Since every minor social trend and major political development in the US receives disproportionate attention in the Anglosphere, it is not surprising that the shooting of 13 fellow soldiers by US Army psychiatrist Maj Nidal Hasan Malik aroused considerable interest within India.
The saga of an armed custodian of military power turning roguish, whether out of stress or conviction, is not new. Just 25 years ago, there was the incident of the Prime Minister’s own bodyguards turning their guns on the person they were entrusted to protect. The reason was not any personal dislike of Indira Gandhi but a political (or, if you must, religious) retribution for the military action on the Golden Temple in Amritsar. A few months earlier there were incidents of mutiny among Sikh soldiers unable to digest the desecration of their holiest shrine. In weighing a perceived injustice to their faith with loyalty to the state, individuals exercised painful options — and only a handful involved rebellion.
It is more than likely that similar conflicts preyed on the mind of the gunman in Fort Hood as he sprayed bullets on his colleagues shouting Allah-o-Akbar. In eschewing his personal future for the cause of jihad, Nidal was acting in the same way as countless suicide bombers who have joined the martyrdom queue. Driven by a deep sense of religiosity, these individuals sincerely believe that they are serving god by killing themselves and others. Their motives are very different from the ones that propelled Indira’s bodyguards. Beant and Satwant didn’t believe they were heralding a better society. Nor were they guided by theology. They shot the Prime Minister to protest against the disrespect to the holiest of Sikh shrines. Their actions were located in the tradition of blood feuds that abound in rural societies.
This distinction is crucial. It is a colossal mistake to locate the so-called Islamist rage in specific grievances such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine (the expedient default grievance). Last week, Ayatollah Abdolhossein Moezi, the representative of the Iranian ‘Supreme Leader’ in Britain, fuelled a controversy by suggesting that Muslims shouldn’t be a part of the armed forces of countries that are in conflict with fellow Muslims. “We say that Muslims are not allowed to go and kill Muslims,” he pronounced grandly.
The argument is disingenuous. If Muslims were theologically forbidden from killing other Muslims, as the Ayatollah claimed, a trigger-happy Iranian police wouldn’t have killed so many fellow Shias protesting against something as innocuous as a rigged presidential election. Nor would suicide bombing have become a cottage industry in Pakistan, considering that nearly 90 per cent of those killed are invariably Muslims. There has to some theological underpinning to acts of murder that inflict so much collateral damage on Muslims.
According to a blog by Anwar al-Awlaki, the US-based mullah who is said to have moulded Nidal, “Nidal Hassan is a hero. He is a man of conscience who could not bear living the contradiction of being a Muslim and serving in an Army that is fighting against his own people. This is a contradiction that many Muslims brush aside and just pretend that it doesn’t exist. Any decent Muslim cannot live, understanding properly his duties towards his Creator and his fellow Muslims, and yet serve as a US soldier. The US is leading the war against terrorism which in reality is a war against Islam.” In plain language, this implies that no Muslim can be part of any outfit that opposed the Islamist jihad. This may explain why the Pakistani Army, which tries to play a double game, is considered a legitimate target.
But there is an even more sinister message in al-Awlaki’s endorsement of the Fort Hood massacre. It implies that all Muslims, regardless of which passport they hold and where they live, are bound by a common obligation to their god. Their duty, in other words, is to facilitate the global jihad of Islamism and forget about national obligations. It would not be surprising if, inspired by Nidal, clerics in European countries where there are large Muslim populations, issue similar decrees. More to the point, how long before the patriotism of India’s Muslim soldiers are put to a similar warped test? After all, there is ongoing battle between Indian nationhood and jihad.
The Fort Hood incident raises uncomfortable questions that we can’t wish away. Liberal sections of the US have warned against jumping to hasty conclusions over Nidal. It has even been foolishly suggested that the killer’s invocation to god while spraying bullets shouldn’t be misunderstood. According to a writer in The Guardian, “it’s something Arab people often shout before doing something or other” — an explanation that is striking for its originality, if not accuracy.
In India, the motivations behind Indira’s killings were instantly recognised and, in our own blundering way, acted upon. In the case of Fort Hood, there is a strange reluctance to admit all traces of an ideological virus which can potentially devastate society and even cause civil strife.
There is a global radicalisation of Muslims which has its roots in the convergence of religion and political power. To try and overcome it with competitive theology — countering one religious quotation with another — and multiculturalism are unlikely to work. On the contrary, the battle will be on terms desired by the Islamists. It is time we seriously explore whether religious radicalisation can be offset by a dogmatic refusal to concede any space to religion in political life. It’s not easy but various alternative approaches haven’t succeeded.