Pious devotion or deadly fanaticism?

Indonesian Muslims Celebrate Eid Al-Adha

Remember Mollie's post a few weeks ago taking issue with a quote in the NYT regarding Muslim terrorists and the price of beer? Well here we go again. The subject in this Washington Post article isn't five northern Virginia men but Nidal Hasan of Fort Hood infamy.

Clues -- he left them everywhere. When viewed in retrospect, Hasan's life becomes an apparent trail of evidence that leads to an inevitable end. At 1:34 p.m. on Nov. 5, he bowed his head in prayer during his regular shift at Fort Hood, opened his eyes and started shooting, witnesses said. The 39-year-old Army psychiatrist allegedly aimed for soldiers in uniform, firing more than 100 times with a semiautomatic pistol and a revolver. The terror lasted less than 10 minutes. Thirteen people died. Thirty were injured.

This paragraph appeared early yesterday in a beautifully written, powerfully paced, 2,845-word A1 tome. Seven weeks and four reporters later, the Post has pieced together a Hasan biography that asks, at it's heart, whether former friends and colleagues could have recognized clues Hasan dropped and acted to stop him.

The story is all about Muslim this and culture that. But examples, like this, show an attempt to illuminate how those aspects of Hasan's life shaped the rest:

[T]he Sept. 11, 2001, attacks had made him an occasional target as a Muslim in the Army -- his car was twice vandalized with graffiti and dirty diapers at work -- and he confided to fellow Muslims that he opposed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and felt like "an outcast." Even inside the mosque, Hasan's haven, he was becoming a misfit as an aging bachelor in a religion that considers marriage not just a priority but a cultural duty.

His solution was to find a new anchor. Hasan began looking for a wife.

It seemed less a search than a full-time obsession. Hasan's status as a doctor and a military officer made him a considerable catch, but his standards were exacting. He wanted a virgin of Arabic descent -- a woman in her 20s who wore the hijab, understood the Koran and prayed five times a day. He enlisted matchmaking help from three imams, a neighbor in his Silver Spring high-rise apartment complex and the proprietor of a Maryland deli where Hasan liked to eat halal meat for dinner. He quizzed fellow Muslim men about their wives and asked family members to keep an eye out for prospects.

As the years wore on with little to show for the search, Hasan's plight became a running joke among some at the Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring: Because of his age, fellow worshipers joked, Brother Nidal always got the first chance at any new woman who joined the mosque.

From there the article moved on to Hasan's colleagues concerns. And then, finally, to his desire not to relocate to Texas or be deployed.

Shortly after moving to Killeen, Hasan made two purchases that would soon be seen as clues. He went to Guns Galore, a windowless white cinder-block shop on a country highway, and bought a high-powered semiautomatic pistol. He also ordered business cards that listed his professional specialties -- "Behavioral Health -- Mental Health -- Life Skills" -- without mentioning his involvement in the Army. The cards included an abbreviation after Hasan's name: "SoA," standing for "Slave of Allah" or "Soldier of Allah." It was an unusually forceful assertion, one considered odd even by the most pious Muslims.

The above paragraph gets at one of the questions asked earlier in the article, one that extends far beyond Hasan and was the motivation for commenting on this article: "How do you differentiate between pious and fanatical?"

In other words: when does piety become deadly? The question is not only how do you draw the line, but where? Daily prayer? Making a pilgrimage Mecca? Traveling to Pakistan for terror training?

Further, there is a serious societal danger in misreading piety for fanaticism.

Piety is not a word that journalists are generally comfortable with, so the Post reporters faced an unusual challenge from jumpstreet. Piety means righteousness through religious devotion, but it involves several elements that are very, very, very difficult for reporters to assess.

How'd they handle it? Well, they didn't. They punted. Quite artfully, in fact.

Nearly everyone in Killeen who interacted with Hasan considered him a mystery, and his actions became more confounding as October turned to November.

Why was an Army psychiatrist, instead of helping soldiers, obsessing over charging them with war crimes?

Why was a conservative Muslim going to the Starz strip club on the nights of Oct. 28 and 29, spending seven hours each night sitting alone at a round table near the stage, handing out Bud Lights and generous tips to each dancer and then buying a series of fully nude private lap dances that cost $50 each?

Why was an Army officer eschewing the shooting range at Fort Hood to drive 35 miles into the central Texas flatlands on Nov. 3 and take his target practice at Stan's Outdoor Shooting Range, where bullets sometimes ricocheted off square targets and hit cars?

Why, on the morning of Nov. 5, were witnesses seeing Hasan hand out copies of the Koran, give away his groceries, issue a warning at 7-Eleven, report to work, stand on a table, shout "Allahu Akbar" and wave two guns inside the Soldier Readiness Processing Center?

Then Hasan allegedly opened fire, and suddenly the questions became clues, and the clues began to make horrifying sense.

But did they? I fail to see how the events of Nov. 5 relate to Hasan spending a few nights at a strip club. I also am no closer to understanding how Hasan's religious beliefs influenced his actions. Granted, I now have a much fuller portrait of Hasan's religious life -- not a cliche picture but a truly personal and revealing image. But that portrait still doesn't tell me much.

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