A response to Tunku Varadarajan’s Forbes column, ‘Going Muslim’.

By Jeremy Walton

On November 9th, Tunku Varadarajan, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, published a piece titled ‘Going Muslim’ in his regular column for Forbes magazine. In it, he forwarded a deeply troubling analysis of the tragedy at Fort Hood earlier this month, in which Major Nadal Malik Hasan killed thirteen of his fellow soldiers in an unconscionable act of mass murder. Varadarajan’s argument, in essence, was that Muslims, by virtue of their very religious affiliation, identity and practice, are necessarily prone to the type of violence exemplified by Major Hasan’s actions; just as postal workers are liable to snap psychologically and “go postal”, so too are Muslims, in Varadarjan’s unfortunate coinage, candidates for “going Muslim”. While, in Varadarajan’s estimation, this is especially true of those Muslims who fail the imperatives of American multiculturalism, a slippery slope unites even the most seemingly well-integrated, patriotic and pacifist Muslims with the radical bugbears and boogie-men of the al-Qaeda genus that constitute too many Americans’ conception of Islam on the whole.

As a professor of religious and Islamic studies at NYU and a close friend to many Muslims, both domestically and abroad, my first response to Varadarajan’s column was a degree of shock, chagrin, and anger. I had thought—naïvely, it seems—that public discourse in the United States had moved beyond this type of demagogic fear-mongering, in spite of its prevalence immediately following the events of September 11th, 2001. From a professional perspective, Varadarajan’s piece was upsetting for separate reasons—as the instructor of an introductory level course on Islam, I devote significant class time and conversation to disabusing students of the all-too-prevalent ideology that Islam, in Varadarajan’s words, “is founded on bellicose conquest, a contempt for infidels and an obligation for piety that is more extensive than in other schemes.” While it is not the role of scholars of religion to define the beliefs and practices that they study and teach, it is nevertheless eminently clear to even the most casual student of Islam that such exaggerated, one-sided caricatures of Muslims bear little relationship to the historical and contemporary diversity of the tradition. It is deeply frustrating that a fellow colleague can so glibly undermine the sincere efforts on the part of the many scholars of Islam, both at NYU and elsewhere, committed to the serious study of Islam, and in such a public venue.

Beyond anger, frustration and surprise, however, Varadarajan’s remarks also fascinate me as a scholar of religion and the politics that orient it. Above all, Varadarajan’s argument in ‘Going Muslim’ exemplifies two of the major approaches though which contemporary secular political culture comprehends Islam in particular, and religion in general. For shorthand, I summarize these cardinal conceptions as “the slippery slope” argument and “the black box” intuition. The first is especially true of public discourse about Islam in the United States, while the second applies to speculation and conversation about religion more broadly.

We have already encountered the slippery slope argument above—its method is to identify certain motivations and actions as definitively Muslim and then to attribute these motivations and actions to all Muslims, regardless of circumstances. With this in mind, it is not difficult to perceive that Varadarajan’s argument amounts to Islamophobic hate speech. He employs two of the classic tactics of racism and chauvinism: the ascription of irresistible, irrational motives to a demonized other and the easy movement from a single event or individual to categorical generalizations about an entire group or identity. Thus, according to Varadarajan, Major Hasan felt and acted, above all, as a Muslim (rather than as a military officer, an American, or a confused and disturbed man). Furthermore, inasmuch as Hasan acted as a Muslim—inasmuch as a religious identity determined his violence—Varadarajan asserts that we, the concerned American public, should worry that other Muslims might also act in this way, might “go Muslim”, and, therefore, should take political steps to prevent this.

Both of Varadarajan’s pernicious presuppositions deserve interrogation. In light of United States’ rich tradition of mass violence, why shouldn’t one ascribe Hasan’s actions to his masculine American-ness, rather than to his status as a Muslim (certainly, this is a position that many a European friend of mine advocates on every occasion of spectacular murder in the United States)? More importantly, why is the ascription of motivations itself so central to the effort to comprehend actions that are, ultimately, incomprehensible? Are we really to believe that we have accounted for Hasan’s actions merely by noting that he was a Muslim (or an American, or a troubled man)?

Here, we touch directly upon the logic of “the black box” of religion. When confronted by actions or motivations that defy explanation, the mouthpieces of secular political culture are content to attribute these actions or motivations to religion and then rush to criticize them as such. While so-called Islamist violence is a particularly frequent object of this type of black box rationality, one also encounters it in less spectacular contexts. Contemporary homophobia in the United States, for example, is typically linked to Evangelical Protestantism and Christianity more generally in public discourse, in spite of the fact that many devout Christians eschew bias based upon sexual orientation and many prominent homophobes have only marginal religious credentials. This is not to deny that some individuals do understand their own violent actions or prejudices as religiously-motivated. However, this fact does not imply that public commentators on religion should take this self-understanding at face value. This is especially the case in politically-charged times, when the attribution of individual causes too easily becomes a blanket description of entire communities and traditions.

The logic of the black box, then, is a general characteristic of public American understanding of religion today. However, the same cannot be said about the slippery slope argument, at least not to the same degree—its application to Muslims and Islam is far more prevalent and politically acceptable than it is in reference to other religions. To be clear: Islam and Muslims are the objects of political suspicion and insinuation in contemporary America in a manner that is not true of any other religious community (or other collective group). It is this broader political culture that makes Varadarajan’s comments possible and, tragically, popular.

To justify his virulence, Varadarajan claims to be a lone warrior in a battle against “political correctness”. We should not be so easily fooled. Political correctness, to the best of my knowledge, does not sanction indifference or malfeasance—the two proximate causes that prevented Major Hasan’s superiors from disciplining him before it was too late. On the other hand, it would be politically incorrect in a more profound sense to refrain from condemning Varadarajaran’s comments for what they are: dangerous, simplistic, and unworthy of the better sentiments of most Americans, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

Jeremy Walton is an assistant professor/faculty fellow in New York University’s Religious Studies Program.