The recent shooting of American soldiers (on American soil) by a Muslim American military psychiatrist at Fort Hood threatens to reignite tensions between Muslim American and non-Muslim American cultural groups. In the wake of the September 11th attacks, Muslim Americans as a group faced hard times in this country. Americans were mad, and rightly so. Thousands of American civilians were murdered by so-called Islamic extremists. For most of us, Islam was a religious/cultural tradition that we knew little about so the conditions were perfect for the formation of stereotypes and prejudicial attitudes about Islam and Muslims.
I personally think America has come a long way since then. Emotions have cooled a bit and I believe (or at least I hope) that most Americans now realize that Muslim and terrorist are not synonymous labels. There are over 1 billion Muslims in the world and most of them are of course not terrorists and are not sympathetic to terrorist causes. It is also worth noting that many terrorist campaigns around the world have absolutely no connection to Islam. This is a fact that is often not given much media coverage in this country. However, many Muslim Americans now fear that this single attack in Texas will undermine the progress that has been made in relations between Muslim and non-Muslim Americans. They may have good reason to be worried so I believe it is important now to promote rational thought and discourage the tendency or desire to turn to stereotypes and prejudicial attitudes in response to this event.
First, we do not yet know precisely what factors motivated Major Nidal Hasan to commit this horrible crime. Right now there is a lot of speculation but people should be careful to not draw conclusions yet. However, importantly, whatever his motives were, they cannot be generalized to other Muslim Americans or Muslim American military personnel. What if it comes out that this crime was largely ideologically-driven? This will help explain this particular incident, but it will in no way give us any insight into what other Muslim American soldiers or civilians are thinking. Thousands of Muslim Americans serve their country in the military with honor and distinction and there are millions of hard working, law abiding American citizens who practice Islam. Thankfully, this type of event is extremely rare and again, even if the perpetrator's motives are religious or ideological in nature, that says nothing about anyone else.
To make this point clear, consider the following examples. Domestic violence is a serious problem in the military. Soldiers sometimes come home from war and aggress against (and sometimes even kill) their wives. In many of these cases, the person committing the violence is a white Christian man. Of course, we would not then assume that all or most white Christian male soldiers are likely to commit spousal abuse.
Remember Ted Haggard? He was the prominent evangelical minister who resigned from his church after being caught having sex and smoking meth with a male prostitute. This story received a lot of media attention. However, it did not cast suspicion on other ministers. This event did not make the public conclude that all or most evangelical preachers employ male prostitutes or use illicit drugs.
Christians sometimes murder abortion doctors and commit hate crimes against racial minorities or homosexuals. But we do not hold all Christians accountable for these acts. I could go on, but I think my point is clear.
If people know that a white Christian male committing a crime is not representative of other white Christian males, why do people sometimes make the false assumption that a Muslim man committing a crime is representative of other Muslims? First, there is what social psychologists call outgroup homogeneity. This is the tendency to falsely assume that all or most members of a group we do not belong to (in this case Muslims) are the same.
Second, there is the phenomenon that social psychologists refer to as illusory correlation. This is the tendency for people to falsely perceive a relationship between two variables (in this case, Muslims and violence). So it easy to assume all Muslims are the same (outgroup homogeity) and that there is a strong association between being a Muslim and committing acts of violence (illusory correlation).
We have a lot of personal experience with our own ethnic, racial, and religious groups and so we know that they are quite diverse in nature. We realize that people in our own groups (our ingroups) have distinct personalities, personal histories, and life goals. Thus, when a member of our ingroup does something undesirable, we know not to simply attribute it to a generic group label. However, since we know less about and have less experience with members of other groups (outgroups), we have a tendency to attribute the individual behavior of an outgroup member to the generic group label. For example, if we have never really spent time with Muslims, we tend to think of them as all the same. Thus, when one of them does something bad, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that incident represents all of them and that they as a group are prone to do bad things. However, anyone who has spent any time with Muslims or Muslim Americans will come to realize that they have diverse personalities, personal histories, and life goals just like anyone else. And just because one of them does something awful does not mean they as a group are prone to engage in such acts.
It is important to note that I am not arguing that we ignore cultural and ideological differences when seeking to understand the causes of violence and social conflict. We should be interested in what unique stressors Muslim American military personnel may currently face in the armed forces. What we should not do is make generalizations about them, or any other cultural group for that matter. Doing so is unjust and will only further promote social and cultural conflict.