It did not take long for overtly racist explanations to be offered. Before facts come fantasy, and before truth comes tabloid opinions masquerading as insight. And it arrived not in some radical, fringe magazine but in the pages of the international magazine Forbes by one of their regular contributors. (I of course ignore the determined Islamophobia of outlets like Fox News.)
Tunku Varadarajan wrote a piece for Forbes magazine on 11th November 2009, title Going Muslim where he argued that:
“Going postal” is a piquant American phrase that describes the phenomenon of violent rage in which a worker–archetypically a postal worker–“snaps” and guns down his colleagues.
As the enormity of the actions of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan sinks in, we must ask whether we are confronting a new phenomenon of violent rage, one we might dub–disconcertingly–“Going Muslim.” This phrase would 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. This would appear to be what happened in the case of Maj. Hasan.
Mr. Varadarajan is no clown – he is in fact a a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School and a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, and an executive editor for opinions at Forbes. Clearly a man of some learning and yet able to offer us this fine insight:
This is part of a larger–and too-hot-to-touch–American problem, which is the privileging of religion, and its frequent exemption from rules of normal discourse. Muslims may be more extreme because their religion is founded on bellicose conquest, a contempt for infidels and an obligation for piety that is more extensive than in other schemes.
Moving on to ask us a crucial question of whether:
But can the American swagger persist if many Americans come genuinely to view Muslims as Fifth Columnists? The integration compact depends on a broad trust that the immigrant’s desire to be American can happily co-exist with his other forms of racial/cultural/religious identity. Once that trust doesn’t exist, America faces a problem in need of urgent resolution.
One doesn’t quite know where to begin to respond to what is without a doubt an overtly racist diatribe that takes the actions of an individual and paints it as that of a collectivity. That is after all the ideal description of racism: (noun) the belief that all members of a group posses characteristics or abilities (or pathologies) specific to that group. But then again, the learned professor is not alone in this and arrives as the inheritor of centuries of orientalist thought that can never quite reconcile itself to the individuality of the people it labels as Muslims. And he is not alone in America, or elsewhere.
But the learned professor raises specific points which I would like to examine perhaps a little more closely.
He says in this very article that ‘they’ [the Muslims] are more extreme because ‘their’ religion is …founded on bellicose conquest, a contempt for infidels and an obligation for piety that is more extensive than in other schemes.
Only sheer hubris combined with willful amnesia can allow this gentleman to offer us this explanation. Hubris as he sits as a citizen of a nation that is at this very moment in violent and repressive conquest of at least two once sovereign nations, and whose army has repeatedly insisted on a sheer contempt for the infidels it has found there and encouraged its soldiers to piety the likes of which can only make the foundations of our Republic weaker. The hundreds of thousands that have died since 2001 under the guns and arrogance of an overtly Christian/Evangelical administration that also led us to become instigators of war crimes, violators of international law and perpetrators of mass murder perhaps may not agree that it is Islam that is intrinsically programmed to encourage mass violence, conquest and/or piety.
I don’t think I have to elaborate on our occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, so I will move to the next point – Islam’s unique contempt for infidels and its piety. Really? Is it that unique? Lets see.
In a fabulous piece written by the relentless Jeff Sharlet for Harpers Magazine title “Jesus Killed Mohammed: The Crusade For A Christian Military”, he points out that:
When Barack Obama moved into the Oval Office in January, he inherited a military not just drained by a two-front war overseas but fighting a third battle on the home front, a subtle civil war over its own soul. On one side are the majority of military personnel, professionals who regardless of their faith or lack thereof simply want to get their jobs done; on the other is a small but powerful movement of Christian soldiers concentrated in the officer corps.
What men such as these have fomented is a quiet coup within the armed forces: not of generals encroaching on civilian rule but of religious authority displacing the military’s once staunchly secular code. Not a conspiracy but a cultural transformation, achieved gradually through promotions and prayer meetings, with personal faith replacing protocol according to the best intentions of commanders who conflate God with country. They see themselves not as subversives but as spiritual warriors—“ambassadors for Christ in uniform,” according to Officers’ Christian Fellowship; “government paid missionaries,” according to Campus Crusade’s Military Ministry.
This is perhaps one of the scariest pieces of journalism I have read, reminding us of the infiltration of Christian fundamentalist ideology infesting the armed forces and its consequences for our operations abroad. Perhaps the learned professor would do well to read his words, including:
Within the fundamentalist front in the officer corps, the best organized group is Officers’ Christian Fellowship, with 15,000 members active at 80 percent of military bases and an annual growth rate, in recent years, of 3 percent. Founded during World War II, OCF was for most of its history concerned mainly with the spiritual lives of those who sought it out, but since 9/11 it has moved in a more militant direction. According to the group’s current executive director, retired Air Force Lieutenant General Bruce L. Fister, the “global war on terror”—to which Obama has committed 17,000 new troops in Afghanistan—is “a spiritual battle of the highest magnitude.” As jihad has come to connote violence, so spiritual war has moved closer to actual conflict, “continually confronting an implacable, powerful foe who hates us and eagerly seeks to destroy us,” declares “The Source of Combat Readiness,” an OCF Scripture study prepared on the eve of the Iraq War.
As we look across to our Israeli allies, we ironically (or perhaps not) find in fact the same problem there! In a scathing piece written by Christopher Hitchens called An Army of Extremists for Slate Magazine, he pointed out that:
Recent reports of atrocities committed by Israeli soldiers in the course of the intervention in Gaza have described the incitement of conscripts and reservists by military rabbis who characterized the battle as a holy war for the expulsion of non-Jews from Jewish land. The secular Israeli academic Dany Zamir, who first brought the testimony of shocked Israeli soldiers to light, has been quoted as if the influence of such extremist clerical teachings was something new. This is not the case.
And should one have thought that this was simply a rare exception, he goes on to remind us that:
Possibly you remember Dr. Baruch Goldstein, the man who in February 1994 unslung his weapon and killed more than two dozen worshippers at the mosque in Hebron. He had been a physician in the Israeli army and had first attracted attention by saying that he would refuse to treat non-Jews on the Sabbath. …[I]n the March 22 New York Times about the preachments of the Israeli army’s latest chief rabbi, a West Bank settler named Avichai Rontzski who also holds the rank of brigadier general. He has “said that the main reason for a Jewish doctor to treat a non-Jew on the Sabbath … is to avoid exposing Diaspora Jews to hatred.” Those of us who follow these things recognize that statement as one of the leading indicators of a truly determined racist and fundamentalist. Yet it comes not this time in the garb of a homicidal lone-wolf nut bag but in the full uniform and accoutrement of a general and a high priest.
And we can even look outside of the ‘immediate’ military structure, and find piety and a religious zeal for conquest raising its ugly head. In an article written by Jeremy Scahill titled Blackwater Founder Implicated in Murder we learn that:
A former Blackwater employee and an ex-US Marine who has worked as a security operative for the company have made a series of explosive allegations in sworn statements filed on August 3 in federal court in Virginia.The two men claim that the company’s owner, Erik Prince, may have murdered or facilitated the murder of individuals who were cooperating with federal authorities investigating the company. The former employee also alleges that Prince “views himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe,” and that Prince’s companies “encouraged and rewarded the destruction of Iraqi life.”
In fact, the allegations read as follows:
To that end, Mr. Prince intentionally deployed to Iraq certain men who shared his vision of Christian supremacy, knowing and wanting these men to take every available opportunity to murder Iraqis. Many of these men used call signs based on the Knights of the Templar, the warriors who fought the Crusades.
Mr. Prince operated his companies in a manner that encouraged and rewarded the destruction of Iraqi life. For example, Mr. Prince’s executives would openly speak about going over to Iraq to “lay Hajiis out on cardboard.” Going to Iraq to shoot and kill Iraqis was viewed as a sport or game. Mr. Prince’s employees openly and consistently used racist and derogatory terms for Iraqis and other Arabs, such as “ragheads” or “hajiis.”
Again, perhaps the learned professor would like to peruse this material if for no other reason than to understand that zealotry, piety, and a desire for conquest is never the exclusive purvey of any one spiritual delusion, but reflects the world views of practically all of them.
But in particular, at this moment in time and history, at this juncture of modernity, if there is a rapid, rapacious, powerful and in fact in execution spiritual movement of conquest and a drive for excessive piety, it is more so in the hands of some of the most powerful military nations in the world. And none of them can claim an Islamic collective mindset.
I will say something about the learned professor’s incredibly racist mistake in assuming that the shooter was an immigrant – as he says The integration compact depends on a broad trust that the immigrant’s desire to be American can happily co-exist with his other forms of racial/cultural/religious identity. But in fact Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan is as pure an American as they come; born, raised, educated and trained in the United States of America. He wasn’t an immigrant professor, he was an American.
And he was an American inside a deeply Christianized, racist military structure that has become comfortable speaking about and of the Arab world and Muslims in the most derogatory, demeaning and racist terms. It has become so because its wars are against a people it sees as a mass, a mob, a group, a collective – A-rabs, Muslims, ragheads, hajjis. The latter term is used openly and gleerfully in even such mainstream Hollywood films such as Stop-Loss. (I am sure there are more, but Hollywood is not something I watch with interest or regularity.)
The army has has become so because it is the war that it is fighting and it is here that we refuse to ask the hard question; how much of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan’s rage was against his fellow soldiers and the atmosphere at the base itself that allowed for a constant and unchecked language of hate and ridicule against an entire religion, people, culture and way of life? Were there, perhaps, white supremacists on the loose? Well, we will never know of course.
But I am sure that the learned professor doesn’t know either. What is dismaying is that he does not have the awareness to ask, but has instead chosen to give public vent to what can only be a deeply personal hatred against all Muslims claiming that it is only political correctness that is forcing America, and her Army, from taking the necessary, collective/racial profiling, actions that it should. He is angry that America suffers from a …privileging of religion, and its frequent exemption from rules of normal discourse.
Lets be clear, the learned professor is not complaining about America’s privileging of all religions, for after all it is not the insanity of the Christian Evangelicals that has bought him to this realization, but that the country is not collectively targeting Muslims! We have to remember that the same learned professor has been an outspoken advocate of racial profiling of Muslims in America,
But dear professor, viewing a crime as the act of an individual and not because of a pathology indigenous to an entire collectivity is less about being politically correct and more about being just and not being a racist. In fact, the determination to not reduce this to yet another all-too-easy Islam bashing exercise is a testament to America’s determination to return to the ways of the law and legality, and to move its society back to a point where it speaks not with generic hatred of an imaginary collectivity but with genuine desire to offer both justice and rights for individuals who commit crimes. It is one of the very set of values we always speak about and insist are what we are killing in places around the world for!
And it is a battle that we as American citizens have had to fight hard – to move past the infantile and retrograde desire to hate ‘all of them’ for the actions of a few, to lynch them for their color for example, and move towards the point where we can see individuals and individual responsibility and make them not only the recipients of retribution, but also the motivation for our respect for fundamental liberties and rights.
I do not know what led Maj. Hasan to do what he did. I can’t even begin to understand his motivations, and certainly not his actions. I remain dismayed to learn that he chose to justify his murders on the basis of his spiritual beliefs. Just as I have been dismayed to learn about Jewish extremists gloating about their murders on the basis of their beliefs, or Christian fanatics e.g. those in the US military I speak about earlier explaining their bloody rampages because of their ‘loving god’. Maybe he was just a mentally disturbed and ill person, as a recent NPR piece claims to have uncovered. Maybe he lost his way. I don’t know. I don’t claim to have an answer here.
My interest here is to question our learned professor. And wonder how we have arrived at a moment in time when such blatantly racist statements can make it to the pages of one of our most respected magazines, and then find hundreds who rush to defend his bigotry? Our continued insistence on seeing Muslims as a collective whole, tied at the psychological and moral level into one large blob, is quite flabbergasting and ultimately confusing.
Like a taint, a disease, a scar or a deformation, anyone, man, woman or child, even vaguely or deeply implicated by having been born, raised, educated, traveled to, interested in, curious about things Muslim has his entire identity and all its various other facets subsumed and erased by the label of being Muslim. And once that is established, the individual is safely dropped back into a mob, where only mob acts that are predictable and programmatic based on an formalized, systematized, idealized and perfectly synchronized response to instructions in text books or from the mouths of religious leaders can occur. LIke robots in a massive spiritual assembly line, anything that reeks of Islam can be expected to behave like a swarm, mindlessly following the dictates of their religious books, devoid of individuality, individual morality, judgment, discernment and comprehension.
I am diseased.
UPDATE: A recent article in The Boston Review, titled God, The Army & PTSD by Tara McKelvey raises a number of important questions about the increasing use of Christian religious/spiritual material at military institutions, including the pop-psych mumbo-jumbo of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life by Pastor Rick Warren, to treat soldiers suffering from PTSD and other psychiatric problems. For example, it points out that:
When a 2006 Government Accountability Office report raised questions about whether soldiers were getting the psychiatric help they needed, an assistant secretary of defense disputed the report’s findings, pointing to the fact that soldiers were being referred to chaplains. During this time contracts for veterans’ services were increasingly parceled out to leaders of faith-based organizations rather than to secular ones, even though veterans’ advocates opposed any bias toward faith-based treatment and argued that replacing empirically proven, nonsectarian programs with faith-based ones was a mistake.
As one commentator points out in the responses to this piece:
Major Hasan would have been familiar with the conditions described in this essay. As psychiatrist at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center for the last five years he would have both treated patients for PTSD and have been familiar with the preference for faith based treatments described in this article.
We hear from Major Hasan’s family that he complained about religious harassment during his tenure at Walter Reed but we do not know specifics. It is reasonable to believe that his patients suffering from PTSD might not have liked being treated by a Muslim and almost certainly heard specific opinions about Islam and Muslims from those patients. The inevitable investigation into Major Hasan’s career will reveal the dynamic of those patient interactions.
This is, again, about asking human questions about a human, criminal act so that we may know meaningful and actionable facts and truths about such heinous acts. I raised this point in the main essay (see below) some weeks ago. Searching for the psychology of ‘Muslims’, as the learned Tunku Varadarajan wants to do, or exploring the pages of a religious text, while erasing daily and ordinary social, political and lived reality of an individual is a false, and frankly, racist approach. It seems to be particularly reserved for anyone who can be labeled ‘Muslim’. That word – ‘Muslim’ has now come to take on the meaning of a special species – devoid of individuality and history and to be seen only as a mob, mass, collectivity, blob and spiritually programmed pathology.