What should we make of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who apparently killed 13 innocent people at Fort Hood?
Here's my take: Hasan may have been mentally unbalanced -- I assume anyone who shoots up innocent people is. But the more you read about his support for Muslim suicide bombers, about how he showed up at a public-health seminar with a PowerPoint presentation titled "Why the War on Terror Is a War on Islam," and about his contacts with Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni cleric famous for using the Web to support jihadist violence against America -- the more it seems that Hasan was just another angry jihadist spurred to action by "The Narrative."
What is scary is that even though he was born, raised and educated in America, The Narrative still got to him.
The Narrative is the cocktail of half-truths, propaganda and outright lies about America that have taken hold in the Arab-Muslim world since 9/11. Propagated by jihadist Web sites, mosque preachers, Arab intellectuals, satellite news stations and books -- and tacitly endorsed by some Arab regimes -- this narrative posits that America has declared war on Islam, as part of a grand "American-Crusader-Zionist conspiracy" to keep Muslims down.
Yes, after two decades in which U.S. foreign policy has been largely dedicated to rescuing Muslims or trying to help free them from tyranny -- in Bosnia, Darfur, Kuwait, Somalia, Lebanon, Kurdistan, post-earthquake Pakistan, post-tsunami Indonesia, Iraq and Afghanistan -- a narrative that says America is dedicated to keeping Muslims down is thriving.
Although most of the Muslims being killed today are being killed by jihadist suicide bombers in Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan and Indonesia, you'd never know it from listening to their world. The dominant narrative there is that 9/11 was a kind of fraud: America's unprovoked onslaught on Islam is the real story, and the Muslims are the real victims -- of U.S. perfidy.
Have no doubt: We punched a fist into the Arab/Muslim world after 9/11, partly to send a message of deterrence, but primarily to destroy two tyrannical regimes -- the Taliban and the Baathists -- and to work with Afghans and Iraqis to build a different kind of politics. In the process, we did some stupid and bad things. But for every Abu Ghraib, our soldiers and diplomats perpetrated a million acts of kindness aimed at giving Arabs and Muslims a better chance to succeed with modernity and to elect their own leaders.
The Narrative was concocted by jihadists to obscure that.
It's working. As a Jordanian-born counterterrorism expert, who asked to remain anonymous, said to me: "This narrative is now omnipresent in Arab and Muslim communities in the region and in migrant communities around the world. These communities are bombarded with this narrative in huge doses and on a daily basis.
"[(It says)] the West, and right now mostly the U.S. and Israel, is single-handedly and completely responsible for all the grievances of the Arab and the Muslim worlds. Ironically, the vast majority of the media outlets targeting these communities are Arab-government owned -- mostly from the Gulf."
This narrative suits Arab governments. It allows them to deflect onto America all of their people's grievances over why their countries are falling behind. And it suits al-Qaida, which doesn't need much organization anymore -- just push out The Narrative over the Web and satellite TV, let it heat up humiliated, frustrated or socially alienated Muslim males, and one or two will open fire on their own. See: Nidal Malik Hasan.
"Liberal Arabs like me are as angry as a terrorist and as determined to change the status quo," said my Jordanian friend.
The only difference "is that while we choose education, knowledge and success to bring about change, a terrorist, having bought into the narrative, has a sense of powerlessness and helplessness, which are inculcated in us from childhood, that lead him to believe that there is only one way, and that is violence."
What to do? Many Arab Muslims know that what ails their societies is more than the West, and that The Narrative is just an escape from looking honestly at themselves. But none of their leaders dare or care to open that discussion.
In his Cairo speech last June, President Barack Obama effectively built a connection with the Muslim mainstream.
Maybe he could spark the debate by asking that same audience this question: "Whenever something like Fort Hood happens you say, 'This is not Islam.' I believe that. But you keep telling us what Islam isn't. You need to tell us what it is and show us how its positive interpretations are being promoted in your schools and mosques. If this is not Islam, then why is it that a million Muslims will pour into the streets to protest Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, but not one will take to the streets to protest Muslim suicide bombers who blow up other Muslims, real people, created in the image of God? You need to explain that to us -- and to yourselves."
THE NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE