‘Going Deeper’ Not ‘Muslim’: Islamophobia and its Discontents

Photo by Ridwan Adhami

by Huma Dar

I deeply missed June Jordan today. Back in Fall 1995 (or was it 96?) the acclaimed poet read not her own poems, but those of her Arab students, at the first ever Berkeley “Poetry at Lunch” event. I adored her, and adored her even more when she courageously asserted that Arabs/Muslims were one of last groups it was explicitly kosher (read: not un-PC) to be racist or prejudiced towards in any given circle. Way before 9/11…

Tunku Varadarajan, a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School and a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, recently wrote a piece “Going Muslim: America after Fort Hood.”(1) He coins the phrase “Going Muslim” to “describe the turn of events where a seemingly integrated Muslim-American—a friendly donut vendor in New York, say, or an officer in the U.S. Army at Fort Hood—discards his apparent integration into American society and elects to vindicate his religion in an act of messianic violence against his fellow Americans.”(2)

In her astute deconstruction of Varadarajan’s proposal, Aysha Ghani writes that in “the aftermath of “Going Muslim” ” she “shudders” to think that because of her critique and her sentiments, she “too might be categorized as an un-integrated American Muslim.” It is significant to note that Varadarajan’s argument here is even more insidious. He is asserting that being “integrated” or otherwise is moot for Muslims as their religion is founded on “bellicose conquest, a contempt for infidels and an obligation for piety” that may make them “more extreme” such that their “integration” is never to be trusted. It is simply a “camouflage” that could be “discarded” at any “calculated moment” of “revelatory catharsis.” Thus, all or “perhaps many more than a few” Muslims are just waiting to come out of their “camouflage” and one never knows which ones. This is where Varadarajan’s fear-mongering actually slides into fascism: the construction of the Muslim as the perfect Homo Sacer – uncannily, the term in German concentration camps for those who lost the will to live was “Mussulman”(3) – because s/he is intrinsically unpredictable, untrustworthy, fundamentally unlike the “civilized us,” and therefore ultimately intractable and dispensable. Through a deconstruction of Varadarajan’s article, I propose to show here the confluence of Islamophobia in America and with that operative in India, in the new configuration of global political and economic powers, offering a preliminary understanding of some emerging positionalities and relationalities. This will also be an initial foray into theorizing the manifestations of Islamophobia and its commonalities as well as divergences from racism as such.

Interestingly, the purportedly “bellicose” nature of Islam accompanied by “contempt for the infidel,” which Varadarajan so confidently asserts in his article “Going Muslim,” is part of a simplistic construction that strongly resonates, not just with the tired Orientalist rhetoric, but also with the fascist and Nazi-inspired discourse of Hindu Nationalism – distinct from, and not the same as the set of practices and beliefs that comprise Hinduism as such.(4) Varadarajan’s elite education and his position as a professor at an acclaimed university should have made it incumbent on him to do some preliminary reading on recent comparative world history before publicly asserting the inane generalizations about the “bellicosity” of Islam or its “contempt for the infidel” – unfounded assertions(5) deleterious to the histories, beliefs, and practices of an entire group of people, 1.57 billion or “23% of an estimated 2009 world population of 6.8 billion” at last count.(6) From a preliminary reading of his other articles,(7) the financially and socially conservative Varadarajan does not disclose an explicit affiliation with the Hindu nationalist movement in India, nonetheless when asked why India does not “do a Gaza” on Pakistan, Varadarajan responds, in January 2009, with “the heavy heart that comes always with a painful grip on reality…: India does not because it cannot.”(8) He bemoans Pakistan’s greater strategic significance to America and the fact that Pakistan has “arguably” not “furnish[ed] India with sufficient grounds to hold the Pakistani state culpable.” More significantly, Varadarajan envies Israel for its “overwhelming military superiority,” “impressive support from the American people,” and its “privilege of [being] an international pariah” which enables Israel to say, “Hang diplomacy.” Varadarajan concludes, “India, by contrast, has no such luxury. It is a prisoner of its own global aspirations—and pretensions.” In other words although he would have preferred India to “do a Gaza” on Pakistan, given a stronger case, unfortunately there are “realistic” and strategic constraints.(9) Varadarajan explicitly seeks a case for India only as strong as that of Israel, and given the Goldstone Report and its detailed discussion of the flimsiness of that case, the future may not bode well for the nuclear South Asia.(10) This pathological rejection of ethical constraints might not speak its name, but falls squarely within the ambit of a more cosmopolitan and “softer” Hindutva at the very least. The naked desire for military aggression and contempt for the Pakistanis and Palestinians in this discourse is alarming, even while it decries the bellicosity of the Other – unwittingly revealing a desire to emulate the image of the Other that one has constructed in the imaginary. Christope Jaffrelot explores this “inferiority complex of the majority” Hindu nationalists vis-à-vis Indian Muslims with great insight in his book, The Hindu Nationalist Movement in India (1998: 338-357). Jaffrelot’s argument is easily extendable to India vis-à-vis Pakistan – a linkage ever-present in the South Asian imaginary.

In his diagnosis of the “extreme” nature of Muslims and the aspersed unreliability of their integration, Varadarajan’s third complaint against Islam – after bellicosity and contempt for the infidel – is the perceived greater “obligation to piety.” This last cloaks another accusation, if we can term it as such: Muslims are more pious, faithful, or observant than the rest. This particular plaint, I claim, is constitutive of Islamophobia, one of those Lacanian “quilting points” or point de capiton, that hold an otherwise shifting discourse in place.(11) Those images of the annual pilgrimage at Mecca, the Haj, with Muslims whirling around the Ka’aba inspire awe in some, paranoia in some. The pictures of the Jaam’a Masjid in Delhi with people neatly lined up and overflowing into the streets, standing, bowing, and prostrating together during Friday or Eid prayers are similarly moving to some and conjure the nightmare of “demography” for some. This is the nightmare that entails the stereotypes of polygamy, booming population(s), intractability.  It is an imperviousness to domestication by any state, a willing relinquishing of one’s volition to the forces of religious piety. In a book chapter with the same title, I had once asked: “ “Can a Muslim be an Indian and not a terrorist or a traitor?” and if kindly allowed to be one, does she or he have to be necessarily “irreligious” even as posited by the liberals?”(12) Unfortunately one has to ask the same question to America today.

Ironically, many Americans, considering Varadarajan’s photograph accompanying the article under discussion, would simply assume him to be a “native informant” – complete with a beard – unable to place him as a Hindu, leave alone as a Tamil Brahmin. This could potentially also subject him to the same Islamophobia that he is encouraging… Well, unless he starts wearing a pin proclaiming, “I am NOT a Muslim!” – this article in Forbes is his LOUD button. Immersed in the elite labels of “Mayo College” (the Maharajahs’ school in Ajmer), “Oxford,” “NYU” and “Hoover Fellow,” Varadarajan’s brownness gives him a certain legitimacy, even while he simultaneously insistently positions himself firmly inside the “we” of civilized white(ned) America, tolerant of different races, religions, and sexualities – this toleration also being “our great weakness.”(13) This “us” is posited against the “them” of those crazy “Mozlems” in “our midst.” Varadarajan’s ignorance of the racism and queerphobia prevalent in the US (and arguably foundational to it) would be pathetic only, and not dangerous as such, if it were not employed in a strawman argument to advocate religio-racial discrimination.(14) A dear friend incredulously asked me how Varadarajan got published and why we still needed to argue the obvious (see endnote 2). Well, it is precisely this felicitous conjuncture of the brownness outside, Islamophobic racism inside, that makes Varadarajan’s dean love and defend him against the rest of us “stupid” folk who simply do not understand.(15) Ghani cites Aldous Huxley: “A fanatic is a man who consciously over-compensates a secret doubt,” and dedicates it to Professor Varadarajan. This fanatic “over compensat[ing]” for his “secret doubt” indeed makes Varadarajan perfect for the ventriloquism that many out there cannot themselves mouth – an ideal symbiotic relationship.(16)

This obsessive anxiety of belonging and integrating deserves to be excavated further. A very crucial question to contemplate here is the idea of “integration.” Integrating to what and whose norm? Of whose color, class, race, ethnicity, language, religion, politics? Who decides? Muslims and Islam have been an integral part of the Americas at least since the slave ships crossed the Atlantic, and most likely ever since 1492, yet that history is hardly mainstream. Bypassing the potential, though not necessary, differences of color, languages, ethnicities, sartorial style, diet, and so on, for right now, since there are other groups with equally varied markers different from the mainstream, the question I want to ask is this: what is it about Muslims qua Muslims at this moment of time that supposedly poses such a dilemma of integration? Do their purportedly disciplined, uniform or group religious practices activate the spectre of the “united, teeming mass: the Ummah” via the “quilting point” described earlier? Are Muslims born and raised in the US, those who immigrated, or those Americans who converted/reverted to Islam, not “integrated” because they protest against the current multiple wars and massacres? Wars that are widely, though belatedly, deemed to be unethical and unjust. Massacres that have taken place and continue – in the name of all Americans and financed by our tax dollars – of a million plus children, women, and men in Muslim-majority countries. Is there some guilt associated precisely with this history of oppression that manifests itself as the anxiety vis-à-vis Muslims? Would a similarly critical and ethical stance from a non-Muslim also be considered the stigmata of the “un-integrated”? Is the cost of “integration” by the non-normative American to be paid in the currency of blind jingoism and divorce from ethics?(17)

When the equally horrifying murders and suicides, domestic violence outbursts and rapes by non-Muslim vets from Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere are attributed to Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD),(18) why is it that in the case of that Sad Sack figure, Major Nidal Hasan, a reprehensible and tragically violent breakdown, or “snapping,” is considered a “calculated discarding of the camouflage of integration”? To seek a psychological, political, holistic explanation of this inexcusable violation is not the same as seeking an excuse – And yet, I feel ridiculously forced to put out this disclaimer. Sherlock Holmes, aka Prof Varadarajan, offers us great insight: Hasan “gave away his possessions [“going socialist”?] on the morning of his day of murder. He even gave away – to a neighbor [“going neighborly”?] – a packet of frozen broccoli [“going green”?] that he did not wish to see go to waste.” Really?! Does Varadarajan not realize that telltale signs also preceded the former tragedies? The evidence from Hasan’s neighbors, friends, and family was that he was gentle, non-confrontational (even in the face of provocation), modest, environmentally conscious (as in, not wanting to waste refrigerated goods), alone, a frequenter of strip clubs, unhappy, perhaps inept, and yes, troubled.(19) This must surely be camouflage for Hasan’s original sin – the sin of being a Muslim at this point in time. Mea Culpa.

Huma Dar recently finished a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of British Columbia.  Her doctoral research in the Department of South & South East Asian Studies at UC Berkeley focuses on Muslims and their cinematic, literary, and political representations.


(1) http://www.forbes.com/2009/11/08/fort-hood-nidal-malik-hasan-muslims-opinions-columnists-tunku-varadarajan.html (last accessed on 20 Nov, 2009).

(2) My son, Zavain, felt deeply disturbed and nauseated upon reading Varadarajan’s piece in Forbes, as did I. In fact the current analysis was initially written on November 13th as a response to the angst of my children, Natasha and Zavain, and our common friend Jerry Zee (okay, my daughter’s best friend). In the following days I recommended that they check out the following articles as antiemetic or “return-of-sanity” remedies:

Ahmed, Mara. “More War Abroad, More Hate at Home.” FaceBook.com. November 19, 2009. http://www.facebook.com/home.php?ref=logo#/maraahmed?v=app_2347471856&ref=ts (Accessed on November 19, 2009)

Ghani, Aysha. “Normalizing Hate Speech: A Response to Prof. Varadarajan’s “Going Muslim.”” AltMuslim.com. November 18, 2009. http://www.altmuslim.com/a/a/print/3421/)!1 (Accessed on November 18, 2009)

Hartmann, Thom. “Major Hasan and The Legacy of George W Bush.” CommonDreams.Org. November 11, 2009. http://www.commondreams.org/view/2009/11/11 (Accessed on November 17, 2009)

Prashad, Vijay. “What Swirls Around Fort Hood: Can the Major Speak?” CounterPunch.Org. November 13-15, 2009. http://www.counterpunch.org/prashad11132009.html (Accessed on November 17, 2009)

Salaita, Steven. “Shooting America: Spot the Muslim.” Zed-Books.Blogspot.com. November 19, 2009. http://zed-books.blogspot.com/2009/11/shooting-america-spot-muslim.html (Accessed on November 19, 2009)

Varisco, Daniel. “Words Matter: The Linguistic Damage of “Going Muslim.”” ReligionDispatches.com. November 17, 2009. http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/politics/2039/words_matter%3A_the_linguistic_damage_of_%E2%80%9Cgoing_muslim%E2%80%9D_/ (Accessed on November 17, 2009)

(3) See for example:

Anidjar, Gil. The Jew, the Arab: a History of the Enemy. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford UP, 2003.

_____. “‘Our Time in One Image’: Around 1948.” Third Text, Vol. 20, Issue 3/4, May/July, 2006, 305–316.

Zizek, Slavoj. In Defence of Lost Causes. New York: Verso, 2008, 165.

(4) See for example:

Appadurai, Arjun. Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger. Durham and London: Duke UP, 2006.

Bacchetta, Paola. “Sacred Space in Conflict in India: The Babri Masjid Affair.” Growth and Change, Vol. 31, No. 2, (Spring 2000), 255-284.

Devji, Faisal F. “Hindu/Muslim/Indians.” Public Culture 5 (Fall 1992): 1-18.

Hansen, Thomas. The Saffron Wave. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Jaffrelot, Christophe. The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian politics. New York: Columbia UP, 1998.

Menon, R., K. Bhasin, N.S. Khan. Against All Odds: Essays on Women, Religion and Development from India and Pakistan. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1994.

Mishra, Pankaj. “The Other Face of Fanaticism.” New York Times Magazine. Feb 2, 2003. http://www.genocidewatch.org/IndiafanaticismFebruary2.htm (accessed on June 6, 2007)

Nandy, A., S. Trivedy, S. Mayaram, and A. Yagnik. Creating a Nationality: The Ram Janamabhumi Movement and the Fear of the Self. Delhi: Oxford UP, 1995.

van der Veer, Peter. Religious Nationalisms: Hindus and Muslims in India. Berkeley: UC Press, 1994.

(5) Some suggestions for Varadarajan’s preliminary reading list: Richard Eaton, Romila Thapar, Barbara Metcalf, Edward Said, Leslie Peirce, Gil Anidjar, Ibn-e Khaldun, Paola Bacchetta, Munis Faruqui, Juan Cole, etc.

(6) “Mapping the Global Muslim Population.” The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. http://www.pewforum.org/docs/?DocID=450

(7) Available at South Asian Journalists Association: http://www.sajaforum.org/2008/10/profile-catchin.html

(8) “Five Reasons Why India Can’t ‘Do A Gaza’ On Pakistan: Israel has far fewer restrictions” in Forbes.com, January 5, 2009. http://www.forbes.com/2009/01/04/israel-hamas-india-oped-cx_tv_0105varadarajan.html

(9) Even before the release of the Goldstone Report, Israel’s latest aggression in Gaza (2008-9) was widely condemned or at least ignored in some quarters. Varadarajan goes a step ahead here – he justifies Israel’s manufactured case and valorizes the crimes against humanity committed in an “open air prison” on an extremely vulnerable population (http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1077624.html).

(10) The Goldstone Report is available on the UN Human Rights Council’s website at: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/specialsession/9/FactFindingMission.htm

(11) Zizek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso, 1989, 101-103.

(12) Pemberton, K. and M. Nijhawan Eds. Shared Idioms, Sacred Symbols, and the Articulation of Identities in South Asia. New York: Routledge, 2008, 96-114.

(13) Wendy Brown’s Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire (Princeton UP, 2006) would provide a very productive intervention at this point.

(14) Reminiscent of Irshad Manji’s raving about Tony Blair’s “daring” act when he had “given notice not just to the theocrats of Islam, but also to the theocracy of tolerance” after the London bombing of 2005 (“Why Tolerate Hate?” New York Times. August 9, 2005. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/09/opinion/09manji.html). Manji coaxes America for a similar draconian response and warns that the “ultimate paradox may be that in order to defend our diversity, we’ll need to be less tolerant” – an author cited approvingly by Varadarajan in his response to the comments on his Forbes article, bringing to mind Ben Franklin’s “Anyone who trades liberty for security deserves neither liberty nor security.”

(15) See http://wwww.dailykos.com/storyonly/2009/11/12/803658/-Hey-NYU,-A-Shooting-Spree-Isnt-Going-Muslim for Dean Cooley’s original response to the initial emails protesting Varadarajan’s hate speech.

(16) Check any recent data re: mistrust of Muslims and Islam in mainstream America, for example the Pew survey available at http://pewforum.org/surveys/religionviews07/.

(17) Currently “Mozlem” is the flavor of the decade, but can always be substituted by any other non-domesticated variety.

(18) http://www.alternet.org/world/142942/does_military_service_turn_young_men_into_sexual_predators?page=entire

(19) It was a probably a sign of Hasan being deeply troubled and conflicted psychologically and ethically that he contacted the possibly fanatic Imam Awlaki, accelerating his final breakdown.

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