Dear Mr. Goldberg,
My name is Dan Mathewson and I’m Assistant Professor of Religion at Wofford College in South Carolina. Like many people, I have been following with interest the fallout of the Fort Hood shootings, and particularly the ways that media figures (journalists, television personalities, etc.) have linked—or refused to link—Nidal Hasan’s actions with his Muslim faith. It is for this reason that I read with interest your recent post in the Atlantic, “When Muslims Commit Violence,” where you argue that we should not ignore an alleged criminal’s potential religious motivations simply because that person is Muslim.
You suggest that the media should follow the same protocol as is applied to Christians (or members of any other religion). You propose the following test:
If Nidal Malik Hasan had been a devout Christian with pronounced anti-abortion views, and had he attacked, say, a Planned Parenthood office, would his religion have been considered relevant as we tried to understand the motivation and meaning of the attack? Of course. Elite opinion makers do not, as a rule, try to protect Christians and Christian belief from investigation and criticism.
The hypothetical you propose caught my attention because the situation you describe actually did happen over the summer with the murder of the abortion provider, Dr. George Tiller. His murderer, Scott Roeder, was described in the media as a right-wing, anti-government, anti-abortion activist; but not a single article that I was able to find in the mainstream media discussed Roeder’s Christian faith as a motivating factor of his crime.
All the “elite opinion makers” (as you describe) ignored the fact that Roeder is committed to an extreme form of Christianity known as the Christian Identity Movement — a faith that promotes violence (in the name of Jesus) against abortion providers, gays, and certain minorities. As an academic who regularly teaches a course on religious extremism, I know with certainty that Roeder’s own Christian faith provided much of the motivation for his actions.
You will recall that within days of Tiller’s murder, two army recruiters were murdered in Arkansas by Abdulhakim Muhammad (you link to this story in your post), a man whose ties to Islam were well documented in every article I read at that time. The contrast in the media’s handling of the religious sensibilities of these two high profile murderers was jarring — but for the complete opposite reasons that you suggest. It was the Christian to whom the “elite opinion makers” gave a pass; not the Muslim.
I actually wrote an article for Religion Dispatches about this very issue.
I have no idea if we will discover that Hasan actually was motivated by some sort of extreme brand of Islam (which would then make him the equivalent of Scott Roeder). What I do know for certain is that in American culture we are much more inclined to see Islam as a violent faith than we are Christianity, and we are therefore much more eager to link a criminal to the former religion than we are to the latter.