How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?

by

Moustafa Bayoumi

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How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?: Afterword Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Bayoumi asks why Arabs and Muslims can never have the “breezy self-indulgences and creative self-inventions” so many Americans want for their children’s youth; the War on Terror hangs constantly over their heads, embroiling their process of self-discovery in an atmosphere of “fear, suspicion, curiosity, and misunderstanding.” Discrimination and violence threaten their families, careers, and day-to-day wellbeing; politics becomes personal, and Arab Americans are struggling to find a place in American society as well as shape the future of that society.
Bayoumi turns back to the general social trends his stories embody: for the most part, politics choose his subjects, rather than vice-versa. They are deemed threats and enemies to the world of normal, apolitical everyday life in the United States that they desperately want to join—but the early struggles they have not asked for also lead them to develop the wisdom, vision, and interest in the common good that Bayoumi sees as necessary to reverse the nation’s increasingly exclusionary and paranoid model of citizenship.
Themes
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Growing Up and Self-Discovery Theme Icon
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
It is unclear whether American society can accommodate Arabs and Muslims as equals—the public increasingly understands Islam and pursues a spirit of inclusion, but many continue to see them “as enemies living among us,” including, most dangerously, politicians and law enforcement officials. Arab Americans’ fate, like that of African-Americans a century ago, is (in W.E.B. Du Bois’s words) “a concrete test of the underlying principles of the great republic.”
Bayoumi insists that Americans hold themselves to the highest moral values of their “great republic” and measure its success by how it treats the most ostracized; the challenge is not believing in liberty, justice, and equality in the abstract, but extending those values concretely to those seen as enemies and outsiders.
Themes
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
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There is a much longer history of Islam in the United States than most realize: many West African slaves were Muslim, and Arabs have been migrating to the United States for centuries. Recalling this history, Bayoumi notes that Manhattan’s Washington Street becomes “Little Syria” in the late 19th century; its inhabitants are mostly merchants, but they face discrimination and racism, like many other ethnic groups.
Americans’ limited understanding of Arab and Muslim American history prevents them from seeing the diversity of people and stories that fit under those labels; during these earliest migrations, being Arab or Muslim scarcely made a difference (people were still enslaved because they were black or excluded from normal New York society because they were non-European, but “Arab” and “Muslim” were not the central identities determining inclusion or exclusion).
Themes
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Arab American Identities Theme Icon
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
The “second phase” of Arab and Muslim history in the United States lasts from roughly 1909 to 1944. The central question for the Arab American community is citizenship, which is reserved for “free white persons”—after a series of court cases, Arabs win the right to be considered “white.” In 1942, a Yemeni loses his case for citizenship because he is Muslim, but in 1944, a judge overturns this precedent based on the notion that the United States needs friendly relations with the Arab world “so as to fulfill the promise that we shall treat all men as created equal.” Of course, this really means that the United States wants to secure access to Saudi Arabia’s oil, and for the first time “the exigencies of international politics changed the supposedly immutable facts of the Arab ‘race.’” But, since few Arabs are still entering the country at the time, the decision has little effect.
This “second phase” demonstrates the extent to which American racism was explicit in previous citizenship policy, but also how the concept of race is and remains a flexible political tool: here, as judges debate whether Muslims can be “white” (which is as much about culture and history as skin color), they ultimately decide that the definition should revolve around American foreign policy interests. This, of course, has been the determining factor in Arab and Muslim immigration ever since, and discrimination and racism continue more quietly even if explicitly racist language has been taken out of the law.
Themes
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Arab American Identities Theme Icon
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Immigration laws loosen in 1965, abandoning the old quota system that gave more spots to Europeans. With the civil rights movement growing and the United States increasingly involved in Middle Eastern politics, American foreign policy truly becomes the most important factor determining “the parameters of Arab American life.” In 1972, an Arab American civil rights attorney realizes that his communications are being monitored and sues the FBI. This also reveals that the government is doing a security check on every prospective immigrant with an Arabic name and spying extensively on the Arab American community. By the 1980s, the INS develops a plan to register and detain Middle Eastern nationals in the event of a war. The government also arrests eight student activists in Los Angeles, seven of them Palestinians, even though they have never broken the law and their activities are protected by the First Amendment.
While during the period of citizenship cases the United States used domestic policy changes to try and improve its foreign relations, during this period the directionality switches and the domestic surveillance of immigrants effectively becomes a branch of foreign policy. Bayoumi emphasizes that the security measures employed against Arab and Muslims after 9/11 were not in any way new; rather, they were applied in different ways and noticed more closely, especially because of the accompanying atmosphere of informal, popular racism.
Themes
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Arab American Identities Theme Icon
In the 1990s, immigration courts begin using “secret evidence” in deportation cases, which (like the eight students’ arrests) is unconstitutional to do to American citizens. All the immigrants faced with “secret evidence” are Arab or Muslim, a result of the interests of American foreign policy. While the United States declares that it is worried about Arab nationalism, it is really more interested in suppressing dissent about the American role in the Israel-Palestine conflict.
“Secret evidence” is unconstitutional because the Sixth Amendment protects, among other things, a defendant’s right to know the nature of the charges, witnesses, and evidence against them. But citizenship becomes a bottleneck for whether one can claim the right to legal protections at all, the line between those who get equality and those who do not (which undermines the very principle of equality), because the government has decided that many of these constitutional principles intended to ensure fair trials only apply to citizens.
Themes
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
For the first time, after September 11, all Arabs and Muslims, “immigrant and citizen, activist and spectator,” become subject to the same surveillance and loss of their rights, based solely on their group identity. Arab and Muslim Americans gradually lose civil rights thereafter: more than 5,000 people are detained immediately after September 11, including Rasha’s family, and over 170,000 people are subjected to “Special Registration” in the following years, with nearly a tenth of them ultimately deported. Notably, “none of these policies produced a single terrorism conviction.” The government has shut down “at least five major Muslim charities” despite no evidence of ties to terrorism; spying, indefinite detention, and “secret evidence” are now commonplace.
Bayoumi sees the unique danger of the post-9/11 American security apparatus as its rejection of the line between citizens and noncitizens (not that Bayoumi defends this line, either). The government determines whether people have fundamental rights based on race, ethnicity, and religion, which means that in effect nobody has fundamental rights because anyone’s can be revoked if the new “enemy” happens to share their background. Of course, Muslims have been the particular targets of this new general form, but their experience may be representative of what others can expect in the future, as constitutional protections and the presumption of innocence increasingly become flexible and revocable and the government continues treating people as guilty because it insists on their potential guilt (as the remarkable figure of zero terrorism convictions shows).
Themes
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
American involvement in the Middle East has accelerated since 1967. The United States has backed numerous dictators, tried to seize the region’s natural resources, and turned countries into “client states amenable to U.S. interests,” sacrificing opportunity and self-determination for the masses. Palestinian self-determination is still the central issue at stake in Middle Eastern politics and the American involvement in the region. “Things have taken a decidedly imperial turn” since 2001, leading the United States to occupy nations much like European colonial powers once did.
Bayoumi sees a parallel shift in American foreign policy: although in the past it pursued power for itself (and threw all moral considerations out the window) by simply meddling in other countries’ political processes, elections, and wars; now, the United States simply cooks up an excuse and unilaterally invades countries it does not like. Sovereignty, like citizenship, is no longer holy. This is the same principle—might makes right—on which the Israeli occupation of Palestine is based.
Themes
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
In her landmark book The Origins of Totalitarianism, political philosopher Hannah Arendt writes about “the ‘boomerang effects’ of imperialism,” the way that empire pollutes domestic politics. The treatment of Muslim and Arab Americans since 2001 is a version of this—not only in terms of, say, Americans’ widespread acceptance of torture, but also with the legal codification of indefinite detention (even for American citizens) and “secret evidence,” the growth of wiretapping, and the spread of racism in official and unofficial realms alike. This “menaces the foundations of American society.” But this book is largely about young people’s insistence on preserving their freedom, their communities based on fairness and compassion, and the values of equality and intergroup harmony. This reminds Bayoumi of a multiethnic Brooklyn block party, “of everyone for everyone and by everyone.”
In citing Hannah Arendt, Bayoumi is not mincing his words: with its newfound disregard for the civil rights it theoretically protects, the Untied States is on the path to (at least potentially) becoming an authoritarian, militarized state of the same sort it has so virulently and publicly opposed since Nazi Germany (but, when convenient, also supported in Latin America). And yet, against the creeping threat that American racism begins to dominate American inclusivity, Bayoumi closes by reminding the reader that the government is only part of the equation: there are also the people themselves, both inside and outside the state, both inside and outside this book, who value and fight for what is being lost. He ends with an image of the United States’ promise, the coexistence of diverse communities that is already a reality in Brooklyn, but now increasingly a reality under siege.
Themes
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
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