When Marx described religion as the opium of the people, he was expressing a 19th-century view of the effects of Christianity on the working class. Like many secularists, Marx believed that turning to religion for consolation was both an expression of real suffering and a self-defeating protest against it: hence his analogy with a sedative. In the 21st century, religion is having anything but a sedative effect on people who consider themselves oppressed, and last week's massacre at a US army base highlights the dilemmas posed by militant forms of faith in societies with secular institutions.
Major Nidal Malik Hasan is 39 and an army psychiatrist. He was based first at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington DC and more recently at Fort Hood, Texas, where he counselled soldiers who have been injured in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was about to be posted to Iraq and his family say he was terrified by the prospect; he tried to get a discharge from the army but failed in an attempt to buy himself out. On Thursday, Hasan took two guns into Fort Hood and opened fire, killing 13 people and wounding 30. He was shot four times by a civilian policewoman, who was herself wounded as they exchanged fire. Hasan was taken to hospital, where he is expected to recover from his injuries.
Major Hasan is a Muslim. As soon as his identity was revealed, his religion became the subject of a ferocious public debate: bloggers claimed the massacre cast doubt on the loyalty of all American Muslims, while commentators on the other side argued that even to consider the role of Hasan's faith was Islamophobic. Both positions are absurd and obstruct the process of unpicking the emotional impact of strongly held religious views on soldiers in Western democracies. In the US army, Hasan would have encountered other soldiers with Muslim backgrounds, but they may have been more secular in outlook, and the majority of his colleagues are likely to have identified themselves as Christians. Some will have been regular churchgoers, but few will have shared either his atavistic views on women or his belief in the necessity of daily religious observance.
According to his family, Hasan encountered hostility because he was a Muslim and because of his Middle Eastern background, especially after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. After seeing so many dreadful combat injuries, it would not be surprising if he feared for his own safety when he was told he was going to Iraq; at the same time, he made no secret of his opposition to both wars and cannot have relished the prospect of being deployed against fellow-Muslims. He seems to have been investigated by the FBI six months ago after expressing support for Islamist suicide-bombers on the internet. But the possibility that some (certainly not all) Muslim soldiers may be experiencing a conflict of loyalties is beginning to be recognised as a potential problem in the British military. The history of Europe demonstrates that Christians don't have many scruples about killing other Christians, but Islamism (which is an ideology as well as a faith) actively seeks to create a common identity and a sense of grievance among Muslims, even though insurgents regularly kill co-religionists in terrorist attacks.
Hasan's actions were denounced in no uncertain terms by mainstream Muslim organisations in the US, and it is clear that most American Muslims have little sympathy with terrorism, despite the efforts of Wahhabi clerics in some cities. It's often forgotten that many Muslims don't go regularly to a mosque, and Hasan stood out precisely because he attended a mosque in Silver Spring, Maryland, so often. An imam who was asked to help him find a wife said that the search was unsuccessful because Hasan's demands were so stringent; he wanted a woman who prayed five times a day, which isn't that common among American Muslims. On Thursday morning, only a few hours before he fired indiscriminately on his fellow-soldiers, Hasan was captured on CCTV in a convenience store wearing traditional white robes and a prayer cap, in contrast to the army fatigues he wore at work. It seems likely that he was not just unable to reconcile these two identities, but came to see them as in violent opposition to each other.
The authorities have launched an urgent investigation into whether Hasan had direct links with extremists, but there is another question that needs to be answered. His faith may have exposed him to verbal abuse, but did it also protect him from being identified as someone with troubling emotional problems? On Friday, a former colleague at Walter Reed said that other medics tried to avoid sending wounded soldiers to Hasan because of his unusual manner and solitary work habits; the picture that began to emerge was of an isolated man who was reluctant to mix with women and expressed overt hostility to the wars in which his comrades were fighting and dying. That should have been sufficient reason for further investigation, and it is reasonable to ask whether secular authorities have the confidence to tell the difference between religious fervour of a kind they're not familiar with and genuinely disturbed behaviour.
None of this is an argument for banning Muslims from the military. Rates of violence, notably domestic violence, are high among men from every background who have returned from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, and so are cases of post-traumatic stress disorder. Hasan's lethal rampage may be an indicator that it isn't just combat veterans who are vulnerable to PTSD, but it seems likely that the emotional toll of treating wounded soldiers interacted disastrously in his psyche with extreme religious ideas. If Marx were alive today, I think he would acknowledge that the effect of religion can be anything but soporific, even on people who regard themselves as victims of discrimination and stress.
Joan Smith's website is www.politicalblonde.com