I seem to see the horror of Fort Hood spilling across the whole country as if hemorrhaging from a wound that can not be stopped. Indeed, I fear that we are all in great, imminent danger. But it is not Muslims I fear.
I fear the lynch mob. I fear the Christians who equate Islam with Satan, and anticipate the final struggle of mankind. I fear civil religion, and the people who think they are more American than others. I fear the sudden release of this pent up hatred and bigotry and righteous entitlement. The racial epithets and gross stereotypes once contained by a sense general disapproval—call it political correctness if you want—now run amuck in informal public dialogue, in the frothing comments beneath every related story in the electronic news media. Racism runs free, madly reveling in its nakedness.
Do these people see what they are doing? Don’t they see that by demanding public and private sanctions against Islam they threaten to destroy both the letter and the spirit of the Constitution they claim to hold sacred? What happened to the ideals of liberty and equality? What happened to the melting pot? But, truly, what’s the point of appealing to the great American cultural ideals. Those who have read American history know that this is a losing argument. America has rarely welcomed new cultures into the mix or lived up to its ideals in practice. It is only when we blur our eyes to the details, and squeeze decades and centuries into brief, self-celebrating narratives, that it seems so.
The real danger is falling back on such abstractions, and forgetting the practicalities of the matter. All religions that claim a privileged knowledge of and relationship to God may lend themselves to violent extremism. Treachery towards man can always be grounded in allegiance to a higher authority. What really pushes religious adherents to violent extremism is not, therefore, a particular religion itself—because any will do—but the practical circumstances of the adherents: their social, economic and political condition in reference to other people or classes of people.
Right now, the Christian right is under a sort of attack in this country. Besides being associated with an economically disadvantaged demographic (rural, small town, blue collar), one frequently looked down upon by what might be called the cultural elite, their cherished traditions, both religious and cultural, are being undermined, rightly or wrongly, by a new cultural paradigm. What was accepted without question by one generation is now discarded with almost equal presumption by the next. They were once the national culture heroes and now they have become, to many, the national villains. This is understandably galling and threatening to a great many, and the predictable consequence is a sort of cultural uprising. Thus, you’d think if anyone could understand and sympathize with the Muslim world, which is in the midst of a cultural revolution much more sudden and severe than that being experienced anywhere in America, it would be the Christian right.
But no. They are falling prey to the same temptation as reactionary Islam, and they are poised to create the very situation they mean to prevent. It appears that Maj. Hassan was an earnest and sensitive man who wanted to serve God and to do good in the world, as he understood these concepts. He was not raised in a reactionary Islamic environment. He was raised in the United States, in Virginia, as a Muslim, and more than anything else—it seems—he wished to serve his country in the military. He served for eight years as an enlisted soldier before attending college, and returning as an officer. Clearly, he did not always perceive a conflict between his duty to God and his duty to country. Perhaps, like many young men who incline towards military careers, he attained to something bigger and grander than seemed possible in civilian life. There is a kind of automatic social credibility, if not also honor and glory, that comes with service in the military.
He did not, however, find what he was looking for in the Army. This pudgy, balding man, who could not find a girlfriend or a wife, was rejected, disparaged and demeaned by his peers. His vehicle was keyed for having a bumper sticker that read, “Allah is Love.” In another incident, a diaper was thrown inside it, with an allusion to Muslim headwear. In still another, someone scrawled on it, “Camel Jockey, Go Home!” He was not welcomed into this patriotic family. Instead, he was made to feel that he did not count as an American. His parents had both died recently, and so he sought community, fraternity and self-worth in worship. Ultimately, his waxing identity as a Muslim came into conflict with his waning identity as an American soldier, and perhaps also as an American citizen, until his identity as a Muslim and a victim became defined in opposition to these in his mind. The frustration and rage and social isolation of this lost man blinded him to the humanity of the soldiers he murdered.
The angry masses who are now railing against Muslims, defining them in opposition to ‘real’ Americans and ‘real’ American values, and calling for a whole range of sanctions against them in public and private life—in order to prevent further incidents of the type that occurred at Fort Hood—are on the verge of enforcing the very culture and circumstances in which such incidents occur, and mirroring the very black-and-white extremism they claim to be at war against. They are in danger of alienating and disenfranchising a whole class of American citizens, and, by this unequal treatment, actually creating enemies of the state within the state. In short, they think that by treating all Muslims as Maj. Hassan was treated, they will rid the country of people like him. If, instead of latching with all their strength on to this convenient narrative of an innocent country threatened by necessarily evil or malevolent Muslims, they accepted their role in this tragedy—the role of those who have rejected and alienated Muslims, at home and abroad—they might be able to take the first steps to heal the damage done, rather than multiply it exponentially into the future.
A graduate of the University of Chicago, Zachary Royce is a writer living in the Napa Valley.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1977