There has already been enough blogger outrage and cable host sputtering on the absurd notion that Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) when he shot 40 people last week at Ft. Hood, Texas, despite the fact that he had never served in a war zone. (In a masterful bit of don't-mention-the-war hypothesizing, Time magazine suggested that Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, could be suffering from some type of secondhand PTSD.)
Evidence did quickly accumulate that Hasan was, in fact, afflicted with an excess of religious belief, something his fellow soldiers recognized after viewing Hasan's PowerPoint presentation on Islam, informing them that he, as a Muslim, loved death more than they, filthy kaffirs the lot of them, valued life.
The huffing and puffing pundits, who correctly identified the murder of Dr. George Tiller an act of domestic terrorism, who rightfully bemoan Fred Phelps-ian religious extremism in almost all of its manifestations—with the emphasis on almost—were perplexed. What could have motivated an advocate of suicide bombing, a man who refused to be photographed with women? What could have inspired the pious chap who attended the same radical mosque as two 9/11 hijackers, the gun-toting psycho psychiatrist that shouted Allahu Akbar while shooting unarmed servicemen and women in the back? It's a mystery that would doubtless confound even Hercule Poirot.
On the other end of the debate, though, religious weirdos of a very different sort warned against allowing Muslims to serve in the military, at least while the United States was engaged in combat against an enemy that prays towards Mecca. One needn't look very far to find lunkheaded bloggers and rent-an-Islamologists suggesting that, after weakening American security by preventing gays from working as Arabic translators, the military should go one step further and scrutinize—or sack—the 15,000 Muslims currently serving in uniform. A minority position for sure, but a troubling one nevertheless.
If Muslims are incapable of fighting within (or alongside) the American military, this will come as news to those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan alongside native translators and members of the local armed forces; those who don't believe that a common faith prevents them from hunting down a co-religionist responsible for blowing up the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra. If we are to give creedence to the mad ravings of Hasan and Osama bin Laden, and exonerate their mutually held view that Islam is engaged in perpetual warfare with non-believers, one might have a difficult time explaining the brutal Iran-Iraq War, which—regardless of a century’s old Sunni-Shiite schism—pitted Muslim against Muslim. And if there is indeed a Muslim fifth column operating in our military ranks, they’ve certainly taken their sweet time in unleashing jihad.
So it isn't unreasonable for Gen. George Casey to express concern that Hasan's radical vision of how a Muslim should serve the Prophet might have adverse consequences for other active duty Muslim soldiers. But this was soon followed by warnings from President Barack Obama, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, and countless pundits and journalists, that there existed a very real possibility of a backlash against Muslim-Americans. The Guardian, shaking in fear at the prospect of an American pogrom, offered this headline: "Obama acts as anti-Muslim anger threatens to engulf US."
Other headlines emphasised that American Muslims are currently crippled by "fear and frustration" over increased "racial tensions." But as long as the press is busting myths related to Islam and terrorism, perhaps it is time to revisit the deeply entrenched idea that America experienced a post-9/11 backlash against Muslim-Americans—and will likely experience a new wave of Islamophobia.
After months of hand-wringing from the national media, who clearly distrusted those rubes in flyover country to restrain their “get the Muslims” anger, the tragic tally was one American—a Sikh gas station owner in Arizona—shot and killed as "revenge" for the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. An act, incidentally, perpetrated by a man, according to the court that sentenced him, suffering from "mental illness and [a] low IQ," and unclear on the differences between Islam and Sikhism. A 2002 investigation by The Washington Post found there to be "little proof of [a] post-9/11 backlash" against Muslims. And while the FBI reported a large increase in hate crimes against Arab and Muslim-Americans, the number of incidents were still microscopically small, the offenses often vague (most falling under the category of "intimidation") and rarely violent, and still significantly lower than those classified as anti-Semitic.
Indeed, the Pew polling service found that Americans were more positive towards Islam and Muslim-Americans after September 11. According to a 2005 Pew report, “the day of the first terrorist attacks in London [the July 7 subway attacks by Islamic supremacists], and July 17, finds a majority of Americans (55 percent) saying they have a favorable opinion of Muslim-Americans. That is roughly the same proportion that expressed positive opinions of Muslim-Americans in Pew surveys conducted in July 2003 and March 2002, and significantly higher than the 45 percent holding favorable views in March 2001, prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon” (emphasis added).
After September 11, former Washington Post religion reporter Gustav Niebuhr set out in search of the great backlash against Muslims, finding instead anecdotal evidence in support of the Pew figures: "In the very week when the nation suffered a grievous injury from a stateless criminal gang that identified itself by its members' religion—as Muslims—some Americans chose to express concern and friendship toward their Muslim neighbors.”
So despite having the mother of all opportunities for a national convulsion of violence and discrimination against a religious minority, America, for the most part, chose investigation over emotion:, lay conversations about the tenets of Islam were ubiquitous, books detailing doctrinal differences between Muslim sects flew off the shelves, and the president beseeched his fellow Americans to understand that, despite acts of violence in its name, Islam was a religion of peace.
One can always find, in a nation of 300 million people, examples of boorish behavior towards religious minorities. But if Muslims that embrace violence against non-Muslims are a tiny minority, it is time to acknowledge that attacks on Muslims by non-Muslims in the United States are perpetrated by an even tinier minority. That the United States doesn’t do backlashes needs to be restated frequently and forcefully, rather than ignored in favor of exploiting a “teachable moment” of religious tolerance.
So let’s stop frightening our fellow Americans, telling them that they will soon be “engulfed” in ethnic and religious violence, and acknowledge that we have, once again, acquitted ourselves rather well.
Michael C. Moynihan is a senior editor of Reason magazine.