This Muslim American Life

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Mousafa Bayoumi near his home in Brooklyn, New York, USA. photo by Neville Elder

Moustafa Bayoumi, a professor of English at Brooklyn College CUNY, is the author of How Does It Feel To Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America (Penguin), which won an American Book Award and the Arab American Book Award for Nonfiction. His latest book, This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror, was recently published by NYU Press. Photo by Neville Elder

Check out Keith Feldman’s review of This Muslim American Life in the May 2016 issue of The American Historian.

Could you briefly describe This Muslim American Life?

My book examines the multiple ways that the War on Terror has affected Muslim Americans. The War on Terror is really producing a culture of its own, much in the same way that there used to be a Cold War culture in this country. The Cold War transformed our politics, our laws, our military, our television shows and our movies, and all of those elements fed continuously off of each other. War on Terror culture does something similar, but with very specific consequences for Muslim Americans. Since 2001, Muslim Americans have been subject to mass arrests and deportations, elevated levels of vigilante violence, bouts of national hysteria around our houses of worship, and much more. In the meantime, Muslim American history is almost completely forgotten while Muslim Americans themselves are caricatured in our media and our politics and are always associated with terrorism. This Muslim American Life is an attempt to analyze this War on Terror culture from the perspective of Muslim Americans. The book is divided up into four sections—history, theory, politics, and culture—with the prevailing idea being that this War on Terror culture is created by the amalgamation of these various elements.

Why did you decide to write this book? Is it intended for a particular audience?

The War on Terror is discussed every day. It fills our newspapers and televisions screens. And yet, we still don’t have a good sense of how it structures our lives or the kind of political ecology it continues to create. What’s at stake is no less than our professed values of equal treatment under the law. So I felt it was necessary to write about these things and to bring the vantage point of Muslim Americans to general readers. But I think it’s important to underscore that I’m not entering these discussions as a victim but as a member of American society. We all lose if the rights of Muslim Americans can easily be trampled upon. One has to be able to talk about the consequences of politics. I do so not to evoke sympathy from a reader but to call out that which I think is wrong. I wrote this book, in other words, not solely out of concern for Muslim Americans but primarily because we should all care when a community is singled out collectively for suspicion and blame. This is a problem that should be faced squarely by all Americans.

In your book, you are interested in dissecting the worldview that imagines all Muslims to be “potential” terrorists. What kinds of historical comparisons seem useful (or not useful) to you for exploring the effects of this racial and religious-based cultural fiction?

To some degree, all bigotries are premised on fictions of a potential threat, but there are moments when the threat is seen as imminent and other times when it is understood as potentially happening at some unknown time in the future. In the lead up to Japanese Internment during World War II, we can find a disturbing similarity. The known fact that there had been zero acts of sabotage on the part of Japanese Americans following the attacks on Pearl Harbor was used as evidence that they must therefore be readying an assault for the future.  On February 21, 1942, Earl Warren, the Attorney General of California at the time, testified in front of a Congressional Committee that

many of our people and some of our authorities and, I am afraid, many of our people in other parts of the country are of the opinion that because we have had no sabotage and no fifth column activities in this State since the beginning of the war, that means that none have been planned for us. But I take the view that that is the most ominous sign in our whole situation. […] I believe that we are just being lulled into a false sense of security and that the only reason we haven’t had disaster in California is because it has been timed for a different date. [… ] Our day of reckoning is bound to come in that regard. When, nobody knows, of course, but we are approaching an invisible deadline.

As the historian Roger Daniels writes in Prisoners Without Trial, “as foolish as this argument sounds, it convinced many Americans” (p. 37). Today, Muslim Americans are often discussed similarly. Policies, such as the NYPD’s blanket surveillance program on Muslims in the New York area, are premised on the idea that Muslims will, at some vague point in the future, become terrorists, so the NYPD ought not be lulled into a false sense of security and must stop Muslims from actions they haven’t even yet contemplated. In testimony delivered to a Senate committee in 2007, Lawrence Sanchez, the architect of the NYPD surveillance program, said:  “Rather than just protecting New York City from terrorists, the New York Police Department believes that part of its mission is to protect New York City citizens from turning into terrorists.”

But we should also look at our contemporary moment and not only back in history to understand how pervasive and pernicious this way of thinking is. We live in an age premised more than ever on this kind of preemptive and predictive modeling. From the Bush Administration’s doctrine of preemptive war in Iraq to the belief that massive data collection can algorithmically predict individual human behavior, we are slowly strangling the possibilities of life and presumptions of innocence by the misguided belief that eliminating uncertainty will make our futures more secure.

Your introduction dates your book’s writing to January 2015, well before recent episodes of terrorism and the U.S. presidential campaign began to spark renewed bursts of Islamophobia. What might be different about this book if you were writing it today, or what would you add?

Both terrorism and Islamophobia have become routine phenomena, and that’s really the tragedy of our age. But I worry that both are also on an incline. ISIS was barely on the national radar while I was writing my book. And before the election season began ramping up, I was already expecting a new wave of Islamophobia for the simple reason that we have evidence of that in the past. In the 2008 campaign, when Obama was first running for president, there was the so-called smear that he was a secret Muslim. In 2012, the erstwhile GOP frontrunner Herman Cain said that Muslims should swear a loyalty oath if they’re going serve in his administration. Now, in 2016, it’s gotten much crazier with the Trump campaign and with the kind of rhetoric that’s being spoken around the country. I’m not sure these awful developments would make me consider changing anything in my book. If anything, they underscore and amplify the importance of the themes I address.

What books or articles (whether academic, journalistic, or fictional) helped you to write this book? What texts might you recommend to readers interested in your book’s themes?

There are so many to recommend, and I think of these works as developing a kind of War on Terror counterculture. David Cole’s Enemy Aliens (New Press 2003) and Mahmood Mamdani’s Good Muslim, Bad Muslim (Vintage 2004) are both over a decade old now but are still very relevant. Zareena Grewal’s Islam is a Foreign Country (Yale 2014) and Timothy Marr’s The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism (Cambridge 2006) are both excellent, as is Joseph Margulies’s What Changed When Everything Changed (Yale 2013). The Intercept—the new online newspaper begun by Jeremy Scahill, Glenn Greenwald, and Laura Poitras—has much remarkable reporting on the multiple dimensions of the War on Terror. The poetry of Suheir Hammad is always compelling, as is Mohja Kahf’s novel The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf (Public Affairs 2006). And though I read it after my book was finished, Guantánamo Diary, (Little Brown 2015), the memoir written by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who is still incarcerated at Guantánamo, is an extraordinary and unforgettable book that shows the human costs of this war with unparalleled grace, wit, and humanity.

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