Sunday, November 8, 2009

Between Iraq and a Hard Place: the Muslim soldier's dilemma

Nidal Malik Hasan's shooting rampage/mass murder at Fort Hood last week was premeditated and carefully planned. He was clear about his motives: he believed it was his duty, as a Muslim, to take action against the U.S. military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is totally in line with Qur'anic teaching: "Never should a believer kill a believer." (sura 4, aya 92).

Slaying unbelievers, however, is perfectly fine (sura 4.89).

American policy toward Islamic countries has put many Muslims in the same awkward position: if religious duty contradicts an obligation to the state, which code do you follow?

Most Americans have worked this out for themselves. But for a lot of citizens of the U.S., it is unthinkable to take up arms against brothers in the Faith.

Contrast this dilemma with World War II: my father and his brothers unhesitatingly fought in the U.S. Army/European Theater of Operations. There was no question in their minds about choosing duty as American citizens over loyalty to the homeland of their forefathers, Germany. Japanese soldiers distinguished themselves on the field of battle in the same conflict. Identifying onself as culturally German or Japanese did not prevent young people from defending their country.

Nor is this an issue of conscientious objection, which would preclude taking human life under any circumstances. The warrior archetype is prominent in Islam. The real issue--the only issue--is what constitutes as "believer" versus an "unbeliever."

These categories can be broad (unbelievers=anyone who has not recited the shahada) or narrow (unbelievers=non-Muslims(Christians/Jews/Hindus/etc) + so-called Muslims(Sunni/Shi'a/Sufi/other Muslim strands/etc). That explains Muslim/Muslim conflicts (Iraq vs. Iran) as well as hostility in Muslim countries between different groups of Muslims.

And yet the media is crackling with quotes from imams, statements from CAIR, reports from mosques all over: Hasan's murder spree had NOTHING to do with Islam...nada, zilch, zero. He was a crazy person! His religion is irrelevent to the story!

That's totally false, as are the following statements:

Muslims can pick and choose which verses of the Qur'an can be ignored.
The Qur'an is supposedly a clear-cut roadmap for moral behavior. If a Muslim observes dietary injunctions, then why wouldn't he also observe a code which specifies when it is acceptable to take a life?

There are no Muslim literalists.
A basic tenet of Islam is that the Qur'an is the revealed word of God. Supposedly, all of it--every single word--was conveyed to the prophet Muhammed and has not been changed since it was given. There is NO Muslim who would publicly state that any verse is unnecessary or need not be followed. Obviously there are Muslims who do not follow every recommendation in the Qur'an, such as the directive to "Slay unbelievers wherever you find them" (s.4.89)...lucky for those of us who occasionally must make a falafel run. But to think that all Muslims have moved beyond taking the Qur'an at face value is dangerously naive.

There is no precedent for what Hasan did.
Let's narrow the field a bit. How about limiting the comparison to recent terrorist acts involving Muslims born into Western/non-Muslim countries who have gone into the medical field and taken the Hippocratic Oath? Even within those parameters, the British would have a thing or two to say.

The post-bloodbath analysts have brought up Hasan's mental state, which may have been "fragile"; these apologists have been bending over backwards to distance Hasan's actions from his religious beliefs. But even if he did "snap," mental illness and religious devotion are not mutually exclusive attributes. It isn't an either/or: he could have been BOTH crazy and a devout Muslim. His actions leading up to the massacre suggest that, while he had issues with his imminent deployment and American foreign policy, he was able to conduct himself, for the most part, rationally. He lived, worked, and prayed in a style that might have been a little odd, but which certainly didn't seem alarming.

Still, it was obvious that he felt he had painted himself into a corner. His identity as a Muslim superseded his identity as an American, as a soldier, and as a medical professional. He could not find a way to justify loyalty to Islam with the other roles he played. He could either choose to follow the Qur'an--"Never should a believer kill a believer!"-- or reject Islam.

He chose Islam.

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