Being a Muslim in today’s world is unlike being anything else. It’s an all-encompassing, all-consuming identity.
Within a single society, like the United States, white college professors, say, usually have much more in common – in their values, preferences, lifestyles, and opinions – with black college professors than they do with, say, white garbage collectors. Conversely, black garbage collectors usually have much more in common with white garbage collectors than they do with black college professors. There may be exceptions in some cases, but usually their acquired traits of occupation and profession – what they do every day – is more important in determining who they are and what they believe than their race and ethnicity.
Across societies, however, French electricians, say, usually identify more strongly with French plumbers or even with French accountants than they do with, say, Chinese electricians. Conversely, Chinese electricians usually identify more strongly with Chinese plumbers and accountants than they do with French electricians. Once again, I’m sure there are some exceptions, but usually, in modern society, nationality and culture strongly shape people’s identity and unite them despite their different occupations and professions.
These generalizations appear to hold for most societies, cultures, races, ethnicities, religions, and languages, except for Muslims. For them, being a Muslim appears to be an all-encompassing, all-consuming identity that overrides and trumps everything else. For them, nothing else – their race, their nationality, their occupation, their language – matters except for being Muslim, which unites all Muslims in the world. (True, most Muslims speak the same language – Arabic – but not all; neither Indonesians nor Chechens speak Arabic. Nor do Iranians.)
Major Nidal Malik Hasan is a native-born American citizen, trained military officer, and educated MD and psychiatrist. Yet none of these things matters for him; first and foremost, he is a Muslim. He’s not at all like other native-born American citizens; he’s not at all like other military officers; he’s not at all like other medical doctors or psychiatrists. Anwar al-Awlaki is a native-born and educated American citizen. Three of the four perpetrators of the 7/7 bombings in London were native-born British citizens, and the fourth was Jamaican-born. Of the five US citizens currently under detention in Pakistan for terrorism charges, one has been reported to be native-born American, two originally from Yemen, one from Egypt, and one from Sweden. Yet, once again, none of their varied national and cultural backgrounds matters to them. They are all united in their values and goals by their singular identity of being Muslims.
It’s tempting to dismiss these observations by saying that they are all “extremists” or “Jihadists.” That would be politically correct and comforting, but factually inaccurate. According to Thomas L. Friedman, who knows more about the world affairs, especially the Middle Eastern affairs, than anybody in the world, the only person that I know of who actually predicted 9/11 two years earlier, 50% of Muslims throughout the world applaud the actions of their fellow Muslims on 9/11, and presumably other murderous acts against westerners, while the other 50% actively condemn them. Yes, 50% is only half, not a majority, but it nonetheless represents 800 million Muslims worldwide. If we assume that 50% of them are male, and about 30% of them are young (between the ages of 15-30), then we are talking about 120 million ready suicide bombers worldwide. It took only 19 of them to kill 3,000 of us.
And this is not limited to faraway places like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. According to the 2007 report by the Pew Research Center, 81% of Muslims in the United Kingdom consider themselves Muslim first, British second. 81%! For four out of every five Muslims in the UK, being Muslim is more important than being British. The comparable figure in the US is 47%, and it’s 46% in France, 66% in Germany, and 69% in Spain. I cannot think of any ethnic or religious group in the United States (with the possible exception of recent Mexican immigrants in the Southwest) of which half of the members consider their ethnic or religious identity to be more important than being American. Would half of black Americans consider themselves to be “black first, American second”? (I can think of one who would – Jeremiah Wright – but would anyone else?) Would half of Catholic Americans consider themselves to be “Catholic first, American second”?
Of course, it is technically impossible to know for sure without actual survey data on other comparable groups within the United States. But that’s precisely my point. Nobody would dream of asking black Americans “Do you consider yourself to be black first or American first?” Nobody would dream of asking Catholic Americans “Do you consider yourself to be Catholic first or American first?” That would be absurd, to the point of nonsensical. Yet it is not an absurd question to ask of Muslims, and indeed half of American Muslims (and four-fifths of British Muslims) do consider themselves to be Muslim first.
Why is being Muslim so completely different from being anything else in the modern world today? Why is being Muslim such an all-encompassing, all-consuming identity?