Words Matter: The Linguistic Damage of “Going Muslim”

If the media frenzy over the Fort Hood killings is any gauge, the ugly specter of 9/11 has again taken its psychological toll. This time, instead of the “bad Muslim” being a bearded terrorist called bin Laden, there is a US Army psychologist who was trained to be a healer of military personnel. He happens to have an Arabic ancestry and is Muslim.

Prominent American Muslim organizations issued statements right away condemning the murders. Debate in the media is now focused on his motivation. Was he a fifth-columnist wolf in military dress? Did his sympathies for innocent victims in our ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan overwhelm his common sense of decency? Should the FBI and security arms of the US military have pounced on him when they uncovered his initial links to a radical imam?

One result that I have noticed among those who study Islam, especially my Muslim colleagues, is a growing fault line over the dubious “good Muslim/bad Muslim” binary. As Mahmood Mamdani has eloquently argued, the choice is not between good and bad individuals or citizens, but about being Muslim. Major Hasan is a man who looked very much like a “good Muslim”: a military officer providing therapy to returning veterans. But, now, it seems that at some tipping point he became the “bad Muslim,” the kind who places mosque above state.

I suspect that were Major Hasan a member of almost any other religion, the issue would be his individual sanity. But in a climate of suspicion in which Islam is tainted with the ideological fervor of Islamism, Major Hasan has become the new “bad Muslim” on the block. The media wants his head, and public opinion follows in lock step.

Going teenager”? “Going Christian”?

One recent commentary has sparked concern on the Islam e-lists that I follow. Published on November 9 in Forbes Magazine by Tunku Varadarajan, it is disconcertingly entitled “Going Muslim.” As the author, a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School and a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, explains, he is borrowing directly from the phrase “going postal,” which he notes 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.” The actions of Major Hasan are said to signal a “new phenomenon of violent rage,” this time from within the United States and, even more disconcertingly, within our military.

Varadarajan does not believe, however, that Major Hasan simply snapped, but offers a more sinister scenario, one of “a calculated discarding of camouflage—the camouflage of integration.” Fearing that the Army succumbed to the dreaded politically correct mentality of liberals, the author issues a call for soldiers to turn in their comrades at the hint of “radical Islamism.”

Reactions have been visceral. A professor in Religious Studies at NYU has called on his university’s president to repudiate the remarks of Dr. Varadarajan, viewing them as incendiary. President Sexton* responded that although he found the remarks in the column offensive, the university remains a forum for freedom of expression. [See also Haroon Moghulessay for RD. Eds.]

The deeper issue here is the politics of blame fueled by fear. Despite several “going postal” episodes in recent years, we still go to our local post offices, and local postal workers have not quit en masse. It sometimes seems like hardly a month goes by without a disgruntled individual going on a shooting spree. To neologize the term “going Muslim” is an insult that would not be tolerated for any other group I know. Were the perpetrators of the Columbine school killings “going teenager”? If a fanatic fundamentalist Christian kills an abortion doctor, is he “going Christian,” or should an Israeli soldier who loses it be considered as “going Jewish”? As much as I hate the term “Islamism,” could Varadanjan not at least have come up with “going Islamist”?

Words matter. In a recently published volume, Islamism: Contested Perspectives on Political Islam, I offer an essay rejecting the term “Islamism” as a catch-all for political and militant versions of Islam. More than a century ago, the term “Islamism” referred to Islam as such, like Judaism and Buddhism. That usage is now obsolete—but consider the linguistic damage in reserving the -ism for Islam as a marker of violence and intolerance. A Buddhist monk who sets himself on fire is not called Buddhist because of the act; but a Muslim who goes on a suicide mission is called an Islamist precisely because of the violent act. Like the prejudicial term “Mohammedan,” which has now been retired, the term “Islamist” perpetuates a false image of the world’s second largest religion. Why is it that we need one term to link Islam and violence in a way not done for any other religion? As problematic as the term “fundamentalist” is when applied to Muslims, at least it describes a view not specific to one religion.

The same argument holds for “going Muslim.” Instead of “bad Muslim/good Muslim,” which at least admits there can be a good Muslim, the dangerous notion of “going Muslim” inflicts the same linguistic damage to Islam as phrases like “to gyp” (referring to Gypsies) or “to jew” (to cheat). The dictionary still records such etymological ethnic bias, even if political correctness helps make them obsolete.

We may never be able to discover the motivation of Major Hasan, regardless of whether or not he chanted “Allahu Akbar” in the act. There are thousands of Muslims serving in the US military and several million Muslims living in America. If “going Muslim” means losing it and taking lives, then Muslims in America have no place to go. Major Hasan did not “go Muslim” when he took the lives of his fellow soldiers. As in all such crimes, no matter what religious veneer is assumed, he went berserk.

*As commenter (and RD contributor) Gabriel Mckee notes in comments, the NYU president referred to in the passage is indeed John Sexton. RD regrets the error.