Not long ago, inside the quiet library of the Muslim Community Center here in Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C., Golam Akhter, a local Bangladeshi-American civil engineer, 67, got into a fierce debate with a young Muslim doctor over how to interpret the concept of “jihad” within Islam. Akhter argued, “Jihad means an inner struggle, fighting against corruption and injustice.”
The young doctor responded. “That’s not a correct interpretation. Jihad means holy war. When your religion isn’t safe, you have to fight for it. If someone attacks you, you must fight them. That is jihad. You can kill someone who is harming you.”
A closer look reveals a complex picture of a young first-generation American Muslim man living a life of dissonance between his identity as an American and his ideology as a Muslim who had accepted a literal, rigid interpretation of Islam.
The conversation would be just another theological debate, interesting but irrelevant, except that the doctor was Maj. Nidal Hasan, 39, the gunman in the tragic Fort Hood rampage. After being posted to Walter Reed Hospital as a psychiatrist, Hasan called the Muslim Community Center his local mosque. It’s just a short drive away from Walter Reed.
In interviews with the media, leaders of the Muslim Community Center have painted a portrait of Hasan as a quiet, unassuming Muslim more interested in finding a wife than debating world politics. They express shock at his killing spree and, appropriately, condemn it. But a closer look behind the doors of the mosque and inside the conversations between the engineer and the doctor reveal a more complex picture of a young first-generation American Muslim man living a life of dissonance between his identity as an American and his ideology as a Muslim who had accepted a literal, rigid interpretation of Islam, akin to the puritanical Wahhabi and Salafi interpretations of Islam that define the theology of militancy inside the Muslim world today, according to community members who knew Hasan.
“So many times I talked with him,” said Akhter, a community leader who is sort of like a mosque gadfly, challenging congregants to reject literal, rigid interpretations of Islam. “I was trying to modernize him. I tried my best. He used to hate America as a whole. He was more anti-American than American.”
Despite all the conversations, Akther said, “I couldn’t get through to him. He was a typical fundamentalist Muslim.”
It wasn’t a label assigned lightly. Rather, it emerged after many one-on-one conservations between the engineer and the doctor in quiet spots from the library to the lobby to the prayer hall, discussing issues of interpretation like jihad, polygamy, assimilation, foreign policy, and the cutting of hands for theft. Other members of the community confirm this portrait of Hasan.
The story of Hasan at his local mosque is a cautionary tale to all Muslim communities about the consequences when we fail to win the war of ideas in the Muslim world with moderate interpretation of Islam over rigid, literal interpretations. Part of the problem is that many Muslims are clinging to the notion of an “ummah,” or “community,” with a capital “U,” a view that inhibits dissent and encourages blind loyalty to a global Islam.
In that struggle, we whitewash the truth of men like Hasan responding defensively, rejecting any links to Islamic teachings and, ultimately, I believe, denying the reality of a radicalized ideology of Islam that sanctions violence. In this ideology, men like Maj. Hasan believe they are betraying their fellow Muslims if they fight for the U.S. Army in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Last week, on the eve of Hasan's killing spree, two Iranian-American security guards walked up to a U.S. Army officer in uniform in the parking lot outside the Sears auto repair shop in Herndon, Virginia, not far from where Hasan grew up in Arlington. “I want to join the Army,” one of the security guards said, “but I don’t want to kill my Muslim brothers, you know? So they won’t send me to Afghanistan or Iraq…Will they?” The military officer smiled. Of course, “they” would likely send the men to Iraq or Afghanistan if they joined the military. America is at war in those two countries.
To me, the conversation was revealing. From Seattle to my hometown of Morgantown, West Virginia, and the mosque in Silver Spring, I have heard an ideology that Muslims belong to an “ummah,” in which Muslims can’t turn against other Muslims. As a Muslim-American writer-activist, challenging rules that banish women to the back corners of mosques, I have been told that I must stay quiet so as not to cause “ fitna,” or division, inside the community.
Five years ago, in an email to community members, a member of the board of trustees of the Muslim Community Center argued one of my objectives was to “create fitna (chaos) in the community.”
It’s critical that we ditch the concept of the “ummah” with a capital “U” and recognize that we are an “ummah” with a small “u,” meaning our religious identity doesn’t have to supersede other loyalties and identities. This attempt to push an “Ummah” is the politics of ideologues of puritanical Islam who want to mollify dissent. Sadly, too many moderates have bought into it. We aren’t monolithic, and we shouldn’t try to be. Look at al Qaeda, the Taliban and Pakistani militant groups: They don’t have a problem with killing Muslims, slaying Muslims in attacks from Amman, Jordan, to Islamabad, Pakistan.
For ideologues, in a battle over loyalty between the Army and the ummah, the “Ummah” wins. At my mosque in Morgantown, I have heard this Quranic verse used to quiet dissent (3:103): “Hold fast to the rope of Allah, the faith of Islam, and be not divided in groups.” Another verse in the same chapter (3: 110) says: “You [Muslims] are the best nation brought out for Mankind, commanding what is righteous and forbidding what is wrong.” In yet another verse, the Quran (21:92) refers to “ummah wahida” or “one community,” which ideologues push as a unified Islamic world, even a caliphate.
In an essay, “Unity of Muslims,” on a Web site by a Muslim organization, Dar-ul-ehsan, or “the House of Blessing,” with a branch advertised in Bristol, Connecticut, the group’s leader, Shiekh Abu Anees Muhammad Barkat Ali, says, “Oh my dear Muslim brother! Unite together above all sectarian and racial strifes for the promotion of Unity and Brotherhood amongst the Islamic Ummah, the Muslim Community.” The capitalization comes from the group. In a September letter to Muslims, Mullah Umar, the leader of the Taliban in exile, extend greetings to “all Islamic Ummah.”
As a result of this kind of ideology, Muslims such as the writers of a Web site, RevolutionIslam.com, called Hasan “an officer and a gentleman” and praised his alleged killing spree at Fort Hood, sending him “Get Well” greetings.
Throughout the Muslim community, there is a battle over legitimacy, authority, and identity. Back in Silver Spring, on the day of the debate between the engineer and the doctor over the meaning of jihad, Akhter said that Hasan told him that if he didn’t believe in jihad as warfare, “Then you are not a Muslim.”
That politics of making another Muslim illegitimate is a strategy typically used today by literal, rigid interpreters of Islam to discredit other Muslims, in the spirit of a group of 7th century Muslims, the Kharijites, who used a politics called “ takfeer” to declare other Muslims apostates.
Akhter responded: “Only Allah can say who is good.”
Hasan answered back: “It is written in the holy Quran. If a believer has any question about the Quran, then he is not a true believer.”
To argue for jihad as holy war is to accept strict adherence to verses such as this one (2: 216), translated in the Noble Quran as: “Jihad (holy fighting in Allah’s cause) is ordained for you (Muslims) though you dislike it.” That translation is published by the government of Saudi Arabia.
Another time, the engineer and the doctor debated the question of whether a thief’s hand should be cut off, a punishment laid out in a literal read of the Quran (5: 38). Akhter made the historically accurate point that Umar, the second caliph after the death of the prophet Muhammad, suspended this punishment during a time of famine. Hasan listened and then responded, “That’s not for everybody. Only Umar can interpret that. We have to follow the Quran in total.” Hasan’s strict adherence to literal readings of the Quran betrays his leanings to extremist Islam.
Ironically, last year, long before the tragedy at Fort Hood, an officer at the Army's Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, wrote a research paper in which he tried to understand the dilemma facing Muslims in the West. In the paper, “American Muslims: Living the Dream,” U.S. Army Maj. Matthew P. Neumeyer wrote that while Muslim immigrants in the U.S. “share the same characteristics as any other immigrant group coming to America looking for a chance at prosperity,” he noted, “At this time, however, Muslim immigrants are at the center of a large struggle among Western governments, moderate Muslim communities, and Islamic extremist groups.”
In the midst of the many conversations he had with Hasan, Akhter stood outside the Muslim Community Center, distributing photocopies of a Washington Post article about an Afghan mother who tried to stop her radicalized son from carrying out a suicide bombing; the bomb exploded in the family’s home, killing the mother, her son, and her three other children. In a later email to mosque members, he urged them, “Let us wake up,” and take note of who are “potential terrorists, who are fanatics, who are fundamentalists” in the community.
No one in the mosque responded with concerns about Hasan’s extremist views. Rather, when he had distributed the newspaper article, Akther said, a member of the mosque yelled at him, charging him with causing “fitna” in the ummah.
Two years later, this past Friday after the Fort Hood massacre, TV crews and journalists thronged the yard of the mosque with questions about the religious identity of one man: Maj. Hasan.
Asra Q. Nomani is the author of Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam. She is co-director of the Pearl Project, an investigation into the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Her activism for women’s rights at her mosque in West Virginia is the subject of a PBS documentary, The Mosque in Morgantown. She can be found on Facebook, and reached at firstname.lastname@example.org