or non-faith).

American Muslims are also angry as to why they have to stand up and explain themselves every time a member of their faith does something bad. Their anger will not solve a problem that is real. Some Muslims are indeed committing acts of senseless violence invoking the name of Islam. Groups like al-Qaeda and its leaders like Osama bin Laden have a history of conflating political rhetoric with religious imagery. Take for example Osama bin Laden's August 23, 1996 statement, where he evokes powerful religious imagery while speaking about a political problem, "The people of Islam suffered from aggression, iniquity and injustice. . . . the latest and the greatest of these aggressions, incurred by the Muslims since the death of the Prophet . . . . in the occupation of the two Holy Places. Clearly after Belief (Iman) there is no more important duty than pushing the American enemy from the holy land." Such language does catalyze the popular perception that the faith of Islam motivates some Muslims to attack America and Americans.

However, linking Islam to terrorism because of bin Laden's rhetoric is an oversimplification of a complex problem. Far from the rage and fury of the extremists, Islam actually provides a theology for peace and guidelines for living peacefully in a world with diverse people and nations. Indeed peace and justice are the foundational elements of Islam. The Qur'an preaches pluralism, "O men! Behold, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. Behold, God is all-knowing, all-aware." (49:13)

The Qur'an also emphasizes the sanctity of life saying, "do not take any human being's life (the life) which God has declared to be sacred--otherwise than in (the pursuit of) justice: this has He enjoined upon you so that you might use your reason,"(6:151). In addition, the Qur'an states, "that if anyone slays a human being--unless it be [in punishment] for murder or for spreading corruption on earth--it shall be as though he had slain all mankind; whereas, if anyone saves a life, it shall be as though he had saved the lives of all mankind," (5:32). Taken together, Islamic jurisprudence advocates the preservation of life, honor, and the dignity of all human life as a supreme endeavor.

Furthermore, Islam forbids suicide. In the Islamic ethos, the beginning (i.e., the birth) and the end (i.e., the death) of life in this world (Muslims believe in an afterlife) is the will of God. God gives life and death to an individual according to His own absolute knowledge and wisdom. Suicide implies a lack of trust in God and a lack of faith in His benevolence, mercy, love, wisdom, and knowledge. The Prophet Muhammad said, "A man was inflicted with wounds and he committed suicide, and so God said: My servant has caused death on himself hurriedly, so I forbid Paradise for him."

Any group or individual committing an act of terror in the name of Islam, deserve unequivocal condemnation. More Americans expect to hear this repeatedly and directly from American Muslims. Even when repetition is tiresome, Muslims must remain persistent in dissociating their faith from the criminal actions of a few. At the same time those who insist on linking every bad action by a Muslim to their faith must realize that their actions only inflame passions and alienate Muslims, whose support is necessary to defeat those who kill in the name of Islam.

Answers about terrorism cannot be boiled down to sound bites and slogans. Terrorism is a complex phenomenon that requires thoughtful analysis and discussion. Almost eight years after the declaration of a war on terror, terrorism remains a threat and by many indicators a bigger problem today than before September 11, 2001. Only thoughtful discussions can lead to sensible polices. Name calling and finger pointing will leave us grappling to explain tragedies like Fort Hood. Muslims have as much a stake in this issue as any other community. The victims of terrorism are majority Muslims. Rather than treating Islam as the problem, it is more constructive to view it as a solution towards achieving peace and justice.