I was having a meeting with one of my students in my office when my friend from CNN who had paid me a visit got a terse news alert on his Blackberry that a mass murder had just occurred at a military base in Forth Hood, Texas. I frankly didn’t think much of it then. When you live in a trigger-happy society like America you can’t help becoming inured to stories of senseless gun violence.
When I got home, I turned on the TV and realized that the mass murder my friend casually mentioned in the office was a bigger, more complicated story than I’d thought. It wasn’t the habitual, run-of-the-mill gun violence by spoiled, tantrum-throwing, and psychologically disturbed American kids or other deranged adults that I have grown used to here.
The suspect was some guy named Major Nidal Malik Hasan whom the news media at first erroneously reported to have been killed by an uncommonly plucky police woman identified as Sgt. Kim Munley. When I heard the name of the suspect, I knew this would be a volatile story. An Arab Muslim involved in the mass murder of 13 Americans in a post-September 11 era?
In America, the only thing that outsells race is sex. Rather curiously, however, all the major TV networks—Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS—did not associate Major Hasan with a Middle Eastern heritage at first. They all thought—and actually said—that he was a convert to Islam. Even when Fox News interviewed the suspect’s cousin whose last name is also Hasan, the implausibility of the theory that he was a Muslim convert hadn’t dawned on newsmen. Is it conceivable that an entire extended family would convert to Islam and change their last name to the same Muslim name?
But I guess the question to ask is: why wasn’t the man suspected to be of Arab descent? Was it because his picture appears to conform to most of the stereotypic prototypes of a “white man”? (Although the U.S. Census Bureau now officially classifies people from the Middle East and North Africa as “white,” Arabs are routinely racially profiled and “othered” because most of them, perhaps because of the recessive black African genes in them, are usually noticeably darker than the average white American).
The suspect’s physical appearance, judging from the mug shots released to the media, defies the formulaic mental images of an Arab. The American media probably thought he was too pale to be an Arab. Well, the suspect is of Palestinian descent by way of Syria, although he was born and brought in the southern U.S. state of Virginia.
Or was he thought to be a Muslim convert because there have been at least two other well-publicized cases of American Muslim converts who engaged in gun violence against the U.S. military? In 2003, an African-American Muslim convert, Army Sgt. Hasan Akbar (born Mark Fidel Kools), was sentenced to death for killing two of his comrades in Kuwait just before the US-led invasion of Iraq of 2003. And in June this year, a 24-year-old African American Muslim convert identified as Abdul-Hakeen Mujahid Muhammad (originally known as Carlos Bledsoe) also gunned down two soldiers at a recruiting center in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Although I must say that Americans in general (especially the top military hierarchy, liberal Americans, the media and even the families if the victims of the shootings) have been remarkably and admirably restrained and have resisted the urge to tar all Muslims in the U.S. Army as closet America-hating terrorists, it can’t be denied that American soldiers who are Muslims—and indeed all Muslims in America—will now have to contend with the burden of what psychologists call courtesy stigma, that is, the vicarious stigmatization that guiltless, unaffected people suffer because of their relationship with a person who bears a stigma.
Of course, it is not only American Muslim soldiers who have a history of violently turning against their comrades. In May this year, for instance, a white male Christian American soldier gunned down five of his comrades at Camp Liberty, a sprawling U.S. base on the western edge of Baghdad. As you would expect, no dark, sinister motive was invoked to account for his irrational violence. And no person or group of people has had to suffer a collective courtesy stigma as a result of this.
We should be honest enough, though, to accept the fact that it is perfectly human, even if it’s not entirely morally defensible, for people to deploy different standards to judge their kind and people who look different from them, or for people to be more tolerant of the infractions and foibles of their kith and kin than they are of people who are different from them. That is why although we may insult and even beat up our little brother, our child, or other loved ones, we would kill a stranger who tries to do the same.
It is this sentiment that explains why the same American news media that had thought Major Hasan was a white American Muslim convert suddenly wanted to know if he has an “accent” after they found out that he is of Palestinian ancestry.
I grieve for the families that lost their loved ones in this barbarous and pointless mass slaughter. I also empathize with the thousands of American Muslims in the U.S. military (the Pentagon says there are 3,557 self-identified Muslims out of 1.4 million U.S. service members, but experts say the figure is likely higher than this because disclosure is voluntary) who must live with a devastating courtesy stigma as a result of the senseless act of violence of someone who shares their faith.
No less a person than the U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey echoed this fear in a recent interview with CNN.
"You know, there's been a lot of speculation going on and probably the curiosity is a good thing," said Casey of accused killer Nidal Malik Hasan. "But we have to be careful because we can't jump to conclusions now based on little snippets of information that come out. And frankly, I am worried—not worried, not worried, but I'm concerned—that this increased speculation could cause a backlash against some of our Muslim soldiers, and I've asked our army leaders to be on the look out for that. It would be a shame—as great a tragedy as this was— it would be a shame if our diversity became a casualty as well."
Already some fringe conservative groups are suggesting that a systematic purge of Muslims from the U.S. army be carried out urgently. Of course, this suggestion will be hard to implement not only because it will violate America’s much cherished values of inclusivity and tolerance but because the pool from which to recruit new members into the U.S. army has been shrinking at an alarming rate lately.
According to CNN, 75 percent of the America's young people between the ages of 17 and 24 are unfit for military service. Army statistics, CNN further said, show that many youngsters are ineligible to enlist for a number of reasons ranging from a lack of education, illegal drug use, being overweight, out of shape, to having a criminal record. Minorities and recent immigrants constitute the dominant pool for army recruitment now because they tend to rise superior to some of these problems.
Now, what could be the motivation for Major Hasan’s insensate cruelty? It is easy to conclude that it was inspired by religious zealotry, especially because he reportedly screamed “Allahu Akbar!” before he opened fire on 13 of his comrades. But, although he is said to be an observant Muslim, it has also been confirmed that he is an alcoholic who “frequented” strip clubs. Now, that’s not the picture of a good Muslim. Of course, you don’t necessarily have to be strictly religious for your acts to be actuated by religious extremism.
People who rationalize Major Hasan’s savage murders remind us that he had been at the receiving end of harassment because of his faith; that recently his car had been vandalized and the bumper sticker he placed on his car with the inscription “Allah loves” was ripped up and torn. It has also been said that he didn’t want to be posted to Afghanistan and had, in fact, considered leaving the military.
But none of these reasons are good enough justification to fatally turn against an institution that single-handedly paid for his education from bachelor’s degree to medical school and that gives him a six-figure salary—an opportunity his ancestral land would probably never have been able or willing to give him.
It seems to me that Hasan is a deeply psychologically disturbed man who would have done what he did even if he were an atheist.