Tunku Varadarajan's "Going Muslim": Normalizing hate speech

Tunku Varadarajan's "Going Muslim": Normalizing hate speech November 18, 2009
Going too far?

Let’s begin with this disconcerting premise: that we live in a world where anti-Islamic sentiments are becoming increasingly less recognizable as hate speech: that is, as speech that attempts to injure through essentializations produced as ‘facts’. The most recent example of this ‘phenomena,’ emerges in “Going Muslim,” the article written for Forbes Magazine by NYU Stern Professor of Business and Hoover Institute Fellow, Tunku Varadarajan. In search of answers for why and how this widening space of acceptability is being produced, let’s turn to the rhetorical form and content of his article for Forbes.

Varadarajan begins by locating his argument in the context of the horrific Fort Hood killings undertaken by Nidal Hassan on November 5th. In attempting to understand how Hassan becomes ‘representative’ of American Muslims – indeed, to the extent that it necessitates the production of his theory, “going Muslim” – we have to assume that his narrative, although provoked by recent events at Fort Hood, is affected by an admixture of discourse around 9/11, the War on Terror and widespread American Punditry on what is referred to more generally as ‘the Muslim Problem.’

Embedded in his analysis is a warning to the American people of the presence of an enemy within: the seemingly integrated American Muslim who can, at any moment, drop the American and emerge simply and dangerously as a Muslim. The fundamental equivocation in this argument: lose the American and the threat of the Muslim emerges.

While he attempts to add a characteristically American flavor to the notion of “going Muslim” by placing it in conversation with a ‘phenomena’ more familiar – “going postal” – he quickly delineates their differences. If going postal describes a person who experiences a psychological snap, then going Muslim refers to a person who, in discarding “the camouflage of integration,” goes Muslim.

Whereas, the actions of the ‘postal’ individual are devoid of calculation, the acts of the ‘Muslim’ are overdetermined by it. Instead of presenting the possibility that one who ‘goes postal’ might have desired enacting the events leading up to that final fatal snap or that Nidal Hassan may have been a psychologically unstable individual, Varadarajan leads us to believe is that the most important lesson to be learned from the Fort Hood incident is that Nidal Hassan is not a singular individual but rather a type of Muslim – one who reveals a tendency that ought to be understood as an emerging threat from Muslims in America. The coherence of Varadarajan’s narrative depends upon a suspension of logic.

If this doesn’t compel a critical reading of his theory, then the set of assumptions that emerge in his analysis, particularly concerning what he has decided it means to be Muslim, ought to. The conflation between Islam and violence, of integration into American culture as an unreliable solution to the problem of Islam, and the equivocation between being Muslim and ‘being calculating’ are the epistemic basis of his argument. Yet, the absurdity of these assumptions does not restrict the possibility of Varadarajan’s audience. Why? My own feeling is that this reveals something of the condition of the world we live in, a world in which these disturbing and homogenizing assumptions no longer strike us assumptions, and that this is particularly true when they are assumptions about Muslims.

In an attempt to get at the heart of the problem, Varadarajan then beseeches the U.S. government to relinquish political correctness and get down to the business of protecting Americans on the basis of this singular and totalizing fact: that “Going Muslim” is – to invoke the language of the 1994 Hollywood blockbuster hit – a “clear and present danger” in the United States. The fundamental flaw in this argument is that it requires we accept that the United States is concerned with political correctness, and more particularly, that is concerned about this correctness when it comes to Muslims.

It requires that we accept this even as the U.S. government continues indiscriminate and unconstitutional practices and policies like indefinite detention targeted at Muslims and carried out in the absence of due process and established evidentiary standards. It requires that we accept this even as the last decade of American history provides evidence for two detrimental wars that have undoubtedly changed the face and future of the Arab and Muslim world.

It requires also that we ignore the evidence produced on a ‘smaller’ scale – that we shut our eyes at border control offices filled by an overwhelming presence of Muslims. Similarly, we must forget that, in the not so distant past, we listened as candidate Obama reaffirmed that he was a “church going Christian” in order to evade the possibility of losing the election because of an ‘allegation’ tantamount to slander: that he might be Muslim.

In the face of this contrasting understanding of the presence and function of political correctness in the United States, particularly in matters concerning Islam and Muslims, I am left to believe that although the Professor and I reside in the same country, we experience very different worlds. Yet, in the aftermath of “Going Muslim”, I shudder to think that in expressing these sentiments, I too might be categorized as an un-integrated American Muslim.

Of, course Varadarajan’s argument would be incomplete without policy recommendations for the State. To this end, he proposes “practical changes.” But if one takes a closer look at the language in these recommendations, there is a clear shift: he steps away from the heavy Muslim-centered approach of the preceding sections, now taking on more opaque language and logic.

Why this inconsistency? If his policy changes emerge in response to the growing threat of Muslims in America, then why shy away from spelling it out in the policy, particularly after he ostracizes the American state for its alleged political correctness? In the third of his four-part list of policy recommendations, he reveals this more ambiguous approach par excellence. In reference to instances in which military personnel suspect remarks or behavior of fellow members that might indicate unfitness for duty, he suggests: “there should be a single high-level Pentagon or army department that follows all such cases in real time, whether the potential ground for alarm is sympathy with white supremacism, radical Islamism, endorsement of suicide bombing or simple mental unfitness.”

Is he now saying that white supremacists might be ‘going Muslim’ as well? After expounding upon the inherent tendencies, and thus dangers, of Islam, are we being told that the ‘Muslim’ part of the phrase ‘going Muslim’ is less of a noun and more of a verb? That he is using this phrase to describe the calculating nature of individuals ‘like’ Nidal Hassan, who might technically be found amongst white supremacists as much as amongst what he, in this instance, for the first time, refers to as ‘radical’ Islamists?

How are we to interpret this shift in language from “going Muslim” to ‘radical’ Islamists? As an attempt to conflate Muslims and radical Islamists, or an attempt to distinguish between them in the final instance? Is this Varadarajan’s way of telling us it’s nothing personal? Of presenting his rhetoric as nothing, at least ultimately, injurious? And, are we supposed to interpret this shift as ingenious or insidious?

If that’s not the point either, or at least not the entire point, then in combining the theory – “going Muslim” – with his more general policy recommendations, he seems to be asking the government to continue doing what is has been for a while: produce seemingly indiscriminate policies on paper only to then exercise them in discriminating ways. Varadarajan’s argument requires moving between all sorts of points – at times totalizing, at times discriminating – in order to avoid being reduced to hate mongering.

If that’s the case, then no worries, Prof. Varadarajan, the state has got your back, but thank you for presenting them with a case for using this age-old technique in yet another context. It’s a potent reminder that Aldous Huxley was right when he noted the following about our experience of history: “from age to age, nothing changes and yet everything is completely different”.

In closing, here’s another one from Huxley, dedicated especially to the Professor, “A fanatic is a man who consciously over compensates a secret doubt.” Calling upon and speaking for the nation in order to assuage your own fears is not a new idea – the previous administration provides evidence for this – but let us see if it works. In the meantime, I’m developing a few of my own fears, particularly concerning the possibility of being under the tutelage of a professor who’s not only frightened by my Muslim presence, but who expresses this fear through hate speech that is neither recognized nor condemned as such.

Aisha Ghani is a third year PhD Student in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University in California.

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