From Fort Hood to Broken Hill
Army officials and liberal pundits are suggesting that Hasan is a troubled man, who gunned down his comrades for essentially personal reasons; right-wing firebrands like Rush Limbaugh, on the other hand, are noting Hasan's Muslim faith and Arab ethnicity, and suggesting that he was attempting to wage jihad inside America's largest military base. Liberals are accusing conservatives of seizing on Hasan's actions to bash Muslims; conservatives accuse liberals of trying to ignore the evidence for a 'Islamist fifth column' in America because it does not suit their prejudices.
Is it really possible, though, to make the sort of easy distinction between personal and political motivations which both the liberals and the right-wingers seem to be insisting upon, when they consider Hasan's actions? If, as the liberals maintain, Hasan had been made suicidally unbalanced by racial slights, overwork, and the prospect of a dangerous tour of duty in Iraq, could his self-destructive impulses not have led him to the ideology of Osama bin Laden, an ideology which valourises the suicides of many disturbed men? And if Hasan was waging jihad at Fort Hood, can conservatives fairly ignore the grievances which may have lain somewhere behind his decision to take such action?
When I heard about Hasan's shooting spree in the dry centre of Texas I was reminded of a group of deserted rocks that Skyler and I visited a couple of months ago in the dry centre of Australia. White Rocks, which is the typically imaginative name Australians have given to a set of quartz outcrops on the edge of the silver mining town of Broken Hill, was the place where two Muslims were shot dead on New Year's Day 1915 after an extended battle with dozens of armed police.
Badsha Mahomed Gool and Mullah Abdullah were two of the hundreds of Muslims who had emigrated to Australia in the nineteenth century to drive camels through the Outback. Referred to by the Aussies as Afghans, although they came from territory which was then a part of British India and which is now controlled by Pakistan, the camel drivers eventually established communities and built mosques in several parts of the Outback. Abdullah had settled in Broken Hill, and become a religious leader of the Afghan community there; Gool had become an ice cream vendor.
On the first morning of 1915 Gool loaded guns and ammunition into his ice cream cart. He and Abdullah and hauled the unlikely terrorist vehicle to a spot overlooking the rail line that connected Broken Hill with the nearby village of Silverton. A group of miners and their families had chartered a train to take them to a picnic at Silverton; Gool and Abdullah opened fire on the carriages, killing three people, including a small girl, and wounding eleven. Waving a homemade Ottoman flag, the two attackers retreated to White Rocks, where they made their suicidal stand. In the aftermath of the New Year's day attack, a large crowd gathered outside Broken Hill's Trades Hall then marched to the town's German club, which had been closed since the outbreak of the war. After breaking down the door and helping themselves to the supplies in the club's bar, the miners lit a fire and stormed off toward an encampment of Muslim traders on the outskirts of Broken Hill. The police, who were on the wrong side of so many industrial disputes in the turbulent early history of Broken Hill, managed to form a cordon round the encampment and save the lives of its occupants.
Gool and Abdullah had opened fire on members of the most left-wing, anti-war community in Australia. Broken Hill was the birthplace of modern trade unionism in New South Wales, and a bastion first of the revolutionary syndicalism of the Industrial Workers of the World and later of the Communist and Labour parties. Many Broken Hill miners were critics of British imperialism, and the town voted heavily against conscription in the two referenda held on the issue during World War One. Gool and Abdullah turned a part of the Broken Hill community into a xenophobic lynch mob for a few hours, but their actions do not seem to have had any really significant lasting effects in the town. They did, however, give the government in Canberra an excuse to intern hundreds of 'enemy aliens' - Germans, Austrians, and Turks - for the rest of the war, the grounds of 'national security'. Perhaps the 'Battle of Broken Hill' shows us the way that seemingly minor personal grievances caused by exclusion and discrimination can turn mysteriously into an outburst of political violence. In a letter found on his body after the battle at White Rocks, Abdullah complained about unfair treatement from Australian authorities. He had been the halal butcher for the Muslim community in Broken Hill, but the racially discriminatory policies of slaughterhouses had forced him to work in the open air, and he had several times been convicted for unsanitary practices. It seems that Abdullah's experiences had angered and radicalised him, and that he had won the older Gool over to his perspective. The imminent Anzac invasion of Turkey, the heartland of the Ottoman Empire, may have have inspired Gool and Abdullah to turn their anger into action. The precarious place that Muslims enjoyed in Broken Hill society in the early twentieth century is shown by a visit to the town's vast cemetery. The relatively green, relatively well-tended sections of the cemetery belong to Christian sects - Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists, 'Non-conformists' - and to 'Secularists'. At the back of the cemetery, on a bare red plateau divided by the scrubby bed of a dry creek, the 'Mohammedan' graves can be found. Wood and good stone was expensive in isolated Broken Hill, and many of the graves in this section of the cemetery are improvised out of rough found stones, or out of the iron that was plentiful around the town's mines. Even on some of the marble gravestones, the Arabic script, which is so alien and so suggestive to Anglo-Saxon eyes - Anthony Thwaite compared it to flashing swords, while Don Dillo thought of pouring rain - has been censored by the red dust that blows endlessly through the Outback. A few grave plots seem about to erode into the creek.
Even in death, it seems, the Outback's first Muslims have been marginalised.