Bayoumi’s subjects stand at a crucial juncture not only in their lives, but also American history: they are living through a radical change in American institutional and popular attitudes toward Arabs and Muslims, and they face the burden of defining the future of Arab and Muslim America—and, to an extent, the United States as a whole. They all recognize not only the United States’ parallel histories of racial persecution and acceptance of outsiders, but also see that the fate of Arabs and Muslims in America is a test of what many consider the nation’s fundamental principles: equality, civil liberty, and compassion for the marginalized—and some of them dedicate themselves to making these principles a reality. Beyond emphasizing how the United States has historically been a land of both radical inclusion and violent exclusion, then, Bayoumi and the people he interviews also insist that citizens have the responsibility and potential to fight for an American future that lives up to the promise of equality and justice.
Bayoumi’s subjects are aware of the long history of racial discrimination in the United States and their place within it. Akram and Sade both mention the similarity between Arabs’ and Muslims’ place in post-9/11 America and the historical subjugation of African-Americans. Yasmin also latches onto this connection, initially comparing her moral stand to Martin Luther King Jr.’s (but later regretting this as an overstatement). Still, she sees how other racial groups have had to advocate for themselves in order to break social barriers and wants to do the same for Muslims. Omar and his friends have the most developed—but also most pessimistic—view of the American tradition of racism. They recognize that “the Jews, the Italians, [and] the Irish” have faced the same suspicion they do now, but wonder if it is just inevitable—if everyone simply gets their “turn.”
But many of the young people Bayoumi meets also have a tenuous optimism about America—though they have experienced it at its worst, they also understand its promise at its best: the life often vaguely referred to as “the American dream,” which, for Arabs and Muslims, more concretely refers to the chance at finding economic stability, cultural acceptance, and personal freedom in a multicultural nation. (Not everyone maintains their faith in it: Akram decides that he has better odds in Dubai.) Rami’s vision is particularly unique, because he seeks to achieve equality and understanding through, rather than despite, Islam. He has a moral vision for Muslims—who he thinks have often lost sight of their community, family, and ethical obligations—as well as for America—which he thinks needs a more positive vision of Islam. And while Rasha recognizes the injustice of her detention, she also has firm “humanist hope” that a world without such injustice is worth pursuing. Similarly, after Yasmin sees the movie I Am Sam, she realizes that she can seek pro bono representation and is ecstatic. She tells Bayoumi, “I feel like I have been taught a lesson that just because something seems impossible, it doesn't really mean that it's impossible, and that you never really know what you're capable of or what you can accomplish if you don't keep fighting for it, no matter how bad things are.”
Bayoumi also points out activists’ success in fighting discrimination, gesturing particularly to the hard-fought but often invisible battles that they have waged since September 11 to combat the unjust treatment of Arabs and Muslims. Rasha’s family stays in the United States because of their immigration attorney, and Yasmin wins her case against the school through Advocates for Children, a well-resourced organization dedicated to fighting for justice. The author also points out how organizations like Amnesty International and even officials within the United States government have spoken out against indefinite detention, warrantless surveillance, and arbitrary deportation policies. He shows how filmmaker Michael Moore’s documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 helped convince Sami that the Iraq War was unjust, proving that media (like this book) can change cultural norms. Finally, he takes as inspiration activist thinkers from the past, like historian J.A. Hobson, philosopher Hannah Arendt, and most of all W.E.B. Du Bois, who have developed a theoretical framework for understanding the way states turn some of their constituents into second-class citizens.
Just as Du Bois considered African-Americans’ fate “a concrete test of the underlying principles of the great republic,” Bayoumi sees Muslim and Arab Americans’ treatment as a referendum on the United States’ self-image as a melting pot. A country, he argues, is only as good as the treatment it offers its most disadvantaged residents. But just as a country can choose to ostracize its citizens or help them flourish, people can push their country to be better. His subjects’ ethical vision is their greatest strength and one of America’s greatest assets, and this is why Bayoumi concludes his book with the image of a diverse Brooklyn block party, a vision of community “of everyone for everyone and by everyone.”
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy ThemeTracker
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Quotes in How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?
The last several years have taken their toll. I ask him about life after September 11 for Arab Americans. “We're the new blacks,” he says. “You know that, right?”
Brooklyn is the concentrated, unedited, twenty-first-century answer to who we, as Americans, are as a people.
“If there's anything that I've discovered out of this whole thing, it's that people take for granted being a citizen of this country. They don't see the importance of having a privilege like that. I've been in this country for eighteen years, and I'm working hard, and I'm qualified, but I've missed all these opportunities. I feel like it should be a lot easier than this. It's not fun. It's not fun at all.”
Around this time he decided on the tattoo he wanted to have, once he'd saved enough money. With his large, muscular bulk, he has acres of skin to plow ink into, but he never wanted to stamp himself with the regular bulldog or the eagle, globe, and anchor symbol of the Marine Corps. If he was going to paint himself, he needed something that expressed who he is, something that really spoke to him. What he came up with was the New York City skyline as the tattoo's basis, but instead of the World Trade Center towers, two memorial beams of light will shine upward. The moon, vaguely imprinted with the marine emblem, will land high on his shoulder. The stars will spell out “N-Y-C.” Underneath, and in Arabic, will be written the words “Always remembered, never forgotten.” A little bit of everything—New York, Marine, Arab—to be put carefully together and marked indelibly.
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.
What do you do when everything and everyone—from teachers to TV—is screaming that you and your culture just don't belong? You have to come up with your own solutions, and Akram has found his answer. He's quitting the United States and heading to Dubai, a newfound land of opportunity, a global oasis of modern wealth done up Arabic style. Dubai. It's the latest Arab-American dream.
He's a curious mix that isn't so strange in Brooklyn, equally at home with Arabs, African Americans, and West Indians. He's a twenty-first-century United States American, absorbing and refracting all the ethnicities and histories surrounding him. What he loves most about Brooklyn is this heady human geography.
American idiom: “IN ALLAH WE TRUST. EVERYONE ELSE MUST PAY—NO CREDIT.” The customers laughed.
What happens when your homeland is in the process of disintegrating in front of your eyes? What do you do, especially when Iraq's turmoil has always hovered in the background of your life? Perhaps you do what immigrants to the United States and their children have done for generations. You build your own destiny from your American home while keeping one eye open to that which has been lost. And while your American life largely takes over, you still live somewhere between geographies, as you have for most of your life. It's just that the in-between has become harder than ever to locate.
“But look, Omar,” she said. “I'm a friend of your family. And just for the future, I'd like to warn you.” She paused. “This,” she said, pointing to the line on his résumé that Omar was most proud of, his work at Al Jazeera, “this could work against you in the future. Especially if you want to get work with people who feel threatened by the whole Arab thing.”
“Look. It's like this,” Eyad, a portly young Egyptian, explained to me. He leaned in to the table and put his weight behind his words. “Before, they went after the Jews, the Italians, the Irish. And now it's our turn. Everybody gets their turn. Now it's just the Muslims.” He leaned back. To my ears these young men were living uneasily in an unresolved contradiction.
They acknowledged that the rights of Muslims were being unfairly trampled on, but they were seduced by the lure of owning a marketable skill (the Arabic language) that was currently in high demand. What they didn't voice was the idea that the culture of the FBI would be changed by their contributions to the Bureau or that civic participation was calling them to serve. They saw an open avenue, wide and empty of traffic, to a job, a profession, a career. It was as if the grinding pressure on their generation to succeed at any cost was taking precedence over everything else.
“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.
On any given day, popular feelings seem to swing wildly between these poles of fear and acceptance, illustrating what the sociologist Louise Cainkar has called “the apparent paradox of this historical moment: [where] repression and inclusion may be happening at the same time.”
It's a strange place to inhabit, and it reveals not only the bifurcated nature of contemporary American society but also the somewhat precarious condition of Arab and Muslim Americans. Because their situation here is ultimately dependent less on what happens on the home front and more on what happens in the Middle East, Muslim and Arab Americans know that their own domestic security and their ability to live full American lives turn on the winds of global conflicts and on America's posture in the world and its policies abroad.
What we are currently living through is the slow creep of imperial high-handedness into the rest of American society, performed in the name of national security and facilitated through the growth of racist policies. This fact alone menaces the foundations of American society far beyond what has happened to Arab- and Muslim-American communities. “It is indeed a nemesis of Imperialism,” writes [historian J.A.] Hobson, “that the arts and crafts of tyranny, acquired and exercised in our unfree Empire, should be turned against our liberties at home.”