Cairo to Fort Hood: Broader Engagement at Home and Abroad

Armistice Day, Atlanta, Georgia

The atrocious mass murder committed last week at Fort Hood has shaken the nation.  Unusually, I didn’t learn of the news until many hours later, spared from the continuous news cycle in transit from the West Coast to New York. When I finally reconnected to CNN late that evening, like many others, I found it hard to absorb in its entirety. I am still having difficulty digesting the multidimensional implications.

Mass murders have become a depressingly familiar punctuation in the rhythm of modern day American despair.  The death and destruction of our soldiers overseas has assumed a jarring place in the unending carnage of our foreign involvements. Remote deaths of unknown soldiers in lands far removed from the experience of most Americans are honored with private and largely invisible funerals. A public inured to eight years of warfare now seeping into a third administration is dangerously disconnected from the national costs exacted by bloody wars.

The loss of life at the hands of a psychiatrically disturbed individual is also one familiar to society here. We have survived Waco and the Unibomber, we are enmeshed in a protracted, anguished recovery from 9-11 and most weeks, even now,  I see at least one stoic man, sometimes two,  who served as  first responder at Ground Zero and is finally able to articulate the edges of their psychological pain.

 But the cumulative impact of Fort Hood is staggering. A Muslim American military officer who was a practicing military psychiatrist experiencing his own psychotic break from reality in America’s largest domestic military base has resulted in the slaying of 13 souls and the decimation of many more lives the departed have left behind in mourning.  Even the most experienced physicians and military leaders are appropriately reeling. As a Muslim physician myself, I am experiencing these events in several dimensions.

As a physician I feel frustration at the lack of recognition of  Major Hasan’s mental deterioration presumably within the ranks of his professional physician colleagues. Physicians are notoriously poor at recognizing psychological distress among their own ranks and even more recalcitrant towards seeking therapy or asking for help.  As a sleep specialist who treats individuals with affective disorders and post traumatic stress disorder I feel a sense of futility at the inability  for timely intervention. I  wonder whether Major Hasan was experiencing insomnia before the events, a common companion of severe PTSD. As a civilian, I find it hard to understand the opaque and regimented world of the military and wonder what their procedures for identifying impaired colleagues may be. Yet it is as a British Muslim who makes her chosen home in America that I find my response is most troubled.

Until 9-11, being Muslim for me was an intensely private and little examined experience, one to which I rarely devoted serious introspection. For many reasons, the heinous event on that fateful Tuesday morning (events which I watched from a thunderstruck Saudi Arabia where I was working at the time) compelled me to confront my relationship and my own place within Islam. In the years since, people everywhere have begun identifying themselves strongly with religious or non-religious beliefs often above nationality or ethnicity. We have, whether we like it or not, become a much more divided and polarized global community. In the post 9-11 era, my search deep into my Islam has been rewarding and yet challenged, tested and stretched and you can read about that turbulent internal journey in my book, In the Land of Invisible Women.

Part of the struggle of being a thoughtful Muslim today comes with dispelling the persistently accumulating myths pertaining to Islam which pile up as quickly as one tries to dispel them. Actions like those of the deranged, deeply disturbed Major Hasan are ripe fodder for fueling dangerous and combustible Islamaphobia. How can I keep explaining Islam calls for peace, non violence and preservation of life at all costs, even above the rights of the Divine on mankind, when Muslims among us are driven to do the exact opposite and wreck devastating destruction in the name of Islam? This is my jihad: the jihad of the pen seeking to overcome the jihad of the sword.

Jihad has been one of the casualties of the schizophrenic, dichotomous rift which has magnified to separate moderate,  intellectual sincere Islam from ritualistic, fanatical radicalism exercised in the name of Islam by nihilists who seek to extinguish all which is true about this great religion. Jihad captures a number of meanings. Foremost is the internal jihad each insightful Muslim must engage with his or her core: our struggle as creatures of free will who chose to rise against our baser desires. Belief in Islam is founded on the essential basis of free will. There can be no compulsion in Islamic belief. Belief must come as a choice and not mandate and like many aspects of being Muslim, we must not only choose once in life but constantly choose to follow our scriptured ideals. Islam is an orthopraxy much more than an orthodoxy. This effort, this conscious choice, this self discipline and awareness it demands is the result of introspection, sincerity and quiet resolve.  This is the private jihad every living Muslim who truly understands the nature of Islam’s basis on free will must engage in daily. There is no external focus for this jihad.

Jihad can also mean the struggle to nurture improvement around ourselves in our external world, whether advancing our local communities through service, or collaborating with one another and indeed people of other faiths in the pursuit of development. Collaboration towards improving society at large, for example in the construction of libraries, universities, facilities for the ill or weak or disadvantaged are all forms of collective jihad, Again, such jihad is completely disarticulated from combat.

And finally there is the form of jihad which has been so removed from its original essence yet appears on an almost daily basis in a deviant, distorted form: jihad sanctioned by Islam when a Muslim’s right to observe Islamic practice has been emphatically prohibited. Note that this is extremely specific and in fact restrictive to a defensive response following an offensive threat which has been executed rather than merely articulated as a threat. Note also that such jihad is not what is considered a Holy War, for Islam sanctions no war as holy. Wars are seen as inherently undesirable and are widely discouraged in Islam. Instead, Muslims are enjoined to seek the path of peace and diplomacy whenever possible and whether jihad or a non holy war are ultimately undertaken having exhausted all options possible, the conduct of the Muslim at War comes under precise and highly specified codes of conduct which include carefully defined codes of non combatants: women, children, the sick, the disabled.

Unfortunately we are now almost at the end of ten years of  ‘ jihad’ conducted in the name of Islam for the most appalling and offensive citations which do not stand up to rigorous scrutiny. Whether we examine the sectarian violence between sects of Muslims, the villainous actions of the Taliban and their attempts to extinguish thinking powerful womanhood, the nihilistic destruction of Muslims and non Muslims to sate the bloodthirsty Al Qaeda movement and its various nefarious derivatives or the extraordinarily distorted and psychotic practice of suicide bombings which my mentor Dr. Joan Kirschenbaum Cohn appropriately refers to as homicide bombings (since so many other people die in these acts  along with the bomber)-none, NOT ONE of these conflicts is based on a defense of observing Islamic practices.  None of this is jihad, yet we sadly see it as such when Anderson Cooper explains to us the latest heinous events. Such nuances are hard to enunciate in a 90 second network sound-byte and most often lost on an increasingly depleted, anxious and fearful America and the jaded newsmen and women who must report these events.

Fortunately, this and other such challenges have not been lost on the Obama administration who have been accumulating sound and incisive advice on exactly these issues. In his Cairo Speech on June 4th 2009, President Obama spoke about the need for ‘broader engagement’ with the Muslim world at large. His advisors had been preparing for this ‘broader engagement’ for sometime and the President made these recommendations with an informed perspective. We are already beginning to see some exciting changes which speak to new vehicles with which to have complex, sophisticated and peaceful dialogue.

A salient publication emerged quietly and without fanfare, first mentioned in the New York Times late last September. Published by a non governmental foundation without elected authority, the Changing Course: A New Direction for US Relations with the Muslim World document has been a valuable roadmap  for the path this administration is taking towards what has become a truly Gordonian knot of cumulative losses, alienations and failures in America’s relationship with Muslims. Much of the report suggests specific areas where Americans can seek engagement with counterparts in the Muslim world and how such engagement might advance our relationships.

In Cairo the President reiterated some of the key points seemingly inspired from this valuable treatise on what has gone wrong and where we can improve. Only today, at the Forum for the Future in Marrakech, Secretary of  State Hillary Clinton announced new plans focusing on augmenting US collaboration in the realm of  science and technology with  international Muslim communities. Excited scientific Muslim friends from the Middle East were among the first to share this news with me in the middle of the East Coast night. Perhaps they care more about US engagement than many Muslim Americans?

The first three U.S. Science and Technology Envoys who are a pivotal part of the US Science Envoy Program, all heavy weight academics have already been appointed, reflecting the administration’s sentiment of nurturing international endeavors with actions and not only words. For the first time ever, around a week after the Cairo speech the President underlined his intent at engaging America in new ways internationally in  the imaginative appointment of the first Special Representative at the State Department for Global Partnership, Ambassador Elizabeth Frawley Bagley.

The U.S. Science Envoy program is one of the components of  the historic presidential speech in Cairo and one of the first physical manifestations of that powerful moment in the Middle East. Shepherded in by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Senator Richard Lugar those of us who are Muslim and  in the field of medicine and science understand the brilliance of this move. For centuries Islam has revered both the quest for knowledge and the application of its bounty. Sharing knowledge is considered a responsibility for Muslims. Science and medicine in particular, relate to solving universal problems such as health and environmental threats. Serving these needs, nurturing these fields benefits all of humanity, particularly the most challenged sectors of society and can be interpreted as an act of zakat or charity one of the five pillars of Islam. Muslim countries everywhere revere physicians in their society, much more so than we experience customarily in the West, and the basis for this likely rests partly in the spiritual place given to the pursuit of knowledge and its dissemination to ease suffering.

The US Science Envoy program therefore appeals at a number of levels while speaking deeply to the core of ancient Muslim sentiment. This program contains the potential for broader engagement at its best. But we need the same broader engagement  here at home too and that has also been part of the administration's approach to Muslims at home. Fort Hood is perhaps the first and most immediate test of our President’s resolve to bridge the chasms and begin the probing and evaluation of a deep wound which has  failed to heal since 9-11. Unlike his predecessor, Obama recognizes healing and dialogue are not one-way affairs but bilateral processes requiring willing participants on both sides.

Fort Hood requires all of us to respond, and respond with the same grace, wisdom and courage that the family of slain Physician Assistant Michael Cahill displayed. His articulate grieving daughter Ms. Kerry Cahill encapsulated precisely the courage and nobility required of all of us in these demanding times in her caution against reflexive, indiscriminate hate.  Her grace and humanity soothed and ennobled a grieving nation. We must follow her thoughtful lead as we assess our own responses to this tragedy.

Whatever his diagnosis and motive, Major Hasan committed the irrevocable and the immoral act of destroying innocent lives. His distorted thinking and his relationships with shadowy forces and darkness will become clearer under military and judicial scrutiny. But what is clear is his actions represent no version of Islam that I can recognize or that which  countless other Muslims do either. However as Muslims we must all engage in public, peaceful, proactive dialogue. While our President is creating opportunities for the US to engage with the Muslim world, Muslims must engage here at home with America.

As we remember those veterans on Armistice Day who gave their lives to safeguard the very nations were we as Muslims are free to explore our faith in its many variations, freely and at will,  it seems enormously appropriate that we remember our responsibilities to society and our abilities to soothe those who are deeply wounded in our name. Muslims everywhere recognize the triumvirate of our responsibilities: our duty to ourselves, to our Maker and to society.

Right now, duty to society calls. We must rise to it. We must engage.