When Cultures Clash

How the Fort Hood shooting tests our values


The tragedy at Fort Hood, Texas earlier this month—the murderous rampage by Army major and military psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan, who fatally shot 13 people and wounded 28 on the military base—has reignited a complex and thorny debate: Does the danger posed by Islamist radicalism justify some "religious profiling" toward millions of ordinary, non-violent Muslims?

Many commentators, primarily on the right, charge that misguided sensitivity has caused the mainstream media to downplay Hasan's apparent radicalized Islamic beliefs as a factor in the shootings and to focus instead on mental illness, anxiety about deployment to Afghanistan, or the stress of counseling returning soldiers. And indeed, whether or not Hasan's killing spree officially qualifies as "terrorism," that it was linked to religious zealotry is almost certain at this point. Not only did Hasan, by eyewitness accounts, shout "Allahu Akbar!" ("God is great!") during his attack; previously, he had corresponded with a jihad-preaching cleric and had been openly preoccupied with the conflict between Muslim faith and service in the U.S. armed forces when the U.S. is at war in Muslim countries.

The son of Palestinian immigrants, Hasan was born and raised in Virginia, and until recently seemed to exemplify a successful American life as a college and medical school graduate and an Army officer. For some, his actions will no doubt boost the claim—long advanced by critics of Islam such as JihadWatch.com blogger Hugh Fitzgerald—that virtually any Muslim American, no matter how seemingly well-integrated into our society, should be regarded as a potential violent extremist. Rejecting such prejudice, the "anti-jihadists" argue, imperils our survival.

Embracing it, however, would be profoundly destructive to core American values—not only religious tolerance but the principle of treating people as individuals. Fortunately, while the events at Fort Hood do suggest that "political correctness" may be detrimental to our safety, they also show that a prudent response to the risk of violent radicalism does not have to be a bigoted one.

One need not be an advocate of wholesale ethnic and religious profiling of all Arabs and Muslims to see that Hasan's behavior before the shootings should have set off all kinds of alarm bells. It also seems very likely that these alarm bells went unheeded in part for "politically correct" reasons. According to The New York Times, In 2007, Hasan gave two presentations, one at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and one in a master's program in public health, that many his colleagues and classmates found shocking, inappropriate, and sympathetic to "radical Islamist views." The first advocated that Muslim soldiers should be able to claim conscientious objector status if required to go to war against fellow Muslims, expressly prohibited by the Koran; the second was titled, "Why The War on Terror is a War on Islam."

Yet it is unknown whether the concerns of many residents and faculty at Walter Reed were even reported to Army officials. Some staff members, the Times reports, did not want to appear insensitive to Muslim culture. As Forbes.com columnist and Hoover Institution fellow Tunku Varadarajan has noted, "We don't have to be paranoid about Arab males; we just have to avoid the opposite: Being fearful of coming across as Islamophobic, and thereby failing to look straight at a situation." A no-nonsense response to actual warning signs of extremism would not only avoid the injustices of across-the-board profiling, it would also be far more efficient.

Still, the dilemma remains a difficult one. While all religions have their zealots and extremists, it is a little-disputed fact that today, the streak of extremism and zealotry is much more prominent and closer to the mainstream in Islam than in other major faiths. The FBI estimates than 10 percent of mosques in America preach jihad. A 2007 Pew Research Center survey found that about a quarter of American Muslims under 30 believe that suicide terrorism in defense of Islam is at least sometimes justified.

Terrorism is not the only form of risk to consider. This year, a 17-year-old Ohio girl, Fahtima Rifqa Bary, became a minor cause célèbre when she ran away from her Muslim parents and took refuge with a husband-and-wife couple of pastors in Florida, claiming her father had threatened to kill her for converting to Christianity. She has found support among conservative Christians and others critical of Islam, who point to Islamic teachings that prescribe death for apostates and to "honor killings" of Muslim women seen as having shamed their families. Forcibly sending the girl back home, they argue, could be a death sentence.

Meanwhile, Bary's parents, neither of whom has any record of violence or extremism, staunchly deny her allegations; their attorney has noted out that all their children are Westernized and that Rifqa herself was a cheerleader. The family claims that the pastors, whom the girl met on Facebook, have brainwashed her into believing she was in danger. Last month, a Florida judge ordered the teenager returned to Ohio, where she is in foster care pending further hearings. Her outraged supporters, over 100 of whom turned out for a rally in Columbus on Monday, insist that Bary's pleas for protection must be taken seriously, and that public officials are dismissing her legitimate fears out of either ignorance or bias.

It is hard to disagree with the argument that judges in such cases should, to some extent, consider the cultural context in assessing the credibility of a threat. Yet, if taken to its logical conclusion, the position of Rifqa Bary's champions means that any Muslim parent, no matter how law-abiding, could be stripped of parental rights on a mere accusation. That is a deeply disturbing prospect.

Clashes of culture, especially when combined with the danger of violence, can sorely test our values. In the years to come, we will have to walk a fine line between common sense and prejudice. And, if society's more enlightened segments eschew common sense and hide from the facts, they will ultimately leave the field open to bigots.

Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at http://cathyyoung.wordpress.com/. This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.