Horrific shooting at Fort Hood

What does this mean for America's Muslim soldiers?

Having spent two years working in the relentless, 24-hour world of Sky News, dealing with "breaking news" stories, I am almost immune to reports out of the United States of gunmen running amok and killing members of the public/co-workers/students/delete-as-applicable. However, the latest incident at Fort Hood -- the largest US military base in the world -- in which 13 people were killed and more than 30 injured, is different for two reasons.

First, the nature of the attack is so shockingly treacherous, a US army major and mental health professional turning his weapon on his own colleagues and fellow soldiers in such a cold-blooded manner, in the middle of a military base. As President Obama said, "It is difficult enough when we lose these brave men and women abroad, but it is horrifying that they should come under fire at an army base on US soil." And that, too, by a fellow serving officer. The attack came less than 48 hours after it emerged that five British soldiers in Afghanistan had been killed -- in a surprise attack -- by a "rogue" Afghan policeman who opened fire on them as they sat sipping tea at a checkpoint in Helmand Province. The stench of betrayal, in both incidents, is overwhelming.

The second aspect of the attack that makes it stand out is that the attacker, who has survived and is in hospital, is Muslim: Major Nidal Malik Hasan, a trained psychiatrist. Was this, therefore, a "terrorist attack"? Is Hasan a "jihadist" infiltrator? These are perhaps understandable questions that are now being raised.

However, some commentators on the US right and far right have gone further in providing definitive, conclusive and politically convenient motives for the attack, based on little more than speculation and prejudice. Take Robert Spencer. The bestselling conservative author, self-proclaimed "scholar of Islamic history" and notorious Muslim-baiter has a piece on the attack, entitled "Jihad at Fort Hood" (!), on the Front Page magazine website. In it, he opines, under a huge mugshot of Hasan:

Major Hasan's motive was perfectly clear -- but it was one that the forces of political correctness and the Islamic advocacy groups in the United States have been working for years to obscure. So it is that now that another major jihad terror attack has taken place on American soil . . .

"Clear"? Spencer must be a mind-reader, because Hasan has not said why he carried out the attack, nor have the authorities provided a motive -- yet. Perhaps he was a terrorist, and mounted the attack out of "Islamist" or "jihadist" hatred for US foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps he was mentally unbalanced and simply "snapped". The BBC is reporting "that he had been increasingly unhappy in the military", and his cousin has told US media that the idea of overseas deployment had been Major Hasan's "worst nightmare" and that he had been battling racial harassment because of his "Middle Eastern ethnicity". Then there are the internet postings which discuss suicide bombings and other threats that officials say he may or may not have made.

The point is that, at this stage, we simply don't know. So why speculate, let alone conclude? Back to the BBC report:

Asked whether the shootings were a terrorist act, Lt Gen Cone [the base commander] said: "I couldn't rule that out but I'm telling you that right now, the evidence does not suggest that."

People like Robert Spencer are nasty, divisive, Islamophobic bigots who seize whatever opportunity, whatever tragedy, they can to stir up hatred against Muslims and Islam in the west.

I wonder what it must be like to be a patriotic American Muslim serving in the United States armed forces right now. There are up to 10,000 American Muslims serving their country who will now, I assume, be treated with suspicion and considered, by Spencer and others of his ilk, as potential fifth-columnists or al-Qaeda infiltrators.

As one Fort Hood soldier told the BBC:

"They've taken it hard, due to the fact that it kind of puts a negative light on them and makes people distrust them because everybody is going to look at them [and think]: 'Well, you're probably going to pull something like this'," the soldier said. "And it's a sad fact that that will happen."

Update: The BBC website now has added a piece on how the attack might affect the thousands of Muslims serving in the US military.

 

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.