The Collateral Damage to Muslims

The suspected Fort Hood shooter left more than a trail of carnage in his wake. He has sown fear in the hearts of millions of Muslim Americans—and inflamed hatred of Islam.

We don't have any solid answers as to why Major Nidal Malik Hasan murdered 13 people and wounded 30 more at Fort Hood, and perhaps we never will. Some suggest that Hasan was deeply disturbed by the prospect of serving in Iraq, where he was to use his psychiatric training to help American soldiers survive the rigors of war. Apparently Hasan tried desperately to get out of the military, going so far as to hire a lawyer. But of course Hasan could have found various other ways to avoid deploying to Iraq—by conniving his way into a dishonorable discharge, by going AWOL, or even by committing suicide. Then there are rumors that Hasan had faced harassment and discrimination as a Muslim and Arab American in the military. Given that millions of Americans have faced discrimination of varying degrees of severity, this explanation doesn't quite add up. One is reminded of another mass murderer, Colin Ferguson, who gunned down six passengers on an LIRR commuter train in December of 1993. Early on, his defense attorneys claimed that Ferguson was the victim of "black rage" that drove him insane, and that he couldn't be held responsible for the crime he had allegedly planned over the course of a week. The general consensus was that this theory was as offensive as it was preposterous.

Hasan's other victims are the millions of Muslim Americans who've fully embraced American life, and who feel a profound sense of dread whenever innocent people are murdered in the name of Islam.

Another emerging narrative is that the U.S.-born Hasan, a devout Muslim, was an anti-American extremist who intended to strike a blow against the military. If that really was Hasan's intention, he's already failed. The enormity of this tragedy for the loved ones of the deceased can't be overstated. But no sane person believes that the United States will move an inch because of the monstrous crime of an awkward and apparently friendless man. What Hasan has done, regardless of his motivation, is sow fear and anxiety among millions of Muslim Americans, who have served in the years since the 9/11 terror attacks as America's secret weapon against Islamic radicalism. The prosperity and religious freedom enjoyed by Muslims in America contrasts rather well against the grinding poverty and violent oppression faced by those living under Islamist rule.

Mimi Swartz: Fort Hood’s Bleak World Gail Sheehy on Fort Hood’s too-late plan to prevent post-combat stress from getting out of hand It is also true that Muslims remain a fairly small minority in the United States, with estimates ranging up to 7 million adherents at the high end. This number has increased dramatically since the immigration reforms of the mid-1960s, which led to a sharp increase in the number of Asian and Middle Eastern Muslims entering the country. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 45 percent of Americans know a Muslim. Of those who have a high level of familiarity with Islam, 57 percent view Muslims favorably while 25 percent view them unfavorably. For those with a low level of familiarity, 21 percent have a favorable view, 35 percent have an unfavorable view, and 44 percent, a significant plurality, have no opinion. The Pew survey also found that 58 percent of Americans believe that Muslims face a high level of discrimination, while 64 percent believe the same is true for gays and lesbians. These numbers suggest that a large majority of Americans are open-minded about Muslims. And though there are pockets of distrust, far more Americans worry that Muslims face discrimination than hold negative views of Muslims.

The danger is that Hasan's despicable crime will subtly and slowly change these perceptions for the worse. Overnight, Twitter feeds and message boards pulsed with anti-Muslim anger. This kind of venting is important to a free society. But it could also be an ominous sign of tensions to come. It is thus no surprise that groups like the controversial Council on American-Islamic Relations have been so quick to condemn the violence. The vast majority of Americans recognize that Hasan doesn't represent all Muslims, just as the Virginia Tech killer Seung-Hui Cho didn't represent all Korean-Americans. Yet people who are on the fence about whether Muslims can be trusted could tip over into believing that they can't. Back in 2004, a survey sponsored by Cornell University found that 29 percent of Americans believed that "all Muslim Americans should be required to register there whereabouts with the federal government," a policy that would be a massive propaganda coup for America's rivals. And it should go without saying that opinions about Muslims aren't evenly distributed across the country. Muslims living in regions and neighborhoods where high levels of mistrust prevail are likely to feel alienated from the American mainstream, which could then lead them to live narrow, impoverished lives—or, worse still, turn to the kind of nihilistic violence we've occasionally seen from the Muslim youth of France and Holland and Britain, where riots and gang violence with a militant edge have grown too common.

Hasan's most important victims are the families who've lost loved ones and the soldiers who've lost comrades. They deserve our deepest sympathies. Yet Hasan's other victims are the millions of Muslim Americans who've fully embraced American life, and who feel a profound sense of dread whenever innocent people are murdered in the name of Islam.

Reihan Salam is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-author of Grand New Party.