November 13, 2009 10:25 pm
There is a big difference between, say, the Boston Strangler and Gavrilo Princip. For all the grief and fear he spreads, a killer who is merely deranged does not shake up society much. Someone who kills in the name of a cause, however, shakes it up profoundly, and goads the public to self-protection and vengeance. Ten days ago, Major Nidal Malik Hasan allegedly shot a dozen people dead at the Fort Hood army base in Texas, reportedly shouting “Allahu Akbar” – God is great – as he fired. Since then, the question of what motivated him has sat in the middle of the American public debate. The public is increasingly certain that the killings are a case of terrorism. Government and military leaders argue that we must not leap to conclusions, and that we are just as likely to be dealing with a variety of mental illness. A lot hinges on whether we think of Maj Hasan as a mental case or a soldier of jihad.
Maj Hasan had been radicalised in the name of Islam as he understood it. Whether his is a “real” understanding of Islam is something few non-Muslims are competent to judge, although some understanding on the matter must be reached. Maj Hasan’s case shows our understanding to be deficient. Public doctrine insists on a distinction between Islam and Islamism. Islam is a religion, and Americans are punctilious about respecting the religions of others. Islamism is a violent political ideology, a “perversion” of Islam if you like, that has already taken thousands of US lives. Voters will punish pitilessly any politician who does not fight it with every tool at his disposal.
Hence the crisis. Maj Hasan’s case shows that authorities are incapable of making the very distinction between Islam and Islamism that they insist the public make. That Maj Hasan was a Muslim need not concern Americans. But he was an Islamist, too, if that word has any meaning. And those who had the authority to monitor him more closely were either unable or unwilling to.
It is hard to see what Maj Hasan could have done to make his ideology more obvious. In June 2007, he gave a medical lecture at the Walter Reed army medical centre that turned into a harangue, on Koranic grounds, about how Muslims in the US military should be exempted from killing other Muslims. The most troubling conduct ascribed to Maj Hasan is the correspondence he initiated with the Yemeni-American jihadist imam Anwar al-Awlaki. As Sebastian Rotella and Josh Meyer of the Los Angeles Times have shown, Mr al-Awlaki is not merely a “radical imam”. He is probably the most cogent exponent of the view that US Muslims should wage jihad against their country. The terror consultant Evan Kohlmann described one of Awlaki’s lectures as a “virtual bible for lone-wolf Muslim extremists” – and this after Robert Mueller, the FBI director, warned the Senate Homeland Security Committee two years ago that he counted lone-wolf terrorists among his major worries.
Mr al-Awlaki’s sermons were cited specifically by one of the young men thwarted in their plans to shoot up the Fort Dix army base in New Jersey in May 2007. There was a deadly shooting rampage at an Arkansas recruiting station last June that was very similar to the Fort Hood episode. The Arkansas perpetrator – an American who had converted to Islam and changed his name to Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad – had himself visited Yemen. The FBI knew about Major Hasan’s contacts with Mr al-Awlaki. So did the Joint Terrorism Task Force. Why did they lack the will or inclination to act on it?
We used to gasp at the way the Soviet Union stuck opponents of the regime in asylums. But the USSR is not the only country in history that has had a hard time seeing its adversaries as rational. The present generation of Americans is made uncomfortable by the idea that their country might have enemies whose enmity is the result of something other than fanaticism or mental illness. Maj Hasan’s colleagues, the Economist writes, say he thought the war on terror was a war on Islam. According to what we think Islam is, he is wrong. But according to a fundamentalist idea of what Islam is, he is right. There is rationality in such enmity, even if that rationality is built on different assumptions.
Recognising that would overturn our entire worldview, in which no thinking Muslim can be an Islamist and no Islamist can be “real” Muslim. This Manichaeism comes from a reluctance to do difficult thinking and the impossibility, in a media-driven democracy of 300m people, of basing policy on subtle distinctions. There are two ways of describing every aspect of the Hasan case because we have two priorities to reconcile. First, we must protect our soldiers and citizens from terrorists, the most dangerous of whom, in our time, are Islamists. Second, we must protect our diverse citizenry from prejudice, including distrust of Islam.
It requires constant, difficult ethical balancing to reconcile these priorities. It is wishful thinking to pretend they never clash. General George Casey Jr spent much of last weekend on national television engaging in such wishful thinking. “A diverse Army,” he said, “gives us strength.” Does it? Or is that a platitude? Diversity can be a strength. But diversity as an ideology produced, in Maj Hasan’s case, bureaucrats who were too scared of giving offence to speak their minds – and to act on the information they had. There was, it seems clear, no balancing act between protecting soldiers from harm and protecting minorities from prejudice. Protecting soldiers was simply made priority number two. That is what makes the Hasan case so explosive.
The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard
More columns at www.ft.com/caldwell
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