Moustafa Bayoumi is author of the award-winning books How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America (2009) and This Muslim American Life: Dispatches From the War on Terror (2015). He is professor of English at Brooklyn College. In this interview with MERIP editorial committee member Alex Lubin, Bayoumi reflects on the changing nature of anti-Muslim racism and the so-called war on terror.
The year 2018 marks a decade since the initial publication of How Does it Feel to Be a Problem? Is today’s United States what you expected ten years after your book appeared?
I’m very fortunate that How Does It Feel To Be a Problem? has achieved the measure of success that it has. Penguin will be issuing a tenth anniversary edition of the book later this year. Any author would be gratified by the publication of an anniversary edition. But to be perfectly frank, I’m also depressed by this fact. When I wrote the book, I believed I was writing a book about our present, a time that with luck and effort would soon be moving into our past. But, ten years later, things have only gotten worse. By all the standard measures, life for Muslims and Arabs in the United States has gotten more rather than less difficult since 2008. Hate crimes are up. Levels of employment discrimination are up. Hostility and misunderstandings abound. And anti-Muslim sentiment has now become instrumentalized into our national politics in a way that it hadn’t been ten years ago. These downward trajectories are likely to continue, especially under a Trump presidency, which feeds off such hatred while making the world increasingly insecure. The conclusion to draw from this sorry state of affairs is not merely that Islamophobia exists but that there is a real need for an authentic anti-war movement in the country to emerge. In other words, what the study of Islamophobia reveals is the pressing need to fight all forms of racism, bigotry and inequality, both at home and abroad.
How do you define Islamophobia in your work? Is it a useful term?
I’ve never been fond of the term “Islamophobia.” (Anti-Muslim bigotry is a better term.) I use Islamophobia mostly because of its widespread adoption, but the antipathy toward Muslims that characterizes Islamophobia is not borne simply out of an irrational fear, as “-phobia” suggests. Many reasons animate the differential treatment of Muslims. Some of those are historic, such as legacies of Orientalism that continue to inform public perceptions of Muslims. Others are structural, such as the ways that Muslims are thought of in the United States in almost exclusive terms of national security. Others are individual, including the ways that people carry their own assumptions about Muslims around with them on a daily basis. Islamophobia as a term can’t cover all of this complexity, but perhaps no single term can.
Islamophobia seems to place a spotlight on certain Muslims, but ignores others. I’m thinking of how black American Muslims (not to mention white Muslims in America) are not targeted by Islamophobia in the same ways as Arab and South Asian Muslims. What does this tell us about Islamophobia?
Well, I respectfully disagree with the premise of the question. While it’s certainly true that the idea of “the Muslim” conjured in the American imagination since 2001 is probably a brown-skinned immigrant, structural anti-Muslim bigotry does not seem to have a brown bias, as it were. Quite the contrary. The sociologist Saher Selod, for example, has found that what most frequently triggers anti-Muslim discrimination is how one dresses or what one is called. Women who wear hijab and people with Muslim-identified names are often the most vulnerable, and neither one’s dress nor name is a racially unique category. Selod is not an outlier in her research, either. Several studies have found that having a Muslim name is a barrier to employment. Or consider how the New York Police Department divided Muslims into different categories for their surveillance purposes, with one category being “American Black Muslim.” Furthermore, when white people become Muslim in the United States, they often leave much of their white-skin advantage behind them.
Within Muslim communities in the United States, there are certainly problems of racism and privilege. To be African American and Muslim, for example, would be to confront both anti-Muslim and anti-black biases. To be Mexican American and Muslim is to be Mexican, American and Muslim, with all the density and prejudice that that combination brings. So, I agree that Islamophobia is another layer we should consider to understand how oppression works. But I don’t agree that Islamophobia ignores certain groups.
Given that Islamophobia has a longer history than Trump, and given that Trump extends many of the policies embraced by Bush and Obama, what would you say to liberals and leftists expressing shock about Trump’s policies with regard to Muslims and the war on terror?
What took you so long?
How do you understand the Trump administration’s approach to the war on terror and to Muslim Americans?
The biggest difference between Trump and both Bush and Obama is that at key moments our prior presidents articulated words of support for Muslims, even while pursuing policies—at home and abroad—that adversely affected Muslim populations. But Bush and Obama did so out of a need to reinforce the state’s monopoly on violence while also convincing Americans and global publics of the essentially liberal nature of the US state. Trump is different. He doesn’t seek to unify the country but to divide it. And his political instincts are like those of the sectarian politicians of the Arab world. Trump flirts with the far-right fringes in this country and around the world in the same way a sectarian politician surrounds himself with thugs and militia members to buttress his power. The analogy is not farfetched. And if we underestimate Trump’s sectarian impulses, we do so at our peril.
In This Muslim American Life you document several ways that you encounter what if feels like to be a “problem.” Looking back over that collection of essays, in what ways have things changed for you, or for Arabs or Muslims in general, during the course of the war on terror?
One big change in American culture over the last decade and a half has been the various threats that are associated with Muslims in the United States. In the early years of the war on terror, Muslims were seen almost exclusively through the lens of a national security threat. The discourse in the early George W. Bush days acknowledged American religious pluralism but worried about things like “sleeper cells” in mosques. But since those days, threats associated with Muslims in the United States have multiplied.
Muslims today are collectively seen as a cultural threat, a democratic threat and a demographic threat. The cultural threat can be seen in the fear that Muslims are stealthily destroying American values with Islam. (Recall the 2011 fiasco when the right-wing tried to boycott Butterball because the company was selling halal turkeys, for example.) The democratic threat exists in the discourse that Muslims will use the tools of democracy to install “sharia-law” all over the country. The demographic threat explains, in part, Trump’s Muslim ban and his massive reduction of refugee admissions (about 40 percent of refugees have been Muslim in recent years). And the discourse that Muslims are a national security threat has remained constant since 2001. I’m almost curious as to what kind of threat Muslims will be next.
You write powerfully about the double standard that treats Muslim violence as terrorism and white American violence as psychological pathology. What does this reveal about the war on terror?
I think the answer is clear: the war on terror is grounded in racism.
Do you see any signs of hope to challenge the predicament of anti-Muslim sentiment and policies in the United States today? Does protest against the Trump administration open avenues to engage with the legacy and presence of Islamophobia?
I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that hope and optimism are American diseases. Why does every interview have to end on a message of hope? Why do social movements always have to be full of optimism? Yes, we have to struggle to make a better world, to alleviate the suffering of others, to find and restore the dignity of ourselves and everyone around us. But it’s also true that the struggle is never-ending. You don’t hope for a better world, achieve it and then go on vacation to celebrate. And what exactly is “hope,” anyway? Hope can mobilize us to necessary action, but it can also demobilize us from what we have to do (think of the Obama years, premised on hope). If you’re considering getting involved in social change because you’re hoping you’ll succeed, you might as well buy lottery tickets instead. Yes, we have to improve our world and fight the forces of regression and repression. But we do so not because we may win if we do, but because we will lose if we don’t. This may sound depressing until you realize that the struggle itself brings joy, justice is found only in the midst of the search for justice, and change only happens by engaging in change. That’s all that matters. Everything else is marketing.