Devout Muslims Sometimes Split On Beliefs

Host Michel Martin talks with Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, director of outreach at the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Virginia, where Nidal Hassan sometimes attended prayer services. Abdul-Malik is joined by Asra Nomani, who recently talked to Muslim congregants at a Muslim Center in Silver Spring, Md., oanother center where Hassan often frequented.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're going to continue to discuss the shooting at Fort Hood. We're talking about whether so-called political correctness prevented colleagues and associates of Major Nidal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist accused of last week's shooting rampage, from aggressively pursuing concerns about Hasan's own mental health and fitness for duty. A few minutes ago, we heard from two reporters who cover the military who discussed warning flags that arose and how the military responded to them.

Now, we want to discuss another side of that story, whether Hasan's associates within the Muslim community ignored or downplayed possible warning signs of his instability. We've called upon Imam Johari Abdul-Malik. He's the director of outreach at the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Virginia, where Nidal Hasan sometimes attended services. Also with us is journalist Asra Nomani, who wrote an article for the Daily Beast called "Inside the Gunman's Mosque." She talked to Muslim congregants at a Muslim center in Silver Spring, Maryland where Hasan also spent some time. Welcome to you both. Thank you so much for joining us.

ASRA NOMANI: Thank you, Michel.

JOHARI ABDUL: Alhamdulillah. Good to be here.

MARTIN: Asra, I'm going to start with you. You met with a local Bangladeshi American civil engineer who knew Nidal Hasan and had conversations with him about his beliefs in Islam. And the man you met told you that he always had a feeling that Hasan was extremist and could one day become harmful. But why didn't he speak up?

NOMANI: You know, he spoke up to Major Hasan, and he spoke up in the mosque. He said that he didn't know that Major Hasan was in the Army. Otherwise, if he had, he would have sent out a, you know, warning shot to the military also. But in our communities everywhere around America and around the world, I believe that, you know, we're in a battle for the hearts, minds and souls of people like Major Hasan. There's going to be a lot of people who are going to claim that Major Hasan was not a Muslim.

But to me, that's intellectually dishonest because he did represent an ideology that's very much alive in our Muslim community. We can say that he's a lost sheep, but we cannot say that he was not part of the flock. And in that, I believe we have a responsibility to try to win the hearts and minds of people like Major Hasan so that we can actually bring them to an interpretation of Islam that says that you can coexist with those who are different from you. And that you can serve in the military and that you don't do things like Fort Hood.

MARTIN: You go on to write that the story of Hasan at his local mosque is a cautionary tale to all Muslim communities about the consequences when we fail to win the war of ideas in the Muslim world with moderate interpretation of Islam over rigid literal interpretations.

You say: "Part of the problem is that many Muslims are clinging to the notion of an ummah, or community, with a capital U, a view that inhibits dissent and encourages blind loyalty," and you say that you feel that that sort of liberal and progressive elements are suppressed because then they are viewed as causing dissension within the community.

NOMANI: Yeah, you know, we have this ideological lever in our Muslim community called fitna, which is a term that's used to describe chaos or conflict. And whenever you try to raise your voice inside the community and try to oppose the mainstream ideas because you don't believe that they are representative of the best of Islam, you're accused of fitna. And I know this personally because every time I've tried to raise issues about women's rights in our mosques, try to go into the main halls where women are not allowed, men come, they surround me and they yell you're causing fitna.

You know, it isn't a discussion about the issue. It's not a discussion about what's right theologically. It's a discussion about having uniformity. And so, look at just Major Hasan's PowerPoint presentation. He says in one of his conclusions God expects full loyalty, promises heaven and threatens with hell. So that's the politics of ideology then that doesn't allow for critical thinking and dissension in our community. And that's what will fail us.

MARTIN: Imam, let's hear from you.

ABDUL: You know, I think this is a very complex issue. I think that the Muslim community in America is really coming of age. That there is a kind of a discourse that I think may be more proverbial than it is the promise of the future. That today you'll find that there are Muslims who are straight. There are Muslims who are openly gay. There are Muslims who are conservative. There are feminist voices in the Muslim community. There is ethnic diversity. And in that growing community, obviously, there are going to be issues.

I would refer you to something that they call Johari's window. It was by two psychologists, Joe and Harry, who talked about how you see yourself, how others see you in the public arena. Then there's a part of you that you don't see and a part of you that the society at large doesn't see. There's another part that is something that's probably not known by any of us. It's that secret part of us, and then there's the facade.

And I think Asma is talking about the facade, the way we would like to perceive ourselves. We would like to say we are a perfect community. We are perfectly faithful, that we are the most educated among them. But the reality is we have doctors and we have cab drivers.

MARTIN: I understand that, imam, but I wanted to talk about...

ABDUL: Come on.

MARTIN: But I understand - in part the reason we called you is this whole issue around Imam Anwar al-Awlaki.

ABDUL: Okay.

MARTIN: And he was formerly a staff imam at the community center where you are now working. He since moved to Yemen. On his blog, he called Major Hasan a hero. Now I understand that you know him.

ABDUL: Right.

MARTIN: You were friends with him.

ABDUL: Yeah.

MARTIN: I understand that you even went on hajj with him.

ABDUL: We met on hajj and spent our hajj together, but let's be...

MARTIN: The only point I wanted to make is that you denounced his comments once they were made. You and just about every other Muslim leader that I can think of in this country denounced those comments and this conduct once it occurred. I think the question Asra is asking is before inappropriate or antisocial behavior is experienced, when people are expressing hateful views towards other religions...

ABDUL: Indeed.

MARTIN: ...and other people and things of that sort, is that behavior discussed and called out within the community?

ABDUL: Well, let's be clear. When Anwar al-Awlaki was at Dar Al-Hijrah, he was articulating the same message that I articulate today in Dar Al-Hijrah - very open, a very engaging, a very community-wise and contemporary understanding of the faith, even within the framework of its traditionalism. But at the same time, I have to say that the speech that I heard, and the only time I ever went to Anwar al-Awlaki's blog was on November 9th to read this outlandish speech and to say we would not have tolerated that if he had said that in our mosque before he left in April of 2002.

That would not have been acceptable. That would not have been swept under the rug. And I'm a person - I recently spoke at a forum about the treatment of homosexuals at George Washington University saying, although people may not be ready for it, the reality is that our Islam says that the priority is worshipping God. I don't really think, I think if we are going to talk about hearts and minds, in the case of Nidal, I think that he didn't have his mind. So it's not a question of his heart. I know his family. I visited their house. I have a fairly good sense and they have shared with me that they think that he's a person who snapped.

MARTIN: You think it's a psychological issue. But, Asra, what about that? I mean, that it's a psychological problem and that psychological disorder can be found in any group and is found in any religious group.

NOMANI: What concerns me about that kind of analysis is that we don't take responsibility. We don't take responsibility then for the ideology that basically finds a home in a mind that may be vulnerable. And so what happened is that Nidal Hasan's ideology, from the people that I talked to at the mosque in Silver Spring, was obvious for the last five years.

The conversations that people had with him inside the community were ones in which he espoused an ideology of Islam that is akin to this theology known as Wahhabism and Salafism. It is a rigid, puritanical, very dogmatic interpretation of Islam. We cannot say that he just snapped one day. This was a mind in progress and he found identity in this ideology.

ABDUL: Let me - if I...

NOMANI: And so in that, I just want to say that we have to take responsibility inside our community and we have to win the mind of somebody like Major Hasan. We have to win his soul. We lost him, and in that, we lost this battle.

And I appreciate this dissonance that the imam is talking about, because until we decide that we can live with a value system inside of ourselves that reflects our external actions, we are going to continue to have individuals like Major Hasan who can't find compatibility between Islam and the West.

MARTIN: Asra, I gave you the first word.

ABDUL: Yeah. But I...

MARTIN: I'm going to give Imam the last word.

ABDUL: But I want to chime in.

MARTIN: Go ahead.

ABDUL: I mean the reality is that on some level I think people have the right. If they want to be conservative in their own personal lives, I think that's fine. If they - yeah - but there's a difference between...

MARTIN: But there's a difference between conservative and racist.

ABDUL: Yeah. But...

MARTIN: Isn't there, or conservative and a bigot and expressing bigotry toward people, isn't there?

ABDUL: Right. Right. But I'm saying that my own personal feelings about black people, white people, gay people, straight people doesn't give me the right to go into the middle of my workplace and kill my coworker. This has - for me, this has nothing to do with religion. There is nothing about Islam, even if I believe in heaven and hell and a day of judgment, that says that it's okay to kill people just because I don't like...

MARTIN: So is it your view that there's nothing that can be done until someone crosses the line to behavior?

ABDUL: No. No. No. I think really we need to have - and I am challenging - a robust discourse about saying that people like Anwar al-Awlaki's speech on his website - we need to send a warning to our young people that that's not acceptable; that bookstores shouldn't post it, that our website shouldn't enlist it. I think that we have to, in the realm of freedom of speech, we have to say that we are going to discipline our own selves, and if there are individuals who speak out that's inappropriate, we need to challenge that.

MARTIN: I'm going to - unfortunately, we're going to have to leave it there for now. But Asra, I'm going to direct people to read your writings at our website. We'll have a posting of your - the article that you wrote so they can read it in full.

Imam Johari Abdul-Malik is the director of outreach at the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Virginia, where Nidal Hasan sometimes attended services. Asra Nomani wrote an article for The Daily Beast called "Inside the Gunman's Mosque." She talked to Muslim congregants at a Muslim center in Silver Spring, Maryland, another center where Hasan visited. Nomani's also the author of "Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam." They were both kind enough to join us from our studios here in Washington...

ABDUL: Don't forget my blog.

MARTIN: And, we will, of course, have a link to your blog as well, Imam. We can continue this dialogue online.

I thank you both so much for joining us.

ABDUL: All right. Assalaamu Alaikum.

NOMANI: Thank you, Michel.

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