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VIA: William McKenzie Dallas Morning News

Last week, Fort Hood erupted with violence. An Army psychiatrist who was about to be deployed to Iraq took the lives of 13 people on the base and wounded 31 others.

The shooter, we’ve learned, is a Muslim. News reports claim he shouted “God is Great” when beginning his slayings. News reports also indicate that he felt harassed by fellow soldiers for his faith. Muslim leaders have strongly denounced his actions.

Perhaps we will learn more in the next several weeks about his real motives. But even if we learn the shootings had little or nothing to do with his faith, this event will undoubtedly create tension between American Muslims and those Americans who believe Islam is an inflammatory religion.

This is where interfaith dialogue gets hard. When religion is wrapped up in the story of such an atrocity, religious leaders need to step forward.

So, here’s this week’s question:

How can religious leaders — Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and any other — keep this incident from creating fear, tension and misunderstanding?

Read on to see what our panelists say :

MATTHEW WILSON, assistant professor of political science, SMU

Religious leaders of various faiths need to deal with this story honestly, not obfuscating or downplaying its apparent Islamist roots, but also not using them to indict an entire faith or its millions of practitioners, the great majority of whom were doubtless appalled by this incident.

As this story broke last week, I suspect that most American Muslims felt much as I, a pro-life Christian, did when the story of the murdered abortion doctor was on the front pages some months ago–dreading the inevitable use of the story to discredit and marginalize my faith, and enraged at the perpetrator for bringing into disrepute a huge, overwhelmingly peaceful movement with legitimate policy grievances (whether against legalized abortion or American foreign policy).

Religious leaders need to make clear that actions like these are the fault of individuals, not belief systems, and to caution the faithful against assignment of collective guilt or universal suspicion. Moreover, the tragic event should not be allowed to stifle discussion of the underlying issues.

Muslims (and others) should continue to feel free to dissent vigorously and vocally from America’s Middle East policy, without suspicion that they harbor violent tendencies. Those who perpetrate or advocate violence, including those within the Muslim community, need to be confronted and punished, but we need to be very careful not to go beyond that into blanket, group-based animosities. That is the message that I would like to hear (and that, by and large, I think we are hearing) from religious leaders.

CYNTHIA RIGBY, W. C. Brown professor of theology, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary

One way religious leaders can work to counteract the fear, tension, and misunderstanding that will certainly follow from this tragic event is to be honest about the fact that this man’s religious convictions certainly factored into his actions.

This does not mean that thoughtful Muslims would ever support such violence, any more than thoughtful Christians would support the actions of a Christian fundamentalist bombing an abortion clinic.

Yet denying that religious beliefs factored in, in some way, would only deepen misunderstanding. Understanding one another requires honest reflection – in this case, some reflection on how the beliefs of Islam could be distorted in support of these murders is called for.

If understanding requires honesty, the inverse is also true: honesty demands understanding. Religious leaders should, therefore, encourage those whom they serve to seek full understanding of why Major Hasan engaged in the act of mass murder.

Clearly, other factors came into play in addition to Hasan’s religious beliefs. His own psychological health is, for good reason, being questioned. What would it be like to listen, day after day, to stories of loneliness and terror associated with service in Iraq? And then to be deployed oneself would be terrifying.

This is not to say, of course, that Hasan’s behavior can – even in the smallest way – be justified. It is to say, however, that if the horrific Fort Hood event is to be honestly processed we have to seek understanding of all the significant factors that came into play.

In sum, religious leaders should be honest with our constituencies about naming and reflecting upon the ways Hasan’s religious convictions factored into his violent behavior. But we should also insist on understanding the event in all its complexity, taking all relevant factors into play.

GEOFFREY DENNIS, Rabbi, Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound; faculty member, University of North Texas Jewish Studies Program

OK, so I’m going to be completely and personally honest here. This kind of horrendous crime is understandably going to put people on edge. From a global perspective, the most important thing that clergy can do is extend ourselves to not only comfort the fearful and calm the angry in our own community, but also to reach out to other communities.

From personal experience, I must admit, this is not so easy. My local efforts to improve relations have at times proven frustrating. Most of my one-to-one encounters with Muslims have been very rewarding, and I have developed an excellent long-term relationship with a Muslim outreach group with roots in Turkey, the Institute for Interfaith Dialogue, as well as with a mosque in South Dallas, but my efforts to connect with mosques in Denton County have had only mixed results.

My contact with Saudi clerics through UNT has been off-putting. One mosque was very open to my contacts in the aftermath of 9/11 and we even did some interfaith programming together for a couple of years, but it has been largely indifferent to my efforts in more recent years. Another mosque in Denton County has simply ignored my calls and invitations for so long I’ve just given up.

I guess after more than a decade of active interest in improving Jewish-Muslim relations, I’ve found some groups who actively seek a positive relationship with the Jewish community, and I know others really don’t. In essence that’s really no different than my experience with various Christian churches, but somehow the stony silence from some Muslims puts me on edge as well.

Read more panel responses here

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