High profile anti-Muslim hates crimes and haters are making the front pages. But anti-Muslims bias, and the experience of being the target of that hate, is routine. In a strange twist, one of these quieter assaults is being waged over a book whose whole point is to explore the insidious ways that anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bias plays out.
The book is How Does It Feel To Be A Problem? Being Young and Arab in America by Moustafa Bayoumi, a professor of at Brooklyn College. It was published at a time when many imagined the worst parts of post 9-11 hate were behind us. It’s clear now that this could not be further from the truth. As a result, Bayoumi’s book has never been more necessary.
The controversy emerged after the book was assigned as required reading to incoming first years at the school. When the reading list was sent out, a handful of alumni, emeritus and current faculty started yelling about it and its now made its way to conservative blogs. Abigail L. Rosenthal, a retired Brooklyn College professor wrote to the college President:
It smacks of indoctrination. It will intimidate incoming students who have a different point of view (or have formed no point of view), sending the message that only one side will be approved on this College campus. It can certainly intimidate untenured faculty as well.
It’s a claim that reeks with irony because the book is a very elegant attempt to remedy a very real kind of silencing and intimidation: the eclipse of everyday Arab voices from discussions that have everything to do with their lives. Over the phone Bayoumi told me, “it’s a weird contradiction where it seems that Muslims and Arabs are more visible than ever but they are muted at the same time.”
Bayoumi says he’s received a few emails from Muslim and Arab students who were assigned the reading. “They were all really excited to have the book and that somehow their experiences resonated with the book.”
Last year, Yasmine Farhang reviewed the book for Colorlines. Here’s some of what she wrote:
In his new book, How Does it Feel to be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America, Moustafa Bayoumi, an English professor at Brooklyn College, introduces readers to seven young people in Brooklyn who are all too familiar with being defined by others.
From the story of Rasha’s family being detained in 2002 after the FBI identifies them as terrorists simply for being in immigration limbo to Sami’s experience in the marines where his commanding officers watch him like hawks to be sure he is not “too sympathetic” to the Iraqis, readers see each person attempt to come of age in an environment that has already decided who they are. As Bayoumi gets to know Rasha, Sami, Yasmin, Akram, Lina, Omar and Rami by spending time with them in their homes, workplaces and favorite hangouts, the theme of navigating simultaneous Arab, Muslim and American identities takes shape. Patterns become clear, such as facing law enforcement, being targeted by authority figures in different environments (teachers, military officers, employers) and—perhaps just as bad—the frustrating paranoia of constantly being unsure whether you are being targeted at all.
Bayoumi astutely observes that, “Arab and Muslim Americans are constantly talked about but almost never heard from… [yet] sometimes when you are everywhere, you are really nowhere.” Herein lies Bayoumi’s incentive for embarking on the project that culminated in this book. There is no doubt that Bayoumi has a central question, being “What is it like to be young and Arab in the age of terror?” Yet he is able to keep this question in his pocket and let the youth, for once, lead the way.