The Real Shock of Fort Hood

It's not that the massacre occurred. It's that it hadn't occurred before.

Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

The greatest shock of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan’s murderous spree at Fort Hood last week may not have been the spree itself, but the fact that it was the first of its kind in the United States. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Muslims in America have been subject to innumerable stresses, including discrimination and the strain of divided loyalties in their country’s eight-year-long war against Muslims in the Middle East and Central Asia. The confusion is enough to inspire conflict in the minds of even the most patriotic of American Muslims in the U.S., let alone young Muslim GIs directly exposed to enemy propaganda. The fact that one unstable member of this community finally erupted in violence should be no surprise.

The conventional wisdom is that unlike Europe’s discontented Muslims, America’s Muslims are prosperous and happy, having benefited from the welcoming embrace of our "melting pot" nation. This is basically a complacent fiction. According to a Gallup poll released in March 2009, while Muslim integration in the United States has been more successful than in Europe, Muslims remain less civically engaged in American society and less inclined to view their social position positively than any other religious group.

These attitudes have hardened since the attacks of Sept. 11, with American Muslims increasingly choosing not to assimilate into American society and instead finding solace in their religious identity. For example, exclusionary Muslim students’ associations on college campus have grown, as have Islamic schools and Muslim radio stations and publications. These initiatives may resemble those taken by other religious and ethnic groups in the United States since the nineteenth century to promote acceptance and assimilation.

But the Muslim situation differs. As a relatively well-integrated minority, Muslims were able to protect their considerable stake in America — American Muslims’ income is slightly above the national average — by keeping a low profile. Sept. 11 rocked their quiet world, abruptly placing them in a conspicuous and tortuous position. The domestic aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, including physical attacks on Muslims in the streets, being singled out for airport security screenings and in other forms of surveillance, and biased media treatment, implied that suppressing their Muslim identity was better for their health, that they couldn’t take their civil rights for granted, and that their interests depended on the absence of serious future attacks within the United States.

At the same time, many Muslims also found the moral territory of those years murkier than the average American did, results from a 2007 Pew Research Center survey suggest. The Sept. 11 attacks appeared to be retaliation for policies, like unbending U.S. support of Israel, that American Muslims themselves tended to disapprove of. Muslims were also less supportive of the American reaction to the attacks: military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan and indefinite detention and torture of terrorist suspects. And many Muslims perceived the implementation of the U.S. Patriot Act as biased. Thus, to most U.S. Muslims, maintaining a low profile simply by demonstrating unalloyed approval of their adopted country’s policies would have been unprincipled and unpalatable. Yet the absence of a fervently patriotic response only confirmed the suspicions of many non-Muslim Americans.

In turn, the evolving attitudes of non-Muslim Americans toward their Muslim compatriots have been more conducive to Muslim alienation than assimilation. According to a 2006 Gallup poll, a third of Americans admire "nothing" about the Muslim world. Nearly half of all Americans believe the U.S. government should restrict the civil liberties of Muslims. A July 2007 Newsweek survey indicated that 46 percent of Americans think that the United States is accepting too many Muslim immigrants, 32 percent consider American Muslims less loyal to the United States than they are to Islam, 28 percent believe that the Koran condones violence, 41 percent are convinced that Islamic culture "glorifies suicide," 54 percent are "worried" about Islamic jihadists in the U.S., and 52 percent support FBI surveillance of mosques. Since Sept. 11, Muslims have faced increasing racism, employment and housing discrimination, and vandalism. Media coverage dwelling on the violence associated with radical Islam and ignoring the respectable lifestyles of most American Muslims, along with Christian right-wing rhetoric casting the campaign against terrorism as a clash of religions, has contributed to the public’s misunderstanding of Islam.

Despite all this, American Muslims have generally resisted radicalization, and have almost universally rejected violent protest or reaction. Post-9/11 fears that a Muslim fifth column would coalesce in this country have not remotely been realized. But the Fort Hood massacre arguably showed that the continued civility of the Muslim population against undeniable pressures cannot be taken for granted. To preserve it, the American public will have to resist the paranoia to which last week’s tragedy could potentially lead.

Instead, Barack Obama should use his bully pulpit to fight for the better treatment and monitoring of vulnerable Muslim service-members, to avoid another tragedy. Following his stern and eloquent eulogy, Obama should offer another speech emphasizing that Fort Hood was an anomaly and that the very rareness of such incidents illuminates the overall loyalty of American Muslims and the need to protect that population.

Then, he should follow up his words with policy changes. The fact that Hasan was psychologically disturbed does not negate the larger point that soldiers cannot be expected to function well in the service of their country for a cause that they oppose. Accordingly, with the United States in direct combat with Muslims on two fronts and engaged in a broader global counterterrorism campaign in which the antagonists are Muslims, the attitudes of Muslim service members need to be closely monitored. The sharp opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the belief that Muslims should not be sent to fight other Muslims voiced by Hasan at Walter Reed Hospital in mid-2007 should have raised a red flag even without evidence of mental imbalance or contact with radical clerics because the military imperatives of unit cohesion and strong morale would have counseled against his continued service. The White House should ensure that the services, the Pentagon, and the Joint Terrorism Task Force institutionalize better interagency early-warning mechanisms for detecting attitudes that render personnel unsuitable for service before they become alienated from their country.

Second, evidence has emerged that Hasan’s turn toward radicalism and violence was partly driven by the taunts of fellow soldiers. The relative ease with which the Army was integrated after World War II demonstrates how effective military discipline can be in advancing individual rights when purposefully applied. Since military service is an extraordinarily sensitive issue for Muslims, Obama should immediately direct the chiefs of staff of all of the military services to redouble efforts to enforce antidiscrimination standards. Then a broader antidiscrimination effort, perhaps informed by a General Accountability Office study on anti-Muslim bias, should be extended to other agencies.

Increased vigilance for the few Muslims who may stray from the nonviolent norm is essential. But Fort Hood’s principal legacy should be a greater commitment to ensuring, through accommodation of political and religious sensitivity and equality of treatment, that American Muslims don’t suffer for their loyalty to their country.

Steven Simon is a Research Analyst at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and Professor of the Practice of International Relations at Colby. He served on the National Security Council in the Clinton and Obama administrations.

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