The Price of ‘Existing’ as a Muslim Today

In the classic French novel, Adolphe, Benjamin Constant writes: 

There are things that for a long time remain unsaid, but once they are spoken, one never ceases to repeat them.

How true this is of so many of the things we keep inside for a time. Think, for example, of how an argument with a loved one often reveals the things that we have felt, but carefully hidden from them. Once spoken, those words repeat themselves with a frequency that suggests that we are seeking vengeance for the time they spent in silence.

The same is true of our secret prejudices, which often remain unsaid until the moment ‘feels right’ or circumstances seemingly produce the ‘necessity’ for their articulation.

It appears that circumstances today have produced a space in which articulating anti-Islamic sentiment both ‘feels right’ and ‘necessary’. It is an environment marked by series of events invoked as evidence in the ever-growing case against Islam.

The condemning teleology of ‘evidence’ (and not simply events) reads something like this: 9/11, the War on Terror, Iran’s nuclear threat, ongoing strife between Israel, Lebanon and Palestine, the Mumbai Massacre, Nidal Hasan, etc. In this teleology, events are stripped of political significance and particularity, and reduced by a singular common denominator: Islam. This common denominator is essential because it is precisely what enables otherwise disparate events to build upon each another, producing as a result, the possibility of a coherent – even if absurd – narrative about Islamic discontents.

We can identify Islam, and not ‘radical’ Islam, as the common denominator because it is becoming increasingly clear that the term ‘radical’ is nothing more than a pretense — an effort on the parts of some to produce the appearance of nuance. We know this because the solution to ‘radical Islam’ is never simply Islam, but ‘moderate’ Islam. In this phrase, ‘moderate’ is both an adjective and a verb in so far as it does precisely what it means by ‘moderating’ the effects of an otherwise loaded proper noun.

While evidence for this widening space of acceptability for Islamophobia exists everywhere, it is particularly apparent in the colloquialization of ideas through language. Most recently, Tunku Varadarajan’s article for Forbes, “Going Muslim,” reveals that Islamophobia has entered into a free market place of ideas; a market in which the ‘value’ of a concept is determined by what it produces in terms of social and monetary capital. It is, after all, a combination of two considerations – readership and thus sales – that enables Varadarajan’s opinion to find a platform, tellingly, in Forbes.

The damaging implications of Varadarajan’s work exist both in what it endorses by way of ignorance about Islam and Muslims and in what it enables in terms of a space in which that ignorance can be widely articulated.  What we will endure in its aftermath is the repetition of what had previously been an unutterable — although not unthinkable — concept:  that within every Muslim exists the hidden potential of the terrorist.

The problem faced in attempting to counter such rhetoric is that the litany of evidence in the opposite direction, that is, evidence that suggests just how wrong conclusions based on Islamophobic essentializations have been, are and can be, simply does not have the same magical evidentiary power. No matter how many people are released after being wrongfully detained, or how many CIA black sites (or now U.S. Joint Special Operations Command secret detention sites) we uncover, or how ruthless the basis, techniques and consequences of the US-led War on Terror prove to be, the evidence is never quite enough to characterize the nations or people enacting such violence as ‘extremists,’ radical in a way that might give rise to an equally potent common denominator. 

Given this, evidence of Islamophobia is dismissed as just another instance, rather than recognized as yet another instance. Recently, we learned of the release and deportation of eight Pakistani students who were wrongfully detained in raids that took place across Liverpool, Manchester and Lancashire in March and April of this year. The ‘evidence’ that resulted in their detention was two-fold: a photograph in which four visibly Muslim men stand amongst a group of friends, flexing their muscles and laughing at the camera, and an email sent to a man that the British Government identified as an ‘Al Qaeda source’ situated overseas.  The nature and content of the ‘incriminating’ email is as follows:

My mates are well and my affair with Nadia is soon turning to family life. I met with Nadia family and we both parties have agreed to conduct the Nikkah [Islamic marriage contract] after 15th and before 20th of the month.

How were these seemingly harmless acts transformed into evidence? MI5 concluded that ‘Nadia’ and ‘Nikkah’ were code for a planned terrorist attack between the dates listed and that the photograph of the four men flexing suggested ‘commando’ training. The assumptions embedded in these conclusions belies the extent to which criminality is now being read on the bodies of those identified as Muslims. 

That Islamophobia is being enacted as well as articulated is only part of the problem.  The other issue is that Muslims have accepted this particular form of discrimination as a condition of the contemporary world.  The moment an event implicating a Muslim takes place, entire community centers and mosques issue public statements distancing themselves from their internal ‘Others’.

Dishearteningly implicit in this response is the knowledge that an allegation against a single Muslim is contagious, endemic to the extent that public denunciation becomes a means of containing, or perhaps more aptly, quarantining oneself from its effects. The danger of such a response is that although it will suffice, perhaps, as a temporary form of damage control, it does little to challenge the legitimacy of Islamophobia.

As an example of a response  that fails to challenge much of anything, consider the following. Last week The New York Times published a rather confusing editorial by Tariq Ahmed, a medical doctor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. In “The Price of Being Born Muslim,” Ahmed reveals something of the narrative of suffering that he has endured at the hands of essentializations about Muslims. Initially, readers may ‘hope’ that Ahmed will problematize the nature of these essentializations, but this is not what follows.  Instead, he reinforces Islamophobic rhetoric by telling us that a majority of Muslims are a lot like him, nominally Muslim. He then suggests that if the United States wants to defeat the threat of radical Islam, “the answer lies among the people who are the least Muslim.”

The problem is not that Ahmed reveals something that ought to be obvious, namely that Muslims experience various levels of attachment to their faith and in some cases, little or no attachment at all. Rather, the issue is that he presents his own detachment as the ideal amongst those relationships, an ideal that contains the solution – no less –to the problem of Islam.

Given the publication of these sentiments in the nation’s leading newspaper, it appears that being ‘moderate’ will no longer do. If the disintegration from moderate to ‘least muslim’ implies something about the future of Muslims in the United States and abroad, we may soon live in countries where it is necessary not only to identify as ‘least Muslim’, but to deny being Muslim all together.

How does one counteract this impending future? For answers, we turn to Edward Said. In an effort to explain why the Palestinian plight had been unsuccessful in garnering international attention and support, Said noted that it was the absence of a  memory making narrative about the historical dispossession of Palestinians that occluded its recognition. Without a narrative as powerful as Israel’s – of centuries old disenfranchisement –Said felt that political efforts for Palestine would continue to lack the effect of historical imagination. The memory making that he suggested as a strategy for Palestinian recognition is precisely what is necessary in the face of Islamophobia.

The case against Islamophobia is strong, and the evidence everywhere, but it requires first that we learn how to hear it and to bear witness to it. Effective challenges will require not only hearing and witnessing, but also speaking, writing and demonstrating against it, producing a narrative of events that delegitimize it with the same persistent tenacity with which we encounter it. In short, it requires that we too say the things that we have felt, but hidden beneath our silences. In the absence of a response, we face the possibility of a future in which the mere presence of ‘the Muslim’ will be deemed problematic.

If such a day arrives, what will the solution to this existential — and not simply identitarian — problem be? If the answers lie in the experiences of our historical ‘Others,’ then what we learn from the past is this: that much like the unsaid once it is spoken, history never ceases in repeating itself.

5 thoughts on “The Price of ‘Existing’ as a Muslim Today”

  1. aishaghani
    You have suggested the necessity for a narrative and it seems that you have such a narrative in mind. Could you make it more explicit.

  2. Wonderful article–brings together critiques about many of the articles about “Muslims” that have been published recently–Varadarajan and Ahmed’s specially. These articles often seek to represent Muslims but fail to do so because not all Muslims feel the same way about their faith–rather they are rather an attempt at disparaging Muslims in a “political correct” manner, a point which aishagani clearly makes.

  3. Good article — what many of those “least” Muslims don’t realize is what they are missing out on.

    I wonder why Tariq Ahmad just doesn’t renounce Islam — if he sees nothing worth following, why bother?

  4. Samirazi, don’t be coy – you know why he doesn’t renounce Islam: apostasy usually precedes death.

    Depending on where you live, the only sensible, safe choice for Muslims who see Islam for the evil that it is, is to be least Muslim.

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