After Fort Hood

“Islam is a religion that lives by the sword and it should die by the sword.” The person making this declaration was not some wild-eyed neocon or Christian fundamentalist, but an old friend of mine, a thoughtful, widely-read American who tapped not just the mainstream media but also progressive publications and blogs.

I can’t remember what provoked this outburst. It was at a dinner in 2004 or so, and we were discussing United States policy in the Middle East. But I do remember responding, “But that means people like me. There are so many different faces of Islam. Do you really want to put them all to the sword?”

In the wake of the Ft. Hood massacre, that conversation loomed large in my mind. If a progressive friend could come up with a gut reaction like that in the heat of discussion, what hope is there to communicate to the broader population of Americans? In their emotional response to the unforgivable act at Ft. Hood, how many Americans would care that there are as many facets of Islam as there are Muslims, from austere fundamentalists to fun-loving families to serious secularists — with every shade in between.

People express their beliefs in the way they live their daily lives. And they often draw on their understanding of their faith to justify quite contradictory positions, depending on what the age demands.

That point was brought home to me when I researched responses to women’s work in Jordan during the 1980s. So many men had gone to the Gulf in search of higher wages fueled by the first oil boom, that the Jordanian government began to encourage women’s employment to plug the gap. At the same time, families needed an extra income due to the rising cost of living and they also encouraged their womenfolk to go out to work. When the oil bust drove the men back home, the government-sponsored media went so far as to urge women to rediscover the joys of motherhood.

Culture and tradition are always in flux in the Arab and Muslim worlds, as they are the world over. But stereotypes appear to be fixed and unchanging, reinforced by random acts of violence that are used to ascribe guilt by association.

Indiscriminate attacks on civilians bring a horror all their own. And they violate international law, whether the attacks are by state or non-state actors and whatever the weapon used — whether a gun, plane, or the human body. The problem is that state actors have the power to shield themselves from international law, and their impunity creates a dangerous double standard that fuels violence.

It is this impunity that Justice Richard Goldstone and his team are seeking to end with their report on Israel’s assault against Gaza, which holds accountable both the powerful state actor, Israel, and the militarily far weaker non-state actor Hamas. The application of international law to all would protect all.

The problem of the double standard is compounded because the peoples of powerful nations are acutely conscious of the impact of the violence used against them as it receives massive media coverage, while the impact of the violence their governments visit on others is often just a blip on the screen.

The first indication I had that the assault at Ft. Hood would go beyond the tragedy for the victims and their families and have repercussions closer to home was when the Council on American Islamic Relations issued a release condemning it just a few hours later. After a moment’s puzzlement, I realized that the assailant must be Muslim. My heart sank as I thought of how all the progress made in combating anti-Arab and anti-Muslim feelings since 9/11 would now be reversed.

As more details emerged about Major Hasan’s background, I felt a sense of despair. I wished that he’d had the same courage of State Department official and former Marine Matthew Hoh. Hoh’s letter of resignation was a far more powerful challenge to U.S. policy in the Middle East than Hasan’s violent act.

As the story swept the land, I wondered how long it would take before right wing fanatics remembered Barack Obama’s heritage and turned it against him. Not long at all: Guilt by association can now reach the highest office in the land.

In times of tragedy, we all seek meaning and comfort. For me, special comfort came from an unexpected source: Army chaplain Col. Frank Jackson. At the service he conducted at Ft. Hood on Sunday, Jackson noted the tendency to “search for something, someone to blame.” He urged the congregation to “focus on things we know” and asked them not only to pray for the people killed and wounded and their families, but also for the suspected shooter and his family. Hundreds of miles away, I was moved by Jackson’s capacity for understanding and empathy, and I joined him in prayer.

NADIA HIJAB is a senior fellow at the Insitute for Palestine Studies.