Now, I understand laissez-faire. It is intriguing, to put it temperately, that so many on the far right, whether religious or fiscal, take such a disconnected approach toward human affairs. Yes, I am demonizing a population, but we have a right to free speech. Anything that happens after my essay is published isn’t my fault. Yes, I trade in debt, but what happens to the wider economy isn’t my problem. One can say or do things of morally dubious character, but walk away, in good conscience, from the consequences.
The Islamophobe is no different, although the way in which Islamophobes hate has changed. Today the Islamophobe still accuses the religion of malignancy, but makes the pretense of embracing the followers of the religion. There’s the deceit: You don’t have to say all Muslims are a menace—just note that “a few” are, while insisting very loudly that Islam is the problem. Everyone can fill in the gaps. How do we find these few? How do we screen them? Where do we put them?
The Civilized Bigotry of “Going Muslim”
This Monday, Professor Tunku Varadarajan of NYU Stern School of Business posted an article on Forbes.com, “Going Muslim.” (Disclaimer: I am an alumnus of NYU. All the same, Professor Varadarajan is actually employed by New York University, so you can count that as a disclaimer to the disclaimer.) This vitriolic piece punned, rather lamely, on the everyday “going postal”—and so the Professor decided to throw away the niceties behind which civilized bigotry hides its face. His argument: Muslims cannot be tamed. The Muslim who seems to be integrated could one day pull off a massacre.
The appearance of integration is a farce, only the latest strategy that terrorists hide behind. And since you cannot disprove a negative, every Muslim is a threat to the West. We Americans must question whether our adherence to equality has caused us to go blind to the danger every single Muslim might pose: “a seemingly integrated Muslim American—a friendly donut vendor in New York, say, or an officer in the US Army at Fort Hood—discards his apparent integration into American society and elects to vindicate his religion in an act of messianic violence.”
Friendly Muslims! Seemingly integrated! Beware, America. Freedom of religion might doom you:
Must we continue to be neutral in handling all people from different groups even though we know that there are differential risks posed by people of one group? The problem here is a heightened version of the airport security problem, where we check all people—including Chinese grandmothers—regardless of risk profiles. But can we afford that on a grand, national scale? (And I mean that question not merely in a financial sense, but also in terms of the price we’d pay in failing to detect a threat in time.)
There is no column to count the moral cost. If this is not hate-mongering, I admit the term has no utility.
Every major American Muslim organization has passed judgment on last week’s murders, and rightly deemed them heinous crimes against our common humanity, an offense to the civilized standard Muslims aspire to. It is one thing to say that people sin, and in their imperfection others are hurt or harmed. It is another thing to argue that any Muslim can one day turn on his closest friends, his office colleagues or neighbors, to fulfill what Varadarajan believes is Islam’s nature. I ask again: how can Islam have a nature independent of Muslims? The point being, Muslims are racialized, so that their ultimate characteristics are violence and deception.
It is hard enough to contemplate what drives a person to such a vile action as murder, but even harder to conceive of when that person apparently shares one’s faith and may have been inspired by a twisted perversion of that faith. This is the dilemma of the Muslim in the West, the reason for which Islamophobia is rightly considered a danger: we are very conscious of the consequences of marginalization. The frustration that finds no outlet, until it absolves itself of morality and seeks only an unrighteous leveling.
Dean Says: “I Would Not Censor or Rebuke Him”
But can you imagine how I, a seemingly-integrated (and, I’d like to think, friendly) alumnus of New York University, felt upon reading Varadarajan’s essay? My years at NYU were marked by a warm and welcoming atmosphere, fantastically diverse communities and an administration that was farsighted in its vision, and yet deeply involved and concerned with the lives of its students. I often brag to friends at other universities about how exceptional my education was. Now that same university plays host to a bigot whose language includes the following: “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.”
A number of concerned students and staff, some of them Muslim and some of them from other traditions, sought out the Dean of NYU Stern, Thomas Cooley, hoping to communicate their concern at what was being published with NYU’s name in the byline. What we received in response was astonishing. Thomas Cooley was so uninterested in the pain felt by students and alumni of the global university he works for that he had the audacity to cut and paste the same callous reply to every person who emailed him.
I reproduce in full:
Your complaint is duly noted. I read Mr. Varadarajan’s article very differently than you did. I think it is a very distorted reading to call this hate speech. In any event I would not censor it or rebuke him for having written it. We are, as you allude to, an institution that treasures free speech and open dialogue. You need to think more about what this means since you don’t seem to understand it. I would suggest that if you take issue with what Mr. Vardarajan wrote you take the issue up with him. There is space for feedback on the Forbes site.
Do what you do, then walk away from the consequences. Other than the earth-shaking irony of a University Dean accusing alumni of that same university of being unable to understand the idea of free speech (whom should we blame for that conceptual illiteracy, and when can I expect my tuition refund?) this cold-hearted dismissal suggests to American Muslims that their concerns are not worth even a polite response. (Another disclaimer: Cooley, like Varadarajan, writes for Forbes.com).
Last year, Stern School of Business brought onboard a Visiting Professor, Thio Li-Ann, also a member of Singapore’s parliament, who had argued during a 2007 parliamentary debate against legalizing sex between men and had expressed strong homophobia in her online writings. Rightly, she left over the summer, but not because the university suddenly contracted an aversion to free speech. Rather because we have a moral obligation to consider the consequences of our language beyond simple ideological commitments: A university is a community of human beings, too. For a Dean to turn to successful businessmen, accomplished alumni, and hard-working students and tell them that their feelings of marginalization are simply the result of misreading obviously inflammatory passages is inexcusable.
I am not looking for free speech to be revoked; far from it. I don’t want Varadarajan to stop writing. I would like him to change his mind, of course, but see no virtue in show trials, thought control or other instruments of conformity. I’m a writer, and have received numerous harsh comments for some of my opinions in the past. Some of my most vocal critics have been Muslims. But to defend free speech does not mean one agrees with the speech itself—that Cooley felt no desire to distance himself from Varadarajan’s words speaks volumes. Worse still, this kind of hate is defended by a senior official at a major global university, whose interests include expanding into the Muslim world. Would Cooley have responded the same way had the email come from African-American or Jewish alumni? I prefer to see consistency. I should hope the NYU administration have enough concern for its Muslim students, staff, and alumni to accord us the same respect every other community deserves.