Moustafa Bayoumi takes the title of How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? from the seminal African-American sociologist W.E.B. DuBois, who asked the same question of black America at the beginning of the 20th century. After September 11, Bayoumi suggests, Arabs and Muslims have become the new “problem” group in the United States: they are treated as second-class citizens as a result of developments in U.S. foreign policy that conflate terrorist groups with Arabs and Muslims in general. Bayoumi demonstrates how the U.S. selectively suspends its values of tolerance, excluding Arabs and Muslims from the nation that is supposed to pride itself on diversity and equality.
Bayoumi’s subjects see their lives tangibly change after September 11. As Arabs, they are deemed “enemies” and associated with violence committed by other groups halfway around the world. A customer who shops at Akram’s family grocery store tries to launch a neighborhood-wide boycott of it and, after this fails, rants about Middle Eastern politics for hours. After 9/11, other students at his school declare in class that the U.S. should “bomb [Arabs]” and one teacher even derides him for wearing a hatta (traditional Palestinian scarf). Rasha, Yasmin, Omar, and Rami also feel ostracized by many of the non-Muslims around them, who begin viewing their families with suspicion after 9/11. And in the American military, Sami realizes that his fellow soldiers in the Iraq War view all Arabs and Muslims as the enemy, rather than just the authoritarian government and violent fundamentalist groups they are sent to fight. They call him “terrorist,” “sand nigger,” and “al-Qaeda,” even though he is fighting on their side.
These individual incidences of racism also translate into systemic discrimination in work and school. Yasmin argues that she cannot serve in student government because her religion prohibits her from attending events like school dances; but while the student affairs coordinator makes exceptions for Greek Orthodox and Jewish students, he forces Yasmin to resign. A thousand applications deep into his job search, Omar begins to fear that his prestigious internship is hurting him: he worked at Al Jazeera, a major international news network that is often derided in the U.S. because it is based in the Arab country of Qatar and closely covers American foreign policy. Omar wants to work in media in order to fight bias, but finds that this same bias prevents him from getting a job at all. Bouyami also notes that Muslims and Arabs file five times as many discrimination complaints in the year after 9/11 as the year prior, suggesting that this kind of prejudice is widespread.
Finally, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim attitudes both start and end with law enforcement and the military, the institutions that have the most power to define and conquer the “enemy.” The most salient example of this is Rasha’s story: her family members are labeled terrorism suspects after 9/11 and thrown into jail for three months without any evidence. One of the officers tells them they should expect to be jailed in “times like these,” and the guards treat them as “a subhuman species.” Thousands of Muslims have faced similar arbitrary detentions, and an unknown number were abruptly deported in the years after 9/11. One of the policy’s masterminds later admitted that it was mostly for “PR purposes,” so Americans would believe their government was doing something about terrorism. The subjects of Bayoumi’s portraits also confront their communities’ infiltration by law enforcement: Sade learns that one of his close friends is actually a spy hired to surveil the Muslim American community in New York, and Lina learns that the man she loves is working not only for the FBI, but also for Saddam Hussein, and plotting to murder one of her family members. In his preface, Bayoumi recalls a closed-door meeting that proves the disconnect between law enforcement and the Muslim community: the FBI wants Muslim leaders to proclaim their opposition to terrorism, but the leaders are astonished that this is not obvious to them. They are worried about how people who are not supposed to be on the no-fly list can get off—but the FBI has no advice.
Bayoumi argues that American foreign policy casts Arabs and Muslims as “enemies” on the national stage, which leads individual Americans to internalize the association between them and terrorism, makes institutions wary of openly supporting them, and allows the government to validate forms of legalized discrimination—al-Qaeda is decentralized and very difficult to eradicate, so the government uses innocent Arabs and Muslims as scapegoats to show that the U.S. is winning. Bayoumi emphasizes that this is not a new phenomenon, as various other groups have been targeted by the government in the past. American society, Bayoumi suggests, has always oscillated between acceptance and discrimination, promoting certain groups to the level of true “Americans” and demoting others to an inferior class of citizenship. As one of Omar’s friends puts it, “before, they went after the Jews, the Italians, the Irish. And now it’s our turn.” While this pattern is pervasive, Bayoumi insists, it is neither inevitable nor worth preserving.
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy ThemeTracker
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy 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?”
But what exactly is a profile? It's a sketch in charcoal, the simplified contours of a face, a silhouette in black and white, a textbook description of a personality. By definition a profile draws an incomplete picture. It substitutes recognition for detail. It is what an outsider from the street observes when looking through the windowpane of someone else's life.
It seems barely an exaggeration to say that Arab and Muslim Americans are constantly talked about but almost never heard from. The problem is not that they lack representations but that they have too many. And these are all abstractions. Arabs and Muslims have become a foreign-policy issue, an argument on the domestic agenda, a law-enforcement priority and a point of well-meaning concern. They appear as shadowy characters on terror television shows, have become objects of sociological inquiry, and get paraded around as puppets for public diplomacy. Pop culture is awash with their images. Hookah cafés entice East Village socialites, fashionistas appropriate the checkered keffiyah scarf, and Prince sings an ode to a young Arab-American girl. They are floating everywhere in the virtual landscape of the national imagination, as either villains of Islam or victims of Arab culture. Yet as in the postmodern world in which we live, sometimes when you are everywhere, you are really nowhere.
“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.”
“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?”
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.
“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.
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.”