Like most everyone I know, my first reaction at hearing about the guilty verdict delivered against Naveed Haq was relief. Not joy. Not exultation. Not even a rush of vindication. Just relief.
Relief that a jury agreed upon what was so obvious — Haq’s attack on the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle consciously targeted a Jewish institution for murderous assault in order to make a political point. Relief also that, somehow, Jewish sensibilities about the deadly seriousness of contemporary anti-Semitism — whether it decks itself in the rhetoric of contemporary Islamist ideology, in the fantasies of Christian Identity “evangelists,” or in the “anti-Zionism” of so many of those educated enough to know better — are validated in this verdict.
Whatever Haq’s clinical portrait might be on his medical chart, the bottom line is that this guy wanted to kill some Jews, searched out a vulnerable target that symbolized the American Jewish connection with Israel, selected his weapons with care, and took a day trip over the pass to reach his target.
On that Friday afternoon in late July, 2006, Haq was no doubt “crazy.” But only in the colloquial sense that we apply to people whose judgment seems clouded by passion. In the same way, perhaps, that certain well-married politicos risk everything in their world for some cheap trysts. It’s the kind of “craziness” embodied in the words of the old Merle Haggard tune, “I’m old enough to know better, and still young enough not to care.” This sort of “crazy” doesn’t get you off the hook for murder.
But the relief I shared with so many others in the Jewish and general communities is not unmixed with other feelings. For one thing, it is colored by remorse at my own error.
Readers may remember the column I wrote in this paper about Haq’s attack (it is still on the JTNews Web site under the title, “A Muslim-American mad at Israel”). There, writing a day or two after the event itself, I argued that we should not rush to chalk up Haq’s crime to “Islamic terrorism.” Rather, on the basis of what we knew at the time — his psychiatric history with a manic-depressive disorder, a recent conversion to an obscure Christian sect, and other erratic behavior — this shooting seemed more like the deadly assaults in American public spaces colorfully summarized as “going postal.”
Well, now I know better. Since 2006 we all have read frequently of middle-class, second-generation Muslims in the U.S. and Europe who, despite an apparently thorough acculturation to their new homelands, find their “true” identities in one or another internet Islamist chat room, and re-brand themselves as “soldiers of Islam” in the “global jihad.”
We are all still reeling, after all, from the shock of Nidal Malik Hassan’s attack in Ft. Hood. And we have even more recently learned of the five Pakistani-American youngsters who tried to join the “global jihad” against American forces in Afghanistan.
Had I known in July 2006 what I know now, I would have interpreted Naveed Haq more cautiously as yet a further example of a personality warped by the combination, in equal measures, of powerful personal resentment toward Jews and the religiously legitimized language of divine vengeance that Islam, after all, shares with its “sister traditions.”
It is too much to dismiss Haq as a “Muslim terrorist.” I don’t believe that “Islam” transformed him from being “angry at Israel” (and who isn’t these days?) to being a murderer of American Jews. I am convinced that he acted in response to private, personal demons who spoke in the convenient language of a religious tradition that — again, like its sisters — can and has been too easily hijacked in the service of psychopathic hatreds.
And here my relief turns to anxiety and concern. For the Naveed Haq who walked the streets as a free man prior to the Federation shootings was not so different from any of the dozens of Muslim college students whom I have had the pleasure of teaching in my years at the UW. Their ancestry spans the Islamic globe; American-born or foreign, they claim origins in lands as diverse as Somalia, Egypt, Indonesia, Sudan, Nigeria, Morocco, Pakistan, Bosnia, and, yes, Palestine.
They are uniformly excellent students, and one or two have become close friends and colleagues, sharing meals at the family table and swapping stories about immigration to America, the trials of assimilation, and so forth.
Their curiosity about Jews leads them to routinely seek out my courses on Judaism or anti-Semitism. This past quarter I was honored to have some 20 Muslim students among the 200 who took my course on “Globalization & the Monotheistic Traditions.” Many of them were among the strongest students, eager to master a way of speaking about religions which both honors their own, yet compares it — warts and all — with fair-minded representations of Judaism and Christianity. And two of these students, I am proud to say, are now registered in my course on the Talmud.
Do I have a budding Internet jihadist among my students? Rachmana litzlan!
But I must say this: Despite what the news continues to bring about the extremities of Islamic anti-Westernism and rank anti-Semitism, and despite the very close-to-home example of Naveed Haq, I feel privileged that my work has brought me to a closer knowledge of Islam as embodied not only in academic books and fiery blogs, but primarily in the simple mentschlichkeit of my Muslim students.
By trusting my teaching, they have honored me and they have honored the Jewish sources that nourish me. And that trust and honor has more a claim to being rooted in Islam than anything dished out by Naveed Haq.