Like most Americans I start to read my newspaper before I've finished unfolding it. I begin every morning by pulling the papers out of their translucent plastic bags and spreading them out on the kitchen table, and only after scanning the headlines of the top stories of the day ("above the fold") do I unfold the newspapers to their full-length. But on Thursday October 24th my gaze stayed frozen on the three top headlines. They were: "Chechens seize Moscow Theatre"; “Security Council gets U.S. Proposal”; and finally "Sniper Team Seeks Two Men in Case". The story beneath that final headline told me that the police were after two suspects, the senior of which is named John Allen Muhammad, an American convert to Islam.
The words, "bloody Borders" came immediately to mind. This phrase was coined by Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington who used it to describe the phenomenon in which bloodshed often seems to occur in areas of the world where Islamic civilization abuts non Islamic ones. After all, have you ever had the experience of scanning the top headlines of your daily paper and noticing that the three major hotspots for violent killing in the world all involved in members of the United Methodist Church? Or the Buddhists, for that matter: how often have you tuned in CNN to find violent outbursts and civilian casualties in the West, in the East, and the Middle East arising from conflicts that involve Buddhists?
Neither of those things have ever happened to me, but on Thursday I saw conflict escalating in Iraq between the United States and a violent Moslem dictator; in Russia I saw Islamist separatists seizing several hundred innocent civilians in a movie theatre, and in America I saw a citizen who had converted to Islam and subsequently became a sympathizer with the cause of Osama bin Laden emerge as the chief suspect in a killing spree that had taken 10 lives and paralyzed our nation's capitol for a month.
Does this mean that Islam caused the actions that Mr. Muhammad is alleged to have committed? No one knows. Human motives are beyond the gaze of human eyes, although many have claimed to kill in the name of Islam. I think the deeper and more relevant question is this: what is it about Islam around the world and especially in American cities and prisons that attracts people who are so prone to violence?
The immediate, and politically correct, answer to this question is simply to attack it. There is a gut-level American tendency to avoid a difficult and socially explosive topic by punishing the question itself, implying that the topic is inherently racist or bigoted in some other way. This will not do; it is in the very nature of the human mind to notice patterns, and this one is too big to be ignored: terrorism correlates with Islam at a level completely out of proportion to its numbers in the world and in America.
Asking this question does not have to give the green light to anti-Islamic bigotry. In fact this question pushes the debate away from bigotry towards the concrete real world and verifiable historic record which bigots of all stripe avoid at all costs. We do not have to join Jerry Falwell in his declaration that "Muhammad was a terrorist" in order to wonder why terrorists are so often drawn to identify with Muhammad. Moslems of goodwill should join us in this discussion before the global media helps extremists to brand the entire faith. Falwell's declaration was, of course, further evidence of his congenital case of foot-in-mouth disease, but the tactic of the Moslems in India who protested his statements through violent mass rioting in which dozens of their Hindu neighbors were murdered, is no way to refute him either.
Another way of approaching the question is to treat Islam as irrelevant, as accidental to the story. Like the reporter who asked Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld whether he felt guilty about the Washington DC sniper since the principal suspect was a U.S. military veteran, some commentators seem to find everything about Mr. Muhammad's life more relevant than his faith. In fact, the initial BBC report neglected to mention his religion at all. The principal suspect is an American convert to a form of Islam whose leader, Louis Farrakhan, has predicted the destruction of America at the hand of Moslems. In 1995 John Allen Muhammad and thousands of other members of the Nation of Islam participated in what was called “The Million-Man March”, traveling to Washington DC where they heard their leader, Lois Farrakhan embark on a lengthy speech in which he offered an elaborate series of sometimes error-ridden numerological calculations, all regarding the specific architecture of Washington, emphasizing its complicity in a secretive Masonic conspiracy of Europeans against Blacks. He condemned that city in particular for its history of evil. Seven years later, the suspect who served as part of the security detail for Mr. Farrakhan, returns to that same city with a high-powered rifle and murder in his heart, and many point to his military record as the relevant fact!
Yes, he's a financially poor man; yes, he's twice divorced; yes, maybe he even lives in a van down by the river. But these unfortunate facts do not correlate with mass hate the way association with the Nation of Islam does.
Imagine this scenario. A man who formerly served as an usher at a promise keepers rally, let’s call him Todd, expresses sympathies with abortion clinic bombers and the man who murdered gay man Matthew Shepard. Shortly thereafter Todd goes on a killing spree through Hollywood and San Francisco, California. What would be the focus of our national conversation the morning after these facts had been presented in the press? Would they focus on his bad marriage? His adenoids? Or perhaps his anxieties about male pattern baldness? No, his religion would be front and center in the discussion as it should be.
Our suppositional Todd didn't kill those 10 people; John Allen Muhammad did. And his religion should be front and center in the national discussion that follows.