Today, November 5, 2010, marks the one-year anniversary of the Fort Hood shooting, in which former Army psychiatrist Major Nadal Halik Hasan shot and killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, wounding 42 others. As U.S. servicemembers and the families of the victims of this shooting grieved for those who were killed and Americans mourned the loss of life, reports on these crimes riveted the mainstream media. The shootings were certainly newsworthy. The problem is that almost the only time Muslims are featured in the U.S. news media is when a Muslim engages in an act of violence. A one-sided focus on violence committed by some Muslims fuels the racist narrative that “Islam is a religion of violence”—which underwrites the so-called “Global War on Terror.”
In spite of ongoing efforts by many in the Muslim religious community and Muslim-American organizations, the long and vital history of Muslim peacemaking has been lost in the avalanche of reports on Muslims where the mainstream media connects them only with violent extremism. The lack of acknowledgment and recognition in the U.S. of Muslim peacemakers continues to have grave effects on Muslims all over the world as well as those at home in the U.S. In addition, the ongoing hyper-focus by the U.S. state and mainstream media on Islamic militants to the exclusion of those Muslims whose peacemaking efforts oppose militarism of all kinds continues to prop up and justify ongoing U.S.-backed military occupations, including those of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine.
Private First Class Naser Abdo, a 20-year-old Muslim servicemember currently serving in the U.S. Army and seeking Conscientious Objector (C.O.) status on the grounds of Islam, is a Muslim peacemaker. He states, “As I studied Islam and Islam’s commitment to peace, I developed an entirely new perspective on war and conscience… That’s when I realized my conscience would not allow me to deploy.” Pfc. Abdo’s C.O. case still awaits an Army recommendation of discharge from the military based on moral, ethical, and religious objection to all wars. Abdo is facing possible deployment to Afghanistan in spite of his C.O. claim, though Army commanders decided to delay his deployment after he went public with his case. Speaking out as a Muslim, Abdo is against war and has been working with nonviolent antiwar organizations including the War Resisters League and Quaker House in Fayetteville, NC on building public support for his objection to war on the grounds of Islam.
Several Muslim-American organizations in the U.S., such as the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation, have been key supporters of Pfc. Abdo’s claim for Conscientious Objector status based on the principles of Islam. In a statement released by this organization in support of Pfc. Abdo, long-time Muslim peacemaker and antimilitarist Ibrahim Ramey states, “We believe that his position is not a product of personal cowardice or disloyalty to his nation, but rather, a coherent expression of his faith and his personal belief in the tenets and laws of the religion of Islam.” In a separate statement, Ramey further underscores the U.S. government and mainstream media blackout of Muslim opposition to militarism: “Major Muslim efforts for peace-making in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other conflict spots are virtually unknown to U.S. news consumers, and even to policy makers. In my opinion, this phenomenon plays into the hands of institutions that seek to permanently militarize the U.S. economy by creating the illusion that Muslims are ‘the enemy’ and must therefore be controlled or eliminated for the sake of ‘democracy.’”
Many other Muslim organizations also attest to the importance of U.S. recognition of Muslim peacemaking efforts. In “An Open Letter to President Obama” sent on the eve of his visit to Egypt to address the Muslim World in May 2009, 1,600 American-Muslim and non-Muslim scholars on the Middle East called on the U.S. government to recognize nonviolent Muslim leaders: “For too long, American policy in the Middle East has been paralyzed by fear of Islamist parties coming to power…However, most mainstream Islamist groups in the region are nonviolent and respect the democratic process.” This letter further urges the U.S. to discontinue its support for violent political regimes in Central Asia and support democracy through peaceful policies: “The United States, for half a century, has frequently supported repressive regimes that routinely violate human rights, and that torture and imprison those who dare criticize them and prevent their citizens from participation in peaceful civic and political activities…There is no doubt that the people of the Middle East long for greater freedom and democracy…What they need from your administration is a commitment to encourage political reform not through wars, threats, or imposition, but through peaceful policies that reward governments that take active and measurable steps towards genuine democratic reforms.”
Despite the ongoing work of Muslim peacemakers and antimilitarists, Muslims living both inside and outside of the U.S. continue to feel the deeply negative effects of the dominant culture’s association of Muslims with terrorism and violence, often referred to as “Islamophobia.” In the U.S. military, Pfc. Abdo experienced a great deal of harassment and discrimination from his fellow servicemembers: “Early in basic training… one soldier repeatedly insulted me and Islam saying, ‘Go pray to your god that doesn’t exist or your pedophile prophet.’…During the training cycle I persistently reassured my comrades that my religion did not make me an enemy of theirs or an enemy of the state. The climax of this harassment occurred when my comrades all made a concerted effort to get me an unwanted discharge because I was not welcome in their ranks.”
These acts mirror the broader U.S. climate of discrimination against Muslims, as evidenced in the media craze surrounding the “Ground Zero Mosque,” otherwise known as the proposed construction of the Park 51 Muslim Community Center in Lower Manhattan. The association of Islam with terror also served to spark the “International Burn-a-Quran Day” controversy out of Gainesville, Florida, which made national headlines on the ninth anniversary of the September 11th attacks. Just a few short weeks ago, a white New York City passenger named Michael Enright shouted, “Asalamualaykum, consider this a checkpoint!” prior to slashing the throat of Ahmad Sharif, the Muslim cab driver.
Furthermore, U.S.-backed war and occupation has been disastrous for Muslims living all over the world. The Iraq War Logs, which include close to 400,000 classified U.S. Army intelligence documents, were recently released by Wikileaks and include accounts of the violent deaths of 66,081 Iraqi civilians, along with reports by the military that confirm widespread killing and abuse of Iraqi civilians by U.S. military forces and U.S. contractors. The documents also reveal U.S. military instructions from high up the chain of command to ignore detainee abuse by Iraqi authorities. In the U.S.-led counter-insurgency war in Afghanistan, there has been 31% increase in Afghan civilian deaths and a staggering 55% increase in child casualties so far this year as a result of the war, according to the latest statistics from the United Nations. The U.S. is also conducting air strikes and Special Forces operations in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia and is slated to send $3 billion in military aid to Israel for FY2011 in support of its military occupation of Palestine.
The abuse and killing of Muslims isn’t an accidental byproduct of the U.S. military pursuit of a select group of Muslim extremists. It is the direct result and the intended effect of the U.S. government decision to go to war in pursuit of military-backed power in Central and South Asia. When the mainstream media in the US focuses solely on Muslims as violent extremists, it acts to provide a justification for these wars. The direct link made between Islam and terror also provides cover for waging war against a people, not simply targeting a few individuals, because according to this narrative, any Muslim could be a terrorist.
It is for this reason that we as people living in the U.S. must work to undo the deeply harmful effects of this narrative on the lives of Muslims living both in the U.S. and abroad and construct new narratives not premised on the logic of war and imperialism. We must lift up the stories and ongoing work of Muslim peacemakers like Naser Abdo. We must continue to make the connections between the over-amplification of violent acts committed by small groups of Islamic militants and the ongoing need for the U.S. government to attempt to justify unjust war and occupation. In a statement in a press conference earlier last month, Pfc. Abdo was clear in making this connection:
“In reference to ‘Islamophobia’ as it pertains to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan there is much that I have come to understand as a Muslim Conscientious Objector. As a Conscientious Objector, I am morally disinclined to associate terror with Islam as is often the case during routine training exercises…To a soldier, the association of terror and Islam serves the purpose of falsely justifying ones actions in combat by stripping Muslims of their humanity. The association of terror and Islam is what we now refer to as ‘Islamophobia.’…It is as if the U.S. public is just recently following a trend that has been rampant in the military for years. Only when the military and America can disassociate Muslims from terror can we move onto a brighter future of religious collaboration and dialogue that defines America and makes me proud to be an American.”
For more information on Naser Abdo’s case, go to www.freenasserabdo.org.