The Struggle to Understand: Jihad, Going Postal, and Superempowerment
Scott’s quickie on Andy McCarthy’s take on the tragic Ft. Hood shooting (hands up – anyone whose surprised it was A Mac?) is timely and worth the read. There are some very excellent comments in the thread which are also worth a look (esp. recommended is #10 from Chad).
The controversy of course comes down to the question of the shooter (Nidal Hassan Malik) and his Islamic faith. Folks like McCarthy want to draw linear causality from the religion to the act. Instead of “The Devil made me do it,” it’s “Islam made me do it.”
Now Islam, of course, is not the only factor involved. For some background, here a relevant story from the AP (h/t to Br. Mark). Of particular note is the common refrain of how negatively Hassan (as a psychiatrist) was affected by working with returning soldiers from the battlefield as well his rather private, lonely existence.
The only point I want to make in this context is to watch how Islam is discussed in this controversy. My presumption–and see for yourself if this holds–is that Islam is always treated as this giant, monolithic thing. So either it’s the cause (implied in McCarthy’s case) or it’s kind of put in the corner and ignored (for various sensitive cultural-political reasons).
Either way, this response treats Islam as some uniform entity. When in reality there is no such thing as monolithic Islam. What exists (in enormous numbers and influence) are Muslims around the world who have all kinds of views, ethics, ways of understanding the relationship of their faith to the world in which they live, and doctrines or elements of the faith they foreground.
This is particularly the case in a religion like Islam (esp. Sunni Islam) that lacks any centralized authority structure that once and for all determines the true meaning and practice of the faith.
In other words both anti-Muslim US conservatives and Muslim (or Muslim-friendly liberals) always want to get to “the real Islam”. But that is, to use an old Arab metaphor, a mirage in the desert. There is no “real” Islam, neither the stereotypical bloodthirsty avenger practicing the religion of the sword nor the totally peaceful religion of brotherhood.
Islam treated in this Huntington-esque fashion of some uniform, glacier-like cultural bloc the world over is just nonsense. What matters is what Muslims do and how they understand, argue for, and what they believe.
Some (very broad and generic) history is helpful here. Especially in relation to the question of religion and political policy (esp. US foreign policy), since it comes up in this context, insofar as it was appears to have been a motive behind Hasan’s actions given how he understood the concept, emphasis on his understanding. This topic is usually discussed under the label of jihad, so a little history on that one.
During what is typically termed the Classical Period of Islam (say from about 700-1600) the mainstream understanding was that existence was divided into the House of Islam and The House of the World. This mindset is basically the same as Christendom in The Middle Ages. Jihad in that frame spelled out specific rules relative to fighting (e.g. not killing noncombatants or harming their fields!!!!), diplomacy, and the like. Basically what in Western Christendom was covered under the title of Just War Theory. Notice there that jihad (as military affairs) was a responsibility of the rulers not the people. For the people, the Sufi tradition later in the Middle Ages particularly, spoke about personal jihad as a kind of moral and spiritual struggle–and even quoted Muhammad’s line that it was the greater jihad.
That classical conception–which is still cited by main scholars trained in the classical clerical fashion–has increasingly been questioned by various reform movements within Islam.
Jihad in the 20th century became much more tied up in the movements of post-colonial nation-state building, The Third World revolt, and the Cold War. The original/classical jihad theories treated the Muslim world as single community (The Ummah/House of Islam), but inevitably towards the later Middle Ages and the break up into various state-lets/regimes across the Muslim world, headed towards a kind of de facto nationalism. This process only accelerated with the modern world and the end of The Ottoman Empire after WWI (the last rather tenuous hold to the ancient caliphate).
As such jihad became much more politicized and drew on the increasing power of individuals and small groups and the rise of non-state actors as well as blended multi-national identities or non-national but fundamentalist religious identity (against secularism). It was here, particularly in the movement of “Arab Afghans” that the notion of jihad (as military struggle) is a duty of all Muslims comes up. It’s not a universally held opinion. In fact it’s a very marginal one numbers-wise, though perhaps it has strong influence in terms of media coverage (because of its propensity to violence).
Jihad then too often becomes equated with various forms of terrorism (usually suicide bombing), thereby equating the two in a very unhelpful manner.
Now this history, this one stream within a much larger world, does (at least tangentially) come into play here. This ‘graf from a helpful Washington Post article will likely stir much commentary:
The Associated Press reported that Hasan attracted the attention of law enforcement authorities in recent months after an Internet posting under the screen name “NidalHasan” compared Islamic suicide bombers to Japanese kamikaze pilots. “To say that this soldier committed suicide is inappropriate,” the posting read. “It’s more appropriate to say he is a brave hero that sacrificed his life for a more noble cause.”
The Kamikaze analogy is not altogether right (though I think I get what he means). In the case of Pearl Harbor, the kamikaze attacks were part of a nation-state religion and were a pre-emptive attack. Suicide bombing, as Robert Pape made clear, is overwhelming the act of insurgent groups fighting against democratic (usually Western) regimes occupying (what they believe to be and/or actually is) their territory. Before I get all the howls of being a terrorist sympathizer, let me say (for like the millionth time) that this analysis does not mean suicide bombing is ok or legitimate or whatever. But it has a logic. A logic that is political fundamentally. There are traditions within Islam, particularly of jihad and of dying in battle as a way to heaven, that can more easily be adapted to this political end–though again there are many other elements within Islamic tradition that obviate against suicide bombing, like the absolutely common declaration against killing civilians–but in the end it’s a politico-military act driven by the logic of warfare and politics in the contemporary world not Islam as such. The biggest deployers of suicide bombing (prior to their destruction by the Sinhalese) were the Tamil Tigers, drawn from a secular Hindu Marxist tradition. Not Islam.
What Hasan did and its relationship to suicide bombing is a tricky one–especially since (as of yet) we have no way of knowing he’s mindset. Did he hope he was going to get killed in the process?
The articles make clear that Hasan was opposed to the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, particularly the element of occupation. That’s where his line about the kamikaze comes in, even though it’s (partially) an inaccurate historical analogy.
One issue that plagues this discussion is an inability to distinguish the foreign policy of a country from patriotism. It’s a sad state of affairs when the family of the shooter has to say in a statement, “we love America.” I can’t think of another case of a rampaging mass killing (like V Tech or the school shootings during the 90s) where the family has to say, “We Love America.” Maybe I’m wrong but I don’t remember any potential interpretation of the families as America-haters. My sense is that such acts are typically understood to be the horrific acts of a demented mind that snaps expressing pent up hurt and resentment in an explosion and orgy of bloodshed.
I don’t want to jump to conclusions on this one but there’s the potential that this a (at least partially) politically motivated act. It constitutes a terrorist attack insofar as terror was part of the thing. But that’s the same for a Colombine. And the US has experienced politically motivated terrorism–again not necessarily Islamic–in the form of the Oklahoma City bombing.
Whether this is a politically-motivated terrorist act or not is unclear. [Note: that even if it were proved to be such and persuasively shown to be due in large measure to Hasan’s understanding of his faith, that does not entail totally Islam=evil or terrorism of course. Don’t however except certain US political commenters to get that rather not so subtle distinction. It would mean terrorism is a serious trans-identity social threat in society, even if only in a very small number of people. There would be Islamic versions as well as right-wing Christian nationalist versions, potentially to come anti-banker versions, anti-government stuff, all kinds of potentials.]
But an attack that we may consider potentially possessing a familial resemblance–if only in tactical ways–to this one was the Mumbai terrorist attacks. Those attacks were specifically political and merged with a version of jihadi theory that would legitimize such attacks. For background on the “logic” of such urban terror attacks read John Robb.
But I don’t expect any such discriminative thought to be brought in the larger media (and blogosphere). Those spheres are built less around our neocortex and more around our limbic system and its emotional temperature reading. In the case of many blogs and the Cable News phenomenon it is predicated on exciting and incessantly agitating the emotional side, drowning out rational analysis.
And in that case, the notion of Muslims as somehow suspect, not really American, not “one of us” becomes very problematic.
But whatever the exact rationale(s) for the attack, what is clear in this sad event is the inevitable technological and social trend towards superempowerment of the individual. Individuals have an increasing capacity for mass lethality. The symbolic effect of an attack on army base, whether intentional or not, is to make clear yet again that there is no place in society that is safe. The anonymity of a colleague who no one expects to go on a rampage fuels mutual suspicion (what about that weirdo in the corner cubicle who has no friends that I sometimes make fun of? Is s/he going to go postal someday?). And also there are no places where an individual committed to so acting, can not start killing people. An army base isn’t safe. Schools aren’t. Courts can sites of violence, government buildings. Which isn’t to say that we should all cower in fear all the time that our lives are nothing but near misses of getting shot up–you are far more likely to get killed in a car accident than by someone opening fire in public–but the reality is the future is already present.
This isn’t by the way a pro/anti gun position. This is just the reality. Undoubtedly there are some steps that can be taken to minimize and reduce the chances, but there’s no control and that it seems to me is what becomes the source of such raw emotionality in these events.