Islam plays widely different roles in the lives of the seven people Bayoumi interviews, but all of them (including Sami, who is Christian) nevertheless grapple with their relationship to it. They struggle to bridge their personal knowledge of Islam with the negative representations of it that dominate American discourse, and one of Bayoumi’s central motives is to dispel the assumptions that make up these negative representations: that Muslims are usually devout, conservative, and fundamentalist; that Muslims who are pious are also somehow violent or anti-American; and that Islam is a “traditional” religion incompatible with “modern” Western societies. His portrayal of a variety of ways to be Muslim and a variety of people who do not fall into stereotypes is an important step towards this end, but his subjects also undertake their own efforts to portray Islam in the positive light in which they experience it.
Contrary to stereotypes, Bayoumi’s subjects and their families relate to Islam in a wide variety of ways, often independently of their relationships to their national and ethnic identities. Religion is one—but not the only, or even often the main—source of community among Arabs and Muslims, and Muslim moral values are no different from the ones instilled by most other major religions in the United States. Some of Bayoumi’s subjects, like Yasmin and Rami, see religion as central to their lives; they feel it provides them with essential moral guidance and could not imagine giving it up. Islam is central to their beliefs in equality, peace, and the value of community; in particular, faith was Rami’s only source of solace after his father first got sent to jail, and it allowed him to meet friends who shared his perspective and build a community of support. He also breaks conventional assumptions about the conflict between tradition and modernity, choosing traditional ways in spite of his much less religious parents. On the flipside, Akram almost never attends mosque, but still feels intensely connected to his Palestinian heritage. And while Rasha’s family is not devout, her mother emphasizes many of the same moral values that Rami (and, of course, religions everywhere) believe in: “honesty, compassion, and the protection of her honor.” Lina alternates between disavowing and embracing her family’s religious traditions, going from teenage rebellion to suddenly donning “the entire regalia of a religious woman” in Iraq, then back again. She still marries a fellow Iraqi, in accord with (but not because of) her family’s wishes. Finally, Sami is not a Muslim at all—he is an Arab Christian, but he grows close to a number of Muslim locals, who help him understand his Arab heritage.
Despite their varied and sometimes ambivalent relationships to Islam, the young people Bayoumi interviews also recognize the need to combat negative stereotypes about it. One of Omar’s central motivations for starting a career in the media is his desire to combat bias, and especially the default pro-government bias of American media that, for instance, led his mentor John Alpert to be fired from NBC for reporting the destruction caused by American bombs during the First Gulf War. Another of his mentors, the imam who leads his discussion group, emphasizes that Muslims have a “public relations problem” in the United States, which further inspires Omar to fight negative media representations of Islam that conflate all Muslims with a handful of radical groups. Yasmin’s portrait opens with a story about her watching a white couple harass a hijabi woman on a bus, yelling that she might be a terrorist and have a bomb under her blanket (it is actually a baby). Yasmin is furious to witness this stereotype in action and sees her own fight against her school, like her decision to wear the hijab, as a way to improve Muslim representation and teach people to “have confidence in me because of what was in my heart and not prejudice against my outer appearance.” For Rami, da‘wa work and wearing traditional Muslim garb are as much a means to represent Islam in public and perhaps open conversations with non-Muslims as they are an expression of his own personal faith.
Ultimately, Bayoumi’s subjects are all too aware that they are caught in a double bind: they are forced to apologize for believing in a religion that preaches the values of moral thinking, community, and nonviolence. It is, then, unsurprising that they make light of this situation by turning to humor. One comedian Rami’s friend Mohammad brings to a school Muslim Students Association jokes, “I consider myself a very patriotic American Muslim, which means I would die for this country by blowing myself up.” And Akram tries to show that his family is no different from other Americans (and make sure they do not get swindled) by posting a sign in their window: “IN ALLAH WE TRUST. EVERYONE ELSE MUST PAY—NO CREDIT.”
Faith, Tradition, and Islam ThemeTracker
Faith, Tradition, and Islam Quotes in How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?
“911. What's your emergency?”
“There's a white couple on a city bus. I think she has a bomb in her purse. It's a 863 bus, going up Fifth Avenue. The license plate is . . .”
She wanted to call. She really did, just to make a point, to make them feel the same way—singled out, powerless, discriminated against, a source of irrational fear. But she didn't call. In fact, she didn't do anything, and because of that she was annoyed with herself.
“With all due respect to your religion, sir, how long do you think you can control your daughter?”
I was forced to submit my resignation due to the system's inability to understand my moral obligations. For example, my beliefs prevent me from having anything to do with drinking/dancing. When I was young, the system told me to stand up and fight for what I believe in. While now I am being told to do the exact opposite, instead I should give up what I believe in for some rules and regulations. Martin Luther King Jr. fought for what he believed in and gave up his life for it. I too am taking that same stand by giving up my position to defend what I believe in.
What hurt me most was that when I won secretary as a Freshman, I felt that I had achieved my dreams and broken a racial barrier that I thought would hold me back. I finally felt that as a Muslim that I was doing something and I could make a difference in the world. I believed people would have confidence in me because of what was in my heart and not prejudice against my outer appearance—I had hope that I could achieve my dreams—but when they took me out I felt different and segregated and it shattered everything I had hoped and dreamed of. Now all I feel is hurt, sadness, and I feel that as a Muslim I can never be something because America is prejudiced so much and will never let people like me succeed no matter how hard we try. I never told anyone that this is what really hurts me and makes me cry. My family doesn't even know that I still cry and that I am still hurt and think about it every day. I felt so bad, and knowing how that feels, I don't want to have anyone else go through what I went through, Muslim or non-Muslim.
But still it's not enough. “There are a lot of Muslims,” Ezzat says, “but there is no Islam.”
“Oh, man,” he said. “I forgot a good ending!” He pursed his lips. “Sometimes you just forget,” he explained.
“How did you want it to end?” I asked.
He paused to get the expression just right. “You come into the world crying while everyone around you is laughing,” he said. “But when you leave this world for the next life, and everyone else is crying, you should be laughing.” He summed up what he meant. “You've done good. Now all you have is bliss,” he explained with wide eyes. “That's what I should have said.”
The young imam was kicking himself and smiling.