I was having a private conversation the other day, soon after the Fort Hood massacre, with a specialist in issues of religious freedom and, in particular, Jihadist persecution of moderate Muslims and various religious minorities in predominately Muslim lands. The details were filtering out about the many clues that U.S. Army officials had missed linked to the evolving, increasingly radical beliefs of Major Nidal Malik Hasan in the weeks, months or even years before he opened fire on his colleagues in the U.S. Army. "We're probably going to find out," said the expert, "that Hasan was even visiting strip clubs and nobody (at Fort Hood) understood what that meant."
Sure enough, the public soon learned that Hasan had, in fact, been frequenting strip clubs. In some previous terrorism cases, including 9/11, this had been a sign that devout Muslim males were freely committing sins that they believed would soon be washed away in the ultimate act of self sacrifice -- martyrdom in defense of the faith.
Once again, this was a factual detail that, to understand its significance, insiders -- such as journalists and public officials -- would have needed to wrestle with issues of doctrine, issues that help define the serious gaps between the beliefs of mainstream Muslims and the beliefs of Jihadists or Islamists or whatever term journalists are using at the moment.
You can see these tensions at work in that amazing Time cover story that ran under the (inside) headline, "The Fort Hood Killer: Terrified ... or Terrorist?" Reporter Nancy Gibbs ended the anecdotal lede with a killer symbolic detail:
What a surprise it must have been when Major Nidal Malik Hasan woke up from his coma to find himself not in paradise but in Brooke Army Medical Center, deep in the heart of Texas, under security so tight that there were armed guards patrolling both the intensive-care unit and checkpoints at the nearest freeway off-ramp. This was not the finalé he had scripted when he gave away all his earthly goods -- his desk lamp and air mattress, his frozen broccoli and spinach, his copies of the Koran. He had told his imam he was planning to visit his parents before deploying to Afghanistan. He did not mention that his parents had been dead for nearly 10 years.
The story makes it clear that Hasan changed during his life here in America. It's clear that, at one point, he lived and expressed his Muslim faith in one way and then, later, he changed.
But this is where the reporting stops and the questions begin. For Hasan, what beliefs changed? What doctrines did he come to believe that he did not believe, previously? What religious practices in his life changed?
We do get these hints, when we are told that early in his life:
... his fanaticism did not extend past cheering on his Washington Redskins. He did, however, regularly attend services at the Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring, Md., helped at its homeless shelter and even applied to an annual matrimonial center that acts as a kind of matchmaking service. He described himself in his application as "quiet and reserved until more familiar with person. Funny, caring and personable."
"He wanted a woman who prayed five times a day and wears a hijab," the former imam Faizul Khan told the New York Times, "and maybe the women he met were not complying with those things." It was after his parents died that Hasan became more conspicuously devout. At Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he completed his psychiatric training, he was reportedly reprimanded for trying to convert patients to Islam, while castigating those with drug and alcohol issues for their "unholy" behavior. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan unfolded, he asserted the right of Muslim Americans to conscientiously object to fighting; his relatives claimed he offered to repay the cost of his medical education in exchange for release from his obligations.
The first alarms began to sound while he was still in training. "He was very vocal about being a Muslim first and holding Shari'a law above the Constitution," says an officer who attended the Pentagon's medical school with Hasan but would speak only off the record because his commanders ordered him not to discuss the case. "When fellow students asked, 'How can you be an officer and not hold to the Constitution?,' he'd get visibly upset -- sweaty and nervous -- and had no good answers."
No good answers? Or were the answers doctrinal in nature and, thus, answers that he could not voice aloud for other soldiers?
This story lists many of the signals that officials missed or chose to ignore. However, Time consistent avoids specific references to the religious content behind these warning signs.
Is it even possible to do this kind of specific, detail-oriented religion reporting in public media? That's a valid question. However, read this clip from a corresponding cover story in the conservative Weekly Standard. Here is a bit of context:
Hasan lectured at Walter Reed about the evolution in Islamic thinking on jihad. At first, Hasan said, the Koran was filled with mainly peaceful verses and "Muslims were not permitted to defend themselves/fight." But as the situation on the ground changed, so did the verses. After the Muslim emigration to Medina, "Self defense was allowed" and then "offensive fighting was allowed." As a result, "Later verses abrogated former ie: peaceful verses no longer apply."
Hasan followed this line of thinking through to its natural conclusion by citing a passage that calls for uncompromising warfare:
Fight those who do not believe in Allah, nor in the latter day, nor do they prohibit what Allah and His messenger have prohibited, nor follow the religion of truth, out of those who have been given the Book, until they pay the tax in acknowledgement of superiority and they are in a state of subjection.
This leads to the obvious question: How do mainstream Muslims interpret that verse? How do they understand that history? The answer, again, is likely to point to the fact that there is no one Islam, no one official Muslim position on the issues that were haunting Hasan.
That makes the story harder to report. I know that.
But can we at least try to understand some of these facts and how they may have shaped this man? Whatever the state of his psyche, at some point we will have to deal with the content of his beliefs. Yes, the people who must be quoted critiquing those beliefs are other Muslims, even a spectrum of other Muslims from the more moderate Islam of his youth to what certainly appears to be the radicalized beliefs of the man that he became.
We have to know something about those beliefs, and the beliefs that he rejected, to understand what was happening in the mind and the heart of the U.S. soldier who felt justified in shouting "Allahu Akbar!" as he pulled the trigger.