By Rafia Zakaria
Wednesday, 25 Nov, 2009
US soldiers take part in an Action Control Class at the Army Center for Enhanced Performance part of the Resiliency Campus on Fort Hood Army post used to help soldiers with their mental and spiritual health in Fort Hood, Texas November 9, 2009. – Photo by Reuters.
‘Sometimes an extremist is really an extremist’ was the title of a recent column written by Los Angeles Times columnist Jonah Goldberg this past week. The subject, unsurprisingly, was the ongoing investigation into the motives of Maj Hassan Nidal who shot and killed 13 people in Fort Hood, Texas.
In his piece, Mr Goldberg exhorts Americans to ‘admit it … Major Hassan is a Muslim fanatic, motivated by other Muslim fanatics’.
The debate over whether Major Nidal was plain crazy or a motivated scheming fanatic has escalated in the past few weeks with new discoveries of his contacts with Yemeni cleric Anwar Al Awlaki and the discovery of business cards in his apartment that described him as a ‘soldier of Allah’.
Conservative commentators like Charles Krauthammer of the New York Times, have criticised the ‘liberal left media’ in the United States for ‘medicalising’ the incident and refusing to look at the writing on the wall. Those alleging that Maj Nidal’s actions were an act of insanity have thus been accused of wearing rose-coloured goggles that refuse to take seriously the threat of ‘homegrown terror’ in the United States.
In one recent discussion on the Fox television network, a cabal of conservative commentators declared that no further evidence was needed about Nidal’s intentions now that business cards in which the letters ‘SOA’ or ‘soldier of Allah’ had been discovered in his apartment. What more, they questioned, could one ask for in terms of evidence establishing that it was the major’s Muslim faith that was the primary motivator of his actions?
As the investigation into the Fort Hood tragedy continues; the prominence of this debate in the American public sphere begs the question of whether any incident involving a Muslim criminal can ever be considered anything but terrorism. Recent congressional testimony provided by the RAND Corporation, a non-profit intelligence think tank, presented further evidence of how, regardless of the fact that Nidal’s motives have yet to be proven, his modus operandi is being scrutinised as basis for profiling future terrorists.
Entitled Going Jihad the RAND report is careful to mention that only 0.00003 per cent (1 in 30,000) or 100 American Muslims have ever been found to have any involvement with terror groups. At the same time, it does not shy away from using the specifics regarding Major Hassan Nidal to extrapolate on the future of homegrown terror.
It says: ‘Therefore an attack carried out by one or a small number of self-radicalised, homegrown terrorists armed with readily available weapons, perhaps causing scores of casualties, while still far beyond what we have seen thus far is not inconceivable.’
The report describes the major’s trajectory before the attack as part of a ‘radicalisation process’ where interaction with jihadi websites, alienation from colleagues and the role of Anwar Al Awlaki (termed the jihadist enabler) are all distinct steps towards his goal. If any of these steps are missing, insists the report, it is simply because the radicalisation process may have been ‘an interior one’.
The RAND report is a representation of the inability of American policymakers to get beyond the paradigm that labels Hassan Nidal as Muslim first and insane second. The latter may take a while to prove but the evidence of the former is considered reason enough to construct yet another set of categories that can be used to profile in the effort to predict.
If any of the steps in this roughly demarcated process of radicalisation are absent, it is assumed to be because the process is ‘interior’. In other words, any faults in the identification of the process are attributed not to the fallacies of those delineating steps or identifying risk factors but to secret desires not yet revealed.
The prioritisation of Islam as the motivating factor for any Muslim criminal is not reserved for cases involving terrorist acts. Earlier this year, the cruel murder and beheading of Aasiya Zubair by her husband Muzammil Siddiqui also fits the paradigm. The murder was heartless, cruel and unforgivable; an act of an abusive husband knowing few limits to his barbarity. Yet again, in many sections of the American media the murder was labelled as an ‘honour killing’ an act considered somehow mandated by Islam and Muslim culture. Muzammil Siddiqui’s actions were thus pronounced not simply the murderous rage of a maniac but rather were inextricably linked to his faith.
The consequence of such discussion in the American public sphere or in the policymaking realm of congressional testimony is dire. In relation to the American-Muslim identity it states that identities must always be prioritised in a consequential way … with one aspect coming first, another second and so on.
In the case of Muslims doing bad things, it is always their religious identity that defines them first and only secondly any additional factors like for instance, insanity. The irony of this is: such constructions of Muslim identity that insist on an inherent lack of compatibility between being Muslim and anything else have been coined by the very enemies against whom the war on terror is being fought. It is the ilk of Al Qaeda that insist that being a Muslim precludes allegiance to all other forms of identity. The obstinacy with which Maj Hassan Nidal is being identified as Muslim first and insane and psychologically impaired second is one illustration of the entrenchment of this presumption among American conservatives who are at the forefront of fighting Al Qaeda.
The point is not to exonerate the horrific things Maj Nidal Hassan and others have done. The prisons of the world are testaments to the limitless cruelty of the insane and psychologically twisted. The nature of insanity is that there are no rational reasons that can be found to explain substantive motivations. The reality of identity is that many forms of it exist not in ordered ranks of first, second or third, but rather in coexistence, where individuals can have many allegiances side by side.
Muslim criminals like those belonging to any other faith are cruel, self-centred and opportunistic but to say that their deeds are related to their faith is to misunderstand both the nature of identity and insanity.
The writer is an attorney and director at Amnesty International.
Source: The Dawn in Karachi,