I was on a flight from Baltimore to the West Coast early this week and ended up sitting next to a young Muslim who was originally from Kenya. However, as soon as he came to the United States he joined the U.S. Army as a way to obtain funds to go to college. He spent most of his years in military service in Korea. I was reading some New Republic coverage of events in Afghanistan and he noticed that and started a conversation. As you would imagine, it didn't take long for this to evolve into a discussion of issues linked to the Fort Hood massacre. He was stunned and appalled, but not completely surprised.
In our conversation, he kept returning to two points. First of all, serving in the U.S. military raises a wide range of issues for Muslims and, here is the crucial point, Muslims simply do not agree on how to deal with these issues. Again, there is no one Islam. Some Muslims will have few difficulties meshing into the military. For others, it will be all but impossible. What's the key factor? That was his second point. There is no way to discuss this without being informed and honest about the wide range of doctrines and beliefs in Islam and how different groups of Muslims interpret them. These tensions are tremendous, he said, often leading to striking displays of Muslim vs. Muslim prejudice.
U.S. officials (put journalists into this scene as well) are simply going to have to be very careful and take these doctrinal issues seriously, he said. They must find out what Muslims truly believe, if they are to serve in the U.S. military. Again, some Muslims fit. Some do not. Doctrine is the key factor in this.
But, I said, how do military officials (1) know Muslims are telling the truth? And (2) ask these kinds of highly personal, probing questions without violating, well, the separation of church/mosque/synagogue and state, without singling Muslims out for unique discrimination? He did not have an answer for that. Neither did I.
For a glimpse of how all of this affects the Fort Hood story, check out this new Washington Post report by Michelle Boorstein. Here's the top:
U.S. Muslim service members say they stand out in both their worlds.
Among fellow troops, that can mean facing ethnic taunts, awkward questions about spiritual practices and a structure that is not set up to accommodate their worship. Among Muslims, the questions can be more profound: How can a Muslim participate in killing other Muslims in such places as Iraq and Afghanistan?
Just 3,557 members of the 1.4 million-member U.S. armed forces describe themselves as Muslim, and followers of Islam said the military is just starting to accommodate them by recruiting Muslim chaplains, creating Muslim prayer spaces and educating other troops about Islam.
There it is, in the second paragraph. That's one of the doctrinal issues that this Muslim man and I discussed during the flight. Simply stated, Muslims disagree on how to answer that life-and-death question. Also, there is a good chance that Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan had one set of beliefs about that doctrinal issue when he entered the military and another when he purchased his handguns and began planning his ambush on his fellow soldiers.
There are other questions: Must Muslims actively attempt to win converts? What about serving with and under the command of women? Can Muslims serve in some parts of the world and not others? How do members of the military find the line between debating religious issues (such as those that may be seen as affecting U.S. policies in the Middle East) and using these debates as a way to express prejudice? That question affects people on both sides of this divide, including clashes between Muslims who have different beliefs.
These issues loom over the story and deserve more attention. Here's another glimpse of the terrain:
Saleem Abdul-Mateen, a Washington native who was in aviation electronics in the Navy from 1975 to 1995 and is a national leader of a veterans group, said he straddles two worlds. "Today, a [Muslim] brother said to me, 'You know, if we're about peace, why are we fighting another country?' And that's valid. But you have to support the country when it's right and when it's wrong," Abdul-Mateen said.
Doug Burpee, who took the call name "hajji" as a helicopter pilot, said he "never had a problem in 26 years." Although he loves to engage in academic discussions about religion, he said, he kept his prayer invisible and thinks that Muslim service members, like others, have to compromise to fit into military life.
"There are Muslims who stop in their footprints to pray, and those people might have a problem," he said. "But if you're going to join -- join. If Muslims don't fit in, it's their fault."
This is a solid story, as a starting point. Let's hope that journalists see these questions and take them seriously. The government may have legal problems attempting to explore these issues. There's no reason that journalists cannot take them seriously.