WASHINGTON — The killings of 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, by an Army psychiatrist who also was a Muslim, according to authorities, set off a rancorous debate Friday that once again spotlighted the fear among Muslims in the United States that they'll be collectively found guilty for the actions of one man.
Vitriolic exchanges filled Internet sites devoted to military affairs, with some posters arguing that Muslims should be barred from the armed services.
News reporters deluged the Silver Spring, Md., mosque where the Fort Hood shooting suspect, Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, once worshipped, demanding to know what the Koran, Islam's holy book, has to say about such events.
Anita Husseini, who also worships at the Muslim Community Center, said she didn't know Hasan, but she knew that what he's accused of doing would affect her life and those of others.
"My heart cried last night," said Husseini, a hairdresser. "Every time the Muslims try to get up, something goes 'boom' and pushes us back. What a crazy person decides does not define me or Islam."
"They're trying so hard to pin this on Islam," said Arshad Qureshi, the mosque's chairman. "They're working so hard to make it about religion."
Qureshi spent most of Friday telling reporters that Islam is a religion of peace.
"We've been here 35 years quietly. We're just as American as everybody else," Qureshi said.
U.S. military officials repeated Friday that the motive behind Thursday's shooting remains unclear.
Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner, a Pentagon spokesman, said there was no doubt within the military hierarchy of the loyalty of Muslim service members. He said the military will take steps to make sure "everyone is treated with dignity and respect."
Muslims make up less than 0.3 percent of America's active duty military forces. Of the roughly 548,000 soldiers in the U.S. Army, there are 2,500 Muslims, 1,500 of them on active duty.
By comparison, 105,000 claim Roman Catholicism as their religion, and 99,000 say they're Baptists. More than 1,800 soldiers say they're Jewish, surpassed by the nearly 2,500 who identified themselves as atheists. More than 101,000 list no religious affiliation.
That was the case with Hasan, according to Pentagon officials, even though interviews at the Silver Spring mosque make it clear that he was an observant Muslim who prayed daily — and often in uniform.
Suspect kept to himself
Mona Ayad, the administrative assistant at the center, said Hasan would come to prayer often, volunteer at the mosque, contribute money for the poor as Islam requires and answer phones. He wasn't a loner, but he wasn't particularly social either.
He stopped coming over the summer, apparently when he was transferred to Fort Hood.
Imam Mohamed Abdullahi Sheikh Mohamed, the mosque's chief cleric, said he knew Hasan from his frequent appearances at the mosque and knew he was a military doctor. However, he said Hasan never brought up his work with the U.S. military.
"He was not violent; he seemed calm. ... I was shocked," Mohamed said. "It's absolutely unacceptable what he did. ... He was a doctor. He was supposed to help people."
'A punch in the gut'
One Army chaplain talked to McClatchy Newspapers on condition of anonymity out of fear that an interview would turn Thursday's shooting into a religious issue.
The chaplain said some Muslims are conflicted about honoring their duty while fighting other Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. In those cases, Muslim soldiers usually prefer talking to a Muslim chaplain, he said. They also more often turn to Muslim chaplains when they feel harassed in the military.
The chaplain said many of the soldiers he talked to feel betrayed mainly because Hasan is a fellow soldier.
"This is not a Muslim issue. It is a soldier issue. It is a punch in the gut," he said.
The chaplain said Muslim soldiers most commonly ask for help finding a place to worship where they serve. Some mosques, he said, don't want to serve soldiers.
Others ask about the Christian faith to better understand their comrades; Christian soldiers often ask about Islam as well, either to understand the communities they're fighting in or the soldiers with whom they're serving.