Did Islamic Beliefs Provoke Alton Nolen to Murder?


Originally published in OnFaith

A horrifying tragedy in Oklahoma has been hijacked to become a tool of partisan politics, and lost is the practice of an intelligent discourse. Last Thursday, 30-year-old Alton Nolen brutally attacked co-workers at a food processing plant, killing and decapitating 54-year-old Colleen Hufford and attempting to kill 43-year-old Traci Johnson.

Let’s get some facts straight first. Nolen was a convert to Islam, despite the fact that he harbored clearly un-Islamic views such as a hatred for people of the white race.  According to all legitimate news reports (New York Times, Wall Street JournalWashington PostUSA TodayThe Oklahoman, and more), Nolen was suspended from his job on Thursday after Traci Johnson issued a complaint regarding Nolen’s comments against white people — i.e., his racist remarks got him suspended. Unfortunately, there are some who are either ignorant about the case or have an ulterior agenda, claiming Nolen was suspended for trying to convert people to Islam.

Co-workers have indeed stated that Nolen had attempted to convert them to Islam — presumably meaning that he was proselytizing his interpretation of Islam at work. But the company’s human resources department and the district attorney have made it clear he was suspended for his racist remarks. Yet, some insist that his co-workers’ refusal to convert to Islam provoked Nolan to murder, thereby indicating that his Islamic motivation makes this a case of terrorism.

Let’s ignore for a moment the inherent xenophobia in the view that an expressed belief in Islam suffices to label a murderer as a terrorist. Instead, let’s focus on determining whether or not this is an act of terrorism  Congressman Frank Wolf is absolutely right that law enforcement should investigate this case to determine whether or not there are ties between this incident (or this man) and organized terror movements. Until our trusted authorities complete their investigation, it is futile to engage in a rigorous debate of opinion about whether or not we should label this a terrorist act.

According to the county prosecutor working on this case, Greg Mashburn — the man who is building up a case against Nolan with the intent of seeking the death penalty — Nolan’s attack against these two helpless women was “to get revenge on certain people he felt responsible” for his suspension. In spite of this view from those deeply entrenched in the case, we still have people in political and media circles alleging Nolan attacked these women because they would not convert to Islam. Their goal is to tie this act to Islamic extremism.

But it does not end there. A group of politicians in Oklahoma exploited this horrible murder to advance their four-year-old old agenda of instilling a fear of Shariah (Islamic law). Rep. Lewis Moore is among the more vocal of these politicians and since 2010 has been calling Shariah a direct threat to the United States. He now claims that Nolan’s barbaric revenge attack on his co-workers is evidence that Shariah has a direct role in terrorism and, thus, is a major threat to the United States, especially if it is allowed to replace the U.S. constitution.

People like Rep. Moore who attempt to protect the U.S. constitution from being overtaken by Shariah are ignorant both of Shariah and of the U.S. constitution. Does the Congressman not know that Article VI, Clause 2 offers a built-in mechanism protecting the U.S. constitution from ever being usurped by other laws? That’s basic high school civics. Perhaps he knows but has allowed his emotions to overcome his rationality.

Rep. Moore is right, however, that there is a great need to have a public discussion about Shariah — what it is, what it isn’t, and what role it plays in the life of a Muslim. The juvenile argument that Shariah is simply a set of harsh punishments such as stoning women, killing apostates and punishing victims of rape is factually incorrect. Shariah is a comprehensive code of life by which Muslims live and govern their one lives.

Those alleging that punishments like stoning women “are Shariah” ignore the fact that none of these punishments is prescribed in Islam nor find any mention in its Holy Scripture. As a religious concept, Shariah cannot be understood by observing different nation states; Shariah can only be understood from the documented sources of Islamic knowledge.  That is where we must begin. In fact, the liberties protected by Islamic law are most aligned with the liberties protected by the U.S. constitution.

If Rep. Moore is honest in his call for greater understanding of Islam and Shariah, you will find in us very willing partners.  Within the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, we are more than willing to speak about Shariah. Only open and honest dialogue — devoid of vitriol and superficial allegations — can bring about a complete understanding of this subject.

We must elevate our discourse, not degrade it.

About the author

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Harris Zafar

Harris Zafar serves as National Spokesperson for Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and is author of the book “Demystifying Islam: Tackling the Tough Questions.” Harris addresses issues facing Islam and the Muslim world in various media and also elucidates the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community’s nationwide efforts towards pluralism and understanding. As National Director of Faith Outreach for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association, he encourages Muslim youth, in particular, to speak out about the true, peaceful and tolerant teachings of Islam.

Harris is a frequent speaker and lecturer about Islam at conferences, universities, schools, churches and other public events. He has spoken in cities such as London, New York, Washington DC, Los Angeles, Berkeley, Seattle and Portland. Harris is also an Adjunct Professor at two colleges, teaching classes about Islam. He has appeared on several national and local news programs to provide commentary on current issues from an Islamic perspective and to explain what Muslim Americans are doing to combat intolerance.

His approach to religion is based on rational discourse and justice.

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Avatar photo By Harris Zafar