Last Thursday, on a sunny Texas afternoon, a mentally unstable army psychiatrist walked into his office and sat down at an empty table. Eyewitnesses say he bowed his head for several moments. Then he stood up and opened fire on his fellow soldiers, reportedly shouting “Allahu Akbar!” — Arabic for “God is great.” He killed 13 and wounded 30 before he was shot down.
Such senseless violence is always difficult to grapple with, but the added religious element makes it particularly hard. How are we to react to this kind of juxtaposition of faith and violence, a man shouting God’s glory as he guns down unarmed men and women all around him?
The connection between Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan’s horrific actions and his Muslim faith remains unclear. Investigations are currently underway into the details of his religious views, his potential connections with radical jihadists such as Anwar al-Awklaki, his attempts to contact Al-Qaeda, and his opposition to U.S. military action in Muslim countries. His actions may well turn out to have been religiously motivated.
Whether they were or not, however, the media has had a field day, and the blogosphere is brimming with Islamophobia and hate (if you enjoy feeling ashamed of your country, take a look at the FoxNews.com comments during the past week).
An appropriate reaction to an event like this requires a sharp distinction between one mentally unstable individual and the religious community he claims to be a part of. A murderer killed those soldiers, not a faith tradition. As Obama said in his speech at the Fort Hood memorial service, “No faith justifies these murderous and craven acts; no just and loving God looks upon them with favor.” The Quran tells its readers that God made humans into different nations and tribes so that they might come to know one another. It describes how Muhammad was sent to be a mercy upon all the worlds. Ask any of the Muslims on Yale’s campus and they will tell you that the religion they practice teaches love and mercy, not violence.
But they will also tell you that religious extremism exists. Whether or not Hasan understood his actions as part of a Jihad, there are those who will. Al-Awklaki, the author of “44 Ways to Support Jihad,” has already written about Hasan as a “hero,” and urged other Muslims to follow his lead. Al-Awklaki is a radical imam who focuses on recruiting young Muslims to the Jihadist cause; a figure akin to the charismatic teacher, Abdullah Azzam, who recruited Osama bin Laden back in 1979.
Extremism of this kind is found in almost every major faith tradition. Ask a Christian who is old enough to remember the 1996 bombing of the Atlanta Olympics, and they’ll tell you about the Christian Identity movement; they’ll tell you that Eric Rudolph wrote the word “bomb” in the margin of his bible before going and setting one off. Ask a Jew and they’ll tell you about Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League or about Yigal Amir, the right wing assassin who killed Yitzhak Rabin because he signed a peace accord. Wherever there is religion, there are people who wish to use it to justify acts of hatred and violence.
But there is also the overwhelming majority for whom religion is a source of love, kindness and compassion — the bearer of our best selves, not our worst. The reality of religious violence in the world makes it all the more important that we as a community make sure that religion is a force that brings us together. As news reports like the ones from this past week remind us all too often, religious extremists are constantly taking action in the world. We who would stand against them, who would claim the possibility of different religious communities coming together in pursuit of the common good, must also act. In small but deeply important ways — by building relationships with people of different faiths, by speaking out in the face of religious bigotry, by coming together to serve our communities — we assert the truth of what faith means.
Joe Carlsmith is a sophomore in Calhoun College.