This Muslim American Life:
Dispatches from the War on Terror
By Moustafa Bayoumi
New York University Press, 2015, 309 pages, $19.95 paperback.
WHEN DONALD TRUMP proposed a ban on Muslim travel to the United States last December, many dismissed the proposal as absurd and untenable. Others more apprehensively saw it as a real threat, one of the new evils that would be visited upon the United States should Mr. Trump become the next president.
Moustafa Bayoumi’s This Muslim American Life tells us that the threat is real and, unfortunately, nothing new. Bayoumi is a professor of English at Brooklyn College, CUNY, and his book combines first-hand experience with scholarly research to deliver a sobering account of the “War on Terror culture,” and its repercussions on the lives of American Muslims.
This culture, writes Bayoumi “has meant that we are regularly seen as dangerous outsiders, that our daily actions are constantly viewed with suspicion, that our complex histories in this country are neglected or occluded. Our very presence and our houses of worship have become issues of local, regional and national politics.” (254)
The book is arranged into four sections. The first, “Muslims in History,” investigates the history of a 1920 Syrian community in Manhattan, of Muslim African slaves brought to America in 17th and 18th centuries, and of the connections, spiritual as well as cultural, between Muslim Americans and African Americans. “Islam in this country is about as old as Virgina,” this section sufficiently demonstrates. (29)
The following section, “Muslims in Theory,” draws on Edward Said’s Orientalism in which he demonstrated how both academic as well as mass media venues have produced knowledge about Arabs and Muslims from ideological positions to reinforce Western hegemony and advance the pursuit of colonialism.
The War on Terror, Bayoumi argues, is an extension of this ideologically prejudiced form of knowledge production — not only a stupid war, but a war designed to make us stupid. It blinds us to the American and Israeli imperialist and colonialist goals in the Middle East, which resort to brute force with little or no outcry at home.
The book’s third section, “Muslims in Politics,” follows the consequences of the proliferation of Islamophobia, both within law enforcement and outside, on the everyday lives of Muslims who are often subject to surveillance, detention or even deportation without lawful reasons or due process, and who are constantly reduced in the public eye to suspects or apologists without the slightest shade of complexity or individuation.
“While it is socially unacceptable to be outwardly racist in the United States today, writes Bayoumi, “the same simply isn’t true when it comes to Muslims.” Furthermore, he adds, “as a nation, we had previously considered illegal such things as targeted killings, indefinite detention without trial, and torture. Now these actions are not only condoned, but generally accepted as necessary and prudent.” (254, 255)
“Muslims in Culture,” the fourth part, discusses the representation of the Muslim in American literature, cinema and TV. He is, more often than not, a potential terrorist, whether he is maladjusted like the young Ahmad in John Updike’s Terrorist, or perfectly adjusted like Habib Marwan in the TV series “24,” a computer analyst by day and terrorist by night.
This Muslim American Life includes, perhaps not surprisingly, numerous documented cases of police surveillance and unlawful arrests and detentions, efforts to silence Muslim voices, and propagation of the ‘fear and loathing” that led to the Economist report that 55% of Americans hold unfavorable views of Islam.” (173)
Yet more importantly, the book warns us that the corrosive consequences of this War on Terror culture does not impact Muslims alone. It reminds us that policies targeting Muslims have their roots in the Chinese Exclusion Acts, compares the government practices against Muslim citizens today to the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII when citizenship rights were invalidated overnight, and likens the production of simplistic and politically motivated representations of Muslim cutout suspects to Cold War narratives about communists plotting the downfall of the United States.
Perhaps most disturbing within these important connections that Bayoumi draws is the connection between racism and religion, what he calls the racialization of Islam that led a CNN reporter to state Muslims and Arabs are the new Blacks. Of course, Black people also continue to be “the new Blacks” and we find that increasing empowerment of the police against one invariably victimizes both.
Despite its grim and alarming subject, This Muslim American Life is not without its sense of humor, as in the chapter when Professor Bayoumi discovers his doppelganger, Moustafa Bayoumi, the terrorist in a third-rate novel by a Daniel Blake.
The book quotes the routine in which comedian Dean Obeidallah jokingly reacted to the reporter’s “new Blacks” statement: “What up, Moustafa?” and “Where my Arabs at?” Obeidallah quipped, would now make Arabs cool.
It is also not without hope: “Polls may suggest that half the population is anti-Muslim, but that leaves the other half that isn’t,” writes Bayoumi. “In many quarters of the country, there is genuine not suspicious interest in American Muslims and the realities they face.” (146)
Libraries, places of worship, museums and even some TV shows try to further understanding and combat bigotry. The situation is not hopeless, but Americans need to understand how the War on Terror culture has produced a massive national security state and that it “too often rationalizes away unnecessary killing ... [and] thrives on secrecy and militarism.” (256)
July-August 2016, ATC 183