The Struggle to Understand: Jihad, Going Postal, and Superempowerment

Scott’s quickie on Andy McCarthy’s take on the tragic Ft. Hood shooting (hands up – anyone whose surprised it was A Mac?) is timely and worth the read.  There are some very excellent comments in the thread which are also worth a look (esp. recommended is #10 from Chad).

The controversy of course comes down to the question of the shooter (Nidal Hassan Malik) and his Islamic faith.  Folks like McCarthy want to draw linear causality from the religion to the act.  Instead of “The Devil made me do it,” it’s “Islam made me do it.”

Now Islam, of course, is not the only factor involved.  For some background, here a relevant story from the AP (h/t to Br. Mark).  Of particular note is the common refrain of how negatively Hassan (as a psychiatrist) was affected by working with returning soldiers from the battlefield as well his rather private, lonely existence.

The only point I want to make in this context is to watch how Islam is discussed in this controversy.  My presumption–and see for yourself if this holds–is that Islam is always treated as this giant, monolithic thing.  So either it’s the cause (implied in McCarthy’s case) or it’s kind of put in the corner and ignored (for various sensitive cultural-political reasons).

Either way, this response treats Islam as some uniform entity.  When in reality there is no such thing as monolithic Islam.  What exists (in enormous numbers and influence) are Muslims around the world who have all kinds of views, ethics, ways of understanding the relationship of their faith to the world in which they live, and doctrines or elements of the faith they foreground.

This is particularly the case in a religion like Islam (esp. Sunni Islam) that lacks any centralized authority structure that once and for all determines the true meaning and practice of the faith.

In other words both anti-Muslim US conservatives and Muslim (or Muslim-friendly liberals) always want to get to “the real Islam”.  But that is, to use an old Arab metaphor, a mirage in the desert. There is no “real” Islam, neither the stereotypical bloodthirsty avenger practicing the religion of the sword nor the totally peaceful religion of brotherhood.

Islam treated in this Huntington-esque fashion of some uniform, glacier-like cultural bloc the world over is just nonsense.  What matters is what Muslims do and how they understand, argue for, and what they believe.

Some (very broad and generic) history is helpful here.  Especially in relation to the question of religion and political policy (esp. US foreign policy), since it comes up in this context, insofar as it was appears to have been a motive behind Hasan’s actions given how he understood the concept, emphasis on his understanding. This topic is usually discussed under the label of jihad, so a little history on that one.

During what is typically termed the Classical Period of Islam (say from about 700-1600) the mainstream understanding was that existence was divided into the House of Islam and The House of the World.  This mindset is basically the same as Christendom in The Middle Ages.  Jihad in that frame spelled out specific rules relative to fighting (e.g. not killing noncombatants or harming their fields!!!!), diplomacy, and the like.  Basically what in Western Christendom was covered under the title of Just War Theory. Notice there that jihad (as military affairs) was a responsibility of the rulers not the people.  For the people, the Sufi tradition later in the Middle Ages particularly, spoke about personal jihad as a kind of moral and spiritual struggle–and even quoted Muhammad’s line that it was the greater jihad.

That classical conception–which is still cited by main scholars trained in the classical clerical fashion–has increasingly been questioned by various reform movements within Islam.

Jihad in the 20th century became much more tied up in the movements of post-colonial nation-state building, The Third World revolt, and the Cold War. The original/classical jihad theories treated the Muslim world as single community (The Ummah/House of Islam), but inevitably towards the later Middle Ages and the break up into various state-lets/regimes across the Muslim world, headed towards a kind of de facto nationalism.  This process only accelerated with the modern world and the end of The Ottoman Empire after WWI (the last rather tenuous hold to the ancient caliphate).

As such jihad became much more politicized and drew on the increasing power of individuals and small groups and the rise of non-state actors as well as blended multi-national identities or non-national but fundamentalist religious identity (against secularism). It was here, particularly in the movement of “Arab Afghans” that the notion of jihad (as military struggle) is a duty of all Muslims comes up.  It’s not a universally held opinion.  In fact it’s a very marginal one numbers-wise, though perhaps it has strong influence in terms of media coverage (because of its propensity to violence).

Jihad then too often becomes equated with various forms of terrorism (usually suicide bombing), thereby equating the two in a very unhelpful manner.

Now this history, this one stream within a much larger world, does (at least tangentially) come into play here.  This ‘graf from a helpful Washington Post article will likely stir much commentary:

The Associated Press reported that Hasan attracted the attention of law enforcement authorities in recent months after an Internet posting under the screen name “NidalHasan” compared Islamic suicide bombers to Japanese kamikaze pilots. “To say that this soldier committed suicide is inappropriate,” the posting read. “It’s more appropriate to say he is a brave hero that sacrificed his life for a more noble cause.”

The Kamikaze analogy is not altogether right (though I think I get what he means).  In the case of Pearl Harbor, the kamikaze attacks were part of a nation-state religion and were a pre-emptive attack.  Suicide bombing, as Robert Pape made clear, is overwhelming the act of insurgent groups fighting against democratic (usually Western) regimes occupying (what they believe to be and/or actually is) their territory.   Before I get all the howls of being a terrorist sympathizer, let me say (for like the millionth time) that this analysis does not mean suicide bombing is ok or legitimate or whatever.  But it has a logic.  A logic that is political fundamentally.  There are traditions within Islam, particularly of jihad and of dying in battle as a way to heaven, that can more easily be adapted to this political end–though again there are many other elements within Islamic tradition that obviate against suicide bombing, like the absolutely common declaration against killing civilians–but in the end it’s a politico-military act driven by the logic of warfare and politics in the contemporary world not Islam as such.  The biggest deployers of suicide bombing (prior to their destruction by the Sinhalese) were the Tamil Tigers, drawn from a secular Hindu Marxist tradition.  Not Islam.

What Hasan did and its relationship to suicide bombing is a tricky one–especially since (as of yet) we have no way of knowing he’s mindset.  Did he hope he was going to get killed in the process?

The articles make clear that Hasan was opposed to the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, particularly the element of occupation.  That’s where his line about the kamikaze comes in, even though it’s (partially) an inaccurate historical analogy.

One issue that plagues this discussion is an inability to distinguish the foreign policy of a country from patriotism.  It’s a sad state of affairs when the family of the shooter has to say in a statement, “we love America.”  I can’t think of another case of a rampaging mass killing (like V Tech or the school shootings during the 90s) where the family has to say, “We Love America.”  Maybe I’m wrong but I don’t remember any potential interpretation of the families as America-haters.  My sense is that such acts are typically understood to be the horrific acts of a demented mind that snaps expressing pent up hurt and resentment in an explosion and orgy of bloodshed.

I don’t want to jump to conclusions on this one but there’s the potential that this a (at least partially) politically motivated act.  It constitutes a terrorist attack insofar as terror was part of the thing.  But that’s the same for a Colombine.  And the US has experienced politically motivated terrorism–again not necessarily Islamic–in the form of the Oklahoma City bombing.

Whether this is a politically-motivated terrorist act or not is unclear.  [Note: that even if it were proved to be such and persuasively shown to be due in large measure to Hasan’s understanding of his faith, that does not entail totally Islam=evil or terrorism of course.  Don’t however except certain US political commenters to get that rather not so subtle distinction.  It would mean terrorism is a serious trans-identity social threat in society, even if only in a very small number of people.  There would be Islamic versions as well as right-wing Christian nationalist versions, potentially to come anti-banker versions, anti-government stuff, all kinds of potentials.]

But an attack that we may consider potentially possessing a familial resemblance–if only in tactical ways–to this one was the Mumbai terrorist attacks.  Those attacks were specifically political and merged with a version of jihadi theory that would legitimize such attacks.  For background on the “logic” of such urban terror attacks read John Robb.

But I don’t expect any such discriminative thought to be brought in the larger media (and blogosphere). Those spheres are built less around our neocortex and more around our limbic system and its emotional temperature reading.  In the case of many blogs and the Cable News phenomenon it is predicated on exciting and incessantly agitating the emotional side, drowning out rational analysis.

And in that case, the notion of Muslims as somehow suspect, not really American, not “one of us” becomes very problematic.

But whatever the exact rationale(s) for the attack, what is clear in this sad event is the inevitable technological and social trend towards superempowerment of the individual.  Individuals have an increasing capacity for mass lethality.  The symbolic effect of an attack on army base, whether intentional or not, is to make clear yet again that there is no place in society that is safe.  The anonymity of a colleague who no one expects to go on a rampage fuels mutual suspicion (what about that weirdo in the corner cubicle who has no friends that I sometimes make fun of? Is s/he going to go postal someday?).  And also there are no places where an individual committed to so acting, can not start killing people.  An army base isn’t safe.  Schools aren’t.  Courts can sites of violence, government buildings.  Which isn’t to say that we should all cower in fear all the time that our lives are nothing but near misses of getting shot up–you are far more likely to get killed in a car accident than by someone opening fire in public–but the reality is the future is already present.

This isn’t by  the way a pro/anti gun position.  This is just the reality.  Undoubtedly there are some steps that can be taken to minimize and reduce the chances, but there’s no control and that it seems to me is what becomes the source of such raw emotionality in these events.

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26 thoughts on “The Struggle to Understand: Jihad, Going Postal, and Superempowerment

  1. If only he had been a supporter of Ron Paul, a listener of Glenn Beck, and someone who held up a sign asking “where’s the birth cerificate (sic)?”

    We’d understand his motivations, his psychology, and exactly what we, as a society, would need to start doing (and, more importantly, *STOP* doing) to prevent children like (enter list of names here) from having to go the rest of their lives without ever seeing their father again.

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    • true, but even in that case, you still have to ask what they understand to be their religious outlook. And then some comparison with that and other (within the same broad religion let’s say) points of view. The weighing part is hard–do we emphasize historical validity, numbers only, impact–it’s complicated to be sure.

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  2. “It’s a sad state of affairs when the family of the shooter has to say in a statement, “we love America.” ”

    There are a lot of dynamics going on with this shooting. There are a lot of things talked about, there are a lot of things not being talked about, and there are a lot of things that can only be talked about if you give a speech about something else entirely first.

    So let’s talk about something else entirely for a moment.

    Did you see it as a particularly weird dynamic when the National Right-To-Life Committee issued a statement after George Tiller’s assassination?

    Back to the original statement, I think that the family is currently shell-shocked and they are grieving something amazing right now. First, they can’t believe that their relative was capable of something like this. I mean, sure. He was intense. But this? Something *EVIL*? They never saw that coming. Additionally, they are a family of immigrants. They came here from Jordan, I believe. They happen to be Palestinian. After 9/11, for about a minute, there was footage of Palestinians dancing after the news hit. Additionally, after it was confirmed that the terrorists had been Muslims and Osama issued a letter saying “This is why we did it!” (a letter in which Palestinians featured prominently), they probably had a lot of “we’re not like that, we left there because we’re not like that” going on in their heads whirring for several years at a time.

    Given what happened, I suspect that they suspect that there will be questions (unfair questions, surely) asking whether he was that way because he was raised to be that way.

    In the middle of their grief and complete lack of understanding of what is going on, they look at what his motives probably were and question whether they were complicit in what happened, on whatever level.

    They looked and they came to the conclusion that, no. They don’t understand why he did it.

    They love America.

    That’s how I’m looking at their thought processes in that, anyway. It’s not that they “had to say” that. They didn’t have to. They wanted that out there.

    It’s like the National Right-To-Life people issuing a statement that said their organization “unequivocally condemns any such acts of violence regardless of motivation.”

    No reasonable person thought that they supported such acts of violence, did they?

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  3. This goes to a lot of the discussion that people have been having around here of late. To what extent do “conservatives” have to “take responsibility” for the last 8 years? To what extent do “Catholics” have to “take responsibility” for the Church’s take on homosexuality and abortion, etc.?

    A few people seem to think, in these cases, that the answer is, “to a large extent.” That conservatives have to “own” the current state of affairs and in some sense apologize for it. Or quit the Catholic Church if they support gay marriage.

    Others disagree.

    But it seems that this issue raises similar issues. If a person cannot practice catholicism without personally grieving or repenting for his church’s take on gay marriage… where does that leave Muslims? What do individual Muslims “owe” us in terms of repentance and apology? I would submit that the answer is “nothing.” But if it’s not nothing, how does the answer apply across religions? Across issues?

    If, as a conservative, I have to take responsibility for profligate spending…

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    • This is a good point and a difficult one. Obviously not everybody just going about their day as good citizens who happen to be Muslim (or Christian in the abortion doctor murders) is somehow responsible for some wacko’s horrific act. On that level true.

      Being a member of a political party that votes a group into power who then takes certain actions might be considered differently (i.e. relative to whether a person involved in said party is therefore responsible).

      I voted for Obama for president even though I disagreed with a number of his policies (also I’m not a member of the Democratic Party). Am I responsible for everything he does? In a sense well of course not, he’s his own human being. But in another sense I do have some relationship to all that and therefore some responsibility.

      Same with religious membership seems to me. What exactly (that admittedly rather tenuous) relation-responsibility really is is very unclear. At least it is to me. Is every Muslim supposed to apologize for some homicidal maniacal act undertaken by a self-confessed Muslim? Well no obviously.

      But still…..

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  4. whenever someone blames islam for something like this, I like to ask them about the guy that murdered the abortion doctor and claimed in prison that he knew of more planned attacks.

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    • but in that case (as a Christian I say this admittedly) those people were motivated by their understanding of religion. This takes us back to Sam M’s question, which is a really important one that I don’t totally have an answer to.

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    • When one of those guys starts shooting (or bombing) and starts screaming about how “true” Christians need to start killing Hitlers, you had best not be standing anywhere near a microphone or you will risk being trampled to death by Christian Leaders eager to denounce the shooter/bomber.

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  5. I think on the whole the notion of monolithic cultural entities is a serious problem in terms of our understanding and discourse on the subject of religious, society and even the state. I’ve also slowly come to a conclusion that part of the discursive dysfunction between the academic and the non-academic sections of society regarding culture and society also stem from this basic lack of acknowledgement in disaggregated identities.

    A lot of the theoretical literature (particularly constructivist and political theory) have focused on the concept of disaggregating and piecing out parts of identity over the last few years, while more macrolevel literature (one would argue neo-realist, liberal institutionalist and neo-conservative theories) have focused more on large existentional struggles that exist with monolithic groups to take over from the Hegelian socio-political (or really Marxian socio-economic) historeography of the post-Westphalian system. The latter has always been consistently easier to understand, particularly in an era of nation-states and nationalism where identity has always been so crucially and easily defined in an exclusive fashion.

    There is on some level a slow move towards inclusive identities over exclusive ones, but we remain in a world where subtlety in identification is a relatively uncommon thing, people either are part of or against a culture, and the latter constructs are supposedly rigidly monolithic, particularly as it feeds better into the 24/7 constant chatter horse race media we’ve come to thoroughly depend on. Even on a site like this one, we self-segregate between self-identified “liberals” and “conservatives” or “libertarians” which on the whole creates a lot of problems in simple matters of discourse.

    Religion is particularly bad in this regard, because over the last twenty years we’ve had a Huntingtonian discourse where religion is not only correlated but in many respects conflated with culture. Even the valiant effort of scholars like Mahmud Mamdani to describe the intellectual history of Jihadism have gotten lost to demagogues on both sides of the aisle. Times like this one leave a very discomforting sensation that the mode of conversation has gone entirely to monolithic identities.

    What can we do to change this? Where can we go without either entirely abandoning the pretense of identity or abandoning collective responsibility entirely?

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  6. Of particular note is the common refrain of how negatively Hassan (as a psychiatrist) was affected by working with returning soldiers from the battlefield as well his rather private, lonely existence.

    A much-loved therapist in my community committed suicide last week. I’ve been pondering the difference between two support models for the emotionally/mentally wounded in society; the clergy and therapist/psychiatrist. Faith-based help includes a social element; you can talk to your preacher and then sit down to dinner with him. Therapists/psychiatrists code of ethics prohibit socializing with clients.

    I wonder if the isolation from clients — witnessing their pain in the office without witnessing the joys and hopes in their lives — takes a very heavy toll on mental-health care providers.

    (Note: affirmed atheist here.)

    Perhaps as we deal with the notion that Islam is not a monolith, we should also consider the idea that mental-health providers are mere humans asubject to not only their own spiritual anguish, but to their patients’ anguish.

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      • This is where my postness kicks in.

        I doubt that he “decided to become a terrorist”.

        Maybe he decided to kill his co-workers. Maybe he decided that he would rather die than go overseas and what better way than in a blaze of glory. Maybe he decided that God (Allah) would want him to take a stand against the heretic oppressors who were going to kill those 10 times more devout.

        I doubt he woke up and said “I’m going to become a terrorist.”

        If anything, he woke up and said “I’m going to be the change I want to see in the world.”

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        • And that change was to kill 13 Americans? Why can’t people accept that his religion was a major factor if not the major factor in his actions? People are more than willing to blame Christianity when an abortion protester kills someone.

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          • Because the media in particular have a hard time understanding the distinction/relationship between “his religion” and “the religion” (in this case Islam). The media have no real helpful analytic frame to deal with religion, so as a result they are afraid they will tar a whole population of people (unfairly) and therefore tend to shy away from it.

            Also, even if they did have an illuminating analytical frame (which they don’t), they can’t assume their audience (or a majority of them) will share said analytic frame and will (mis)interpret their words to be the same result: branding all Muslims (esp. in America) as terrorists.

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            • Yes Chris. It is not hard at all to think his religion had something to do what his actions. just the same as religion may be a factor in the murder of abortion providers or the actions of the many other spree killers. but in America people can make the distinction between what one nut does and all the various other believers. with Islam people seem unable to do that and the maroons in the MSM seem unable to understand or articulate that.

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            • Re: your first paragraph, Chris, I don’t buy it. I think the media “shys” away from defining the murderers as ‘Muslims” or “Islamists” for pc reasons only, e.g. an overt effort to deflect responsibility for the crime (murder/massacre) away from a ‘protected minority’ group, in this case Muslims. You can be assured that if the murderer(s) were Caucasian, Presbyterians they’d have no problem announcing that fact to the world.
              The same phenomenon occurs with regard to particularly horrendous crimes committed by homosexuals (and no, I’m not saying homosexuals are all criminals). The msm is in fact covering for certain, select, minority groups, against the evil majority.
              And, that’s one reason why the msm is dying and the internet sites, such as this one, gets so much traffic. People are very simply looking for the truth!

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  7. Political correctness will win the day on this most detestable act of Jihad waged on our own soil. The lib media will continue to spin this as anything but Jihad. The truth stares us in the face yet we are unwilling to see. Instead of this worthless, feel-good drivel, more articles telling the truth about radical Islam need to start appearing in the main stream media in order that we, as a people under incredible danger from these extremists, are able to face the sad reality that is Jihad.
    This article is ridiculous.

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    • Mark,

      No one has yet suggested there was any group cell conspiracy on this one. For all it appears, this was a lone figure. He certainly seems to have interpreted his act as part of some resistance to America, but I still don’t see (as lonerism) this really is all that different (as other commenters have pointed out) from a Christian-inspired murder of an abortion doctor. It’s a terrorist act, a domestic terrorist act for that matter, and it’s horrible, but I think we give it too much power if we link it to some idea of some worldwide threat against the US that threatens to overthrow our democracy. It’s a criminal act, horrible in its consequences undoubtedly, but not some existential threat or the tip of some foreign coming spear. I’ll have more to say on this probably Monday, but sufficed it to say I don’t think it helps to label all such activity as Jihad with a capital J and act like it’s some monolithic, united front against America. The idea in war is to divide your enemies and conquer them, not multiply your enemies.

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  8. Hasn’t anyone here seen Monty Python’s LIFE OF BRIAN? Whatever religion comes around, someone will always use it as an excuse/license to act out his/her worst instincts.

    So it is never, ever really like this: “Oh! Suddenly God is telling me to kill lots of people! I must obey this instant message from Beyond!”

    Rather it would be a little something like this: “I hate myself I hate my co-workers I hate this life I hate being so powerless I want to die but I’m not going alone but it would be wrong to… God. Yeah. That’s right. If I kill myself and lots of people and God wants it, then it’s OK. Heh heh heh…”

    Religion is the excuse, not the cause. The cause is in us. We have religions for the same reason we have laws, to restrain people’s murderous instincts… thought perhaps not always with great success.

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