Only hours after news broke of a mass shooting at Fort Hood, the largest military base in the United States, I began receiving e-mails from agonized Americans. "What does it mean that the suspect has a Muslim name?" asked one.
"Does it matter that he seems to be a Muslim?" asked another. Overnight, more such messages poured in, their tone being confused instead of confrontational.
The fact that these Americans are posing questions rather than rushing to judgment is a sign they're not all bigots. They're genuinely wrestling with how to react beyond immediate shock and grief.
The grappling surely intensified after reports that Major Nidal Malik Hasan visited radical Islamist websites, chatted approvingly of suicide bombers and shouted "Allahu akbar" as he let loose on comrades. Video of him roaming a convenience store in traditional Arab garb, days after having told the store clerk he didn't want to fight fellow Muslims, offers another reason to reflect on the role of religious affinity.
Let's be clear: If an alleged criminal merely happens to be a Muslim, then religion may well be immaterial. But if his crime is committed in the name of Islam, then religion serves to motivate. In that case, the suspect's Muslim identity absolutely matters. Words, gestures and images should be analyzed - fully, openly and honestly.
Not just in America. Three years ago, police arrested young Muslim Canadians for reportedly plotting to blow up Parliament and behead the PM. The Toronto 17, soon to number 18, dubbed their campaign Operation Badr. This refers to the Battle of Badr, the first decisive military victory achieved by the Prophet Mohammed and his ragtag followers, who were outmanned and outarmed by the other side.
The seventh-century story of triumph against all odds is the stuff of legend in Islam - proof, we Muslims are often reminded, that God intended the Prophet to be a warrior and not merely a statesman. As Iranians could attest during their war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Badr provides potent religious inspiration to generations of Muslim soldiers the world over.
Admittedly, this is uncomfortable for millions of Canadians to hear. So uncomfortable that, on arresting the Toronto 17, police didn't once refer to "Islam" or "Muslims" during a press briefing. At a second presser, police boasted about avoiding the words "Islam" and "Muslims." They characterized their omission as an exercise in sensitivity. I considered it an exercise in denial about the role of religion in the alleged plot.
Later, when I raised my concern at an RCMP conference on communication, assorted staff and members of the force confided that their lawyers prevented them from mentioning the offending words.
Of course, Canada is hardly alone in avoiding this most public of questions. Some European countries are electing ultra-right politicians precisely because mainstream elites fear touching the "Muslim problem," thereby creating a vacuum for vulgar populists to fill.
Media are among the worst culprits. In the wake of the 2005 London transit bombings, respectable journalists repeatedly quoted ringleader Mohammad Sidique Khan railing against British foreign policy. But, in the same video, he emphasized that "Islam is our religion" and "the Prophet is our role model." Tellingly, he made these statements before bringing up the invasion of Iraq.
Religious mythology also manifests in unexpected ways. Consider Mohammed Bouyeri, the Dutch-born Moroccan Muslim who murdered artist-turned-satirist Theo van Gogh on the streets of Amsterdam in 2004. Mr. Bouyeri pumped several bullets into Mr. van Gogh's body. Knowing this would be enough to finish him off, why didn't he stop there? Why did he pull out a blade to decapitate Mr. van Gogh?
Yet again, we must face the religious dimension. The blade - or sword - is an implement associated with seventh-century tribal warfare. Using it thus becomes a tribute to the founding moment of Islam. Even the note stabbed into Mr. van Gogh's body, though scrawled in Dutch, had the unmistakable rhythms of Arabic poetry. Small wonder that, at his trial, Mr. Bouyeri proudly confessed to being animated by "religious conviction."
The past few days have revealed much about the complex Major Hasan: a patriotic American dissenter, a brooding recluse, yet a kind neighbour, occasionally taunted by fellow soldiers but more frequently haunted by his conscience and the religious direction in which it turned. While we should be careful not to reduce the story to Islam, let us be equally alert not to erase Islam altogether. Understanding is served by analyzing, not sanitizing.
Irshad Manji, author of The Trouble with Islam Today, is a scholar with New York University and the European Foundation for Democracy.