Nov 10, 2009

'The name tells us a lot'

By Anjum Niaz

The writer is a freelance journalist with over twenty years of experience in national and international reporting

Major Nidal Malik Hasan is a killer who deserves no mercy. His slaughtering of 13 innocent fellow-Americans is a sin no sane Muslim can condone. But the US media has begun a witch hunt against Muslims living here. "We are weary of what has become routine in America: a Muslim does something unspeakable and Islamic organisations issue statements condemning it," says Robert Salaam of Maryland, a former Marine who converted to Islam shortly after the 9-11 attacks. "Truth be told, we're getting a little exhausted because we've done this to death… we're apologising for people like Hasan whom we don't know." Salaam, who now blogs and hosts a radio show on Muslim affairs, says that when he heard the news of the Fort Hood massacre, he immediately thought: "God, I hope it's not a Muslim."

While Pakistani leading TV channels have voluntarily devised a code of ethics, America lags behind. Fox News's Shepherd Smith just could not resist the temptation to give away the identity of the alleged killer. Throwing journalistic ethics to the winds, Smith did not hold his tongue. And nor could the lady senator from Texas, Kay Bailey Hutchison. "The name tells us a lot, does it not, Senator?" he asked tellingly. "It does, Shepherd. And that's why it's a very sad situation," she said without batting her heavy-mascara eyelid. The senator, a la Agatha Christie, the mystery writer, then sketched early snapshots of Hasan, accounts typically given by law enforcement authorities rather than a sitting United States senator.

Hutchison had already hinted that the killer was a Muslim, inferring that Muslims kill Americans. She said that she had known that the man was unhappy and wanted to be relieved from the army. Perhaps Hasan approached Hutchison to help him get a discharge from the army. Had the woman really cared to listen and tried to help the 39-year-old psychiatrist begging the army not to send him to Iraq, maybe she could have averted the savage slaughter.

But nobody is even asking the senator these questions.

Every American anchor and his guests thereafter latched on like leeches to the name Nidal Malik Hasan. With screeching urgency, all wanted the world to know that the killer was a Muslim. The gleam in the eyes of Fox News reporters was unmistakable. They appeared as if they had hit the bull's eye, finally nailing the Muslims.

The witch hunt has begun and the news channels are whipping up anti-Muslim hysteria. Stop! The Columbia Journalism Review, the only voice of reason, said: "Smith and Hutchison and all the others who are tempted to engage in this kind of Muslim-to-murderer implication-mongering would do well to heed the warning of the ABC TV channel's Jake Tapper: 'No word on motive yet, and at a time like this people should listen to their better angels." But contrary to such advice, the anchors, particularly on Fox News, were like cats on a hot tin roof meowing to name the shooter when military protocol demanded that they keep their traps shut.

If you have a Muslim name, do watch out. The media in America likes to smoke out Muslims who go off the rails. But more importantly, why do people fall off the wagon in America? What are the forces that drive these malcontents to the point where they pick up a gun and start shooting indiscriminately? The press is so sensation-driven it cares a whit why an army psychiatrist goes ballistic killing 13 of his own. All that the media wants is to tell the world that the alleged killer is a Muslim! Has anyone in the media analysed how American Muslims are ragged by their colleagues in the military? Has anyone wondered how they are humiliated because of their religious beliefs?

Anyone called "Malik" and "Hasan" has it coming for him. I mean, if they happen to land on the shores of America, God help them. They would have joined the unfortunate company of "Muhammad," "Husain," "Khan" and others hauled up for "secondary questioning" by the US immigrations and grilled until they start to fry. Their sin? Their names match those of the terrorists wanted by the US. Therefore, come prepared with convincing answers, or else you'd be shunted off on the next flight back home.

Hasan, pronounced Has-saan, is a hated name in the US today. Was he a radical fanatic, a Taliban in the garb of a doctor helping fellow-soldiers suffering from mental trauma? "By all accounts, Hasan was devout," writes The Los Angles Times. "He worshipped at the mosque each day at 6 a.m., and often prayed there five times a day, especially during the holy month of Ramadan. Hasan's devotion sometimes put him in conflict with the military." That, indeed, is a reality that has been badly ignored by the US armed forces. "One of Hasan's classmates in the programme said he doubted the man's commitment to the military. Hasan had told his students, 'I'm a Muslim first and an American second,' " Dr Val Finnell, now a lieutenant colonel at the Los Angeles Air Force Base, said in a telephone interview: "I really questioned his loyalty."

Unlike the American media, the London-based Guardian has bothered to give the other side of the story by quoting Muslims who are openly talking of how Hasan was tormented by his military colleagues for being a Muslim. "Nader said his cousin (Hasan), though born in America, had suffered harassment from fellow soldiers who questioned his loyalty to the US and commented on his Middle East ethnicity. As a Muslim, he was upset at the killing of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Nader confirmed that he had been resisting deployment in either war zone. He felt trapped, looking at ways to buy his way out, even going to the extent of hiring a lawyer to see if he could leave military service honourably. His problem may have been one of alienation, as his family suggested yesterday, a common complaint of recent or second-generation immigrants, as was the case of the Virginia Tech shooter three years ago, whose family was South Korean."

Noel Hasan, the suspect's aunt, said he had suffered name-calling and harassment about his religion after the terrorist attacks of Sept 11, 2001, and had tried unsuccessfully for several years to win a discharge from the military.

The Los Angeles Times too quotes Muslims who knew Hasan. "He didn't give an impression that he was a fanatic or angry," said Dr Asif Qadri, an internist and cardiologist who directs the Islamic community centre's medical clinic in Washington DC. "He was very pleasant; he had a smile on his face," agreed Mona Ayad, an administrative assistant. Akhtar Khan, 64, a member of the centre for 25 years, said Hasan talked like an "educated person… what made him do this (commit the heinous act)?" Khan asked. "Were people making fun of him or fun of Islam? Because whatever people do, there is some kind of a reason behind it."

To avoid such a horrible replay in the future the US military must pay heed to religious sensitivities and ethnic diversity: either don't enrol Muslims or discharge them before the nagging by fellow soldiers drives them to madness. And Fox News needs to be told to stop stereotyping Muslims. Surely there are Jews in the US military? Surely they must practice their faith openly? Get kosher food to eat? Do they then become an object of mass ridicule by their colleagues? Why target Muslims only?

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