We are on dangerous ground.
In an op/ed piece published in The New York Times on November 11, 2009, David Brooks takes the American media to task for their initial reticence to portray Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan as a radical Muslim terrorist. Maj. Hasan, in case you haven’t been following the news, is the man who murdered thirteen of his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas last week. According to witnesses, he shouted “God is great” in Arabic before pulling out his pistol and killing people.
Naturally, folks want to know about this murderous madman, and the first details to emerge painted a portrait of a troubled soul—a loner traumatized by the violence of war and scandalized by what he saw as atrocities committed by the military he served. This, according to early analysis in the media, was someone who snapped. Later, details about Hasan adherence to radical Islam began to emerge. About the earlier, seemingly sympathetic portrayals of Maj Hasan Brooks writes,
A shroud of political correctness settled over the conversation. Hasan was portrayed as a victim of society, a poor soul who was pushed over the edge by prejudice and unhappiness.
There was a national rush to therapy. Hasan was a loner who had trouble finding a wife and socializing with his neighbors.
… The conversation in the first few days after the massacre was well intentioned, but it suggested a willful flight from reality. It ignored the fact that the war narrative of the struggle against Islam is the central feature of American foreign policy. It ignored the fact that this narrative can be embraced by a self-radicalizing individual in the U.S. as much as by groups in Tehran, Gaza or Kandahar.
It denied, before the evidence was in, the possibility of evil. It sought to reduce a heinous act to social maladjustment. It wasn’t the reaction of a morally or politically serious nation.
Brooks’ preference would be for Americans to understand Maj. Hasan’s actions to be reflective of a chosen narrative in which Islam is at war with Christianity and Judaism, a narrative that
…has emerged on the fringes of the Muslim world. It is a narrative that sees human history as a war between Islam on the one side and Christianity and Judaism on the other. This narrative causes its adherents to shrink their circle of concern. They don’t see others as fully human. They come to believe others can be blamelessly murdered and that, in fact, it is admirable to do so.
I am disturbed and troubled by Brooks’ way of thinking. We know that Nidal Malik Hasan was disturbed and we know he was a Muslim. David Brooks seems to want Americans to see radical Islam as the source of Hasan’s craziness. I don’t share this desire. I believe we have a moral responsibility to distinguish between mental instability and religious belief when we speak of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, just as we distinguish between the criminality of those who bomb abortion clinics and the Evangelical Christianity to which they usually adhere; just as we don’t consider the murderous actions of the IRA to be a product of Catholicism.
It is a fact that an overwhelming majority of religious people do not commit acts of terror, and I’m not just talking about moderate-to-progressive-peacenik-let’s-get-along-American-Protestant types like me. Most extremist, fringe-dwelling religious people don’t commit atrocities either, no mater what their pastor, rabbi, priest, or imam says. As Frank Schaeffer points out in his book, Patience with God: Faith for Those Who Don’t Like Religion (or Atheism), “most people are better than their theology.”
If we don’t recognize that there is a difference between Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan’s criminality and his religious proclivities, we put ourselves in danger of adopting the very narrative Mr. Brooks would have us repudiate. And if we adopt the narrative of eternal enmity between Islam and everyone else, we make Nidal Hasan merely an enemy soldier instead of a criminal.
This is not to say that violence never has a religious motivation. As a pastor, I can attest to the fact that mentally ill people are attracted to religion and use religion as a tool for manipulation and, sometimes, violence. I have feared for my own safety and for the safety of my family because people attending my church have taken their Christianity to odd and unhealthy extremes. The fact that Hasan’s violence seems to have had a religious motivation doesn’t surprise me; and it wouldn’t surprise me if the next person to commit such an atrocity were to be a Presbyterian.
So what do we do with Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan or any other person who is inspired by a misreading of his religious tradition to commit violence? We treat Maj. Hasan like the criminal he is and leave religion out of the equation. Otherwise we will ramp up the power of the conflict narrative by indicting 1.5 billion Muslims for the heinous crime of a single, sick man.