"All Muslim life in America is seen through the lens of terrorism"

Whether Donald Trump or "Homeland," Americans have reduced Muslims to terrorists — and the whole world is watching

Published December 27, 2015 3:30PM (EST)

  (AP/John Locher/Showtime)
(AP/John Locher/Showtime)

Moustafa Bayoumi is a professor of English at Brooklyn College, where I teach political science. His book, "This Muslim American Life," came out in September. It’s a fascinating collection of pieces—sometimes hilarious, often unsettling, always probing and provocative—about, well, Muslim life in America, past and present.

There’s a mini-memoir about the time Moustafa worked as a Middle Eastern extra on "Sex and the City 2"; a Philip-Roth-like story about his discovery of a terrorist named Mustafa Bayoumi in a detective novel (that really did happen); a loving deconstruction of the Islamic undertones and overtones of John Coltrane’s music (“A Love Supreme” becomes “Allah Supreme”); a harrowing essay on how the American military uses music to terrorize and torture its victims (the phrase “Disco Inferno” takes on a whole new meaning); a long and learned history of the relationship between Muslim Americans and African Americans.

The book ranges widely, but it’s held together by a single premonition: that the wrenching changes of the War on Terror have been not only legal and political but also cultural. They are not confined to foreign policy or domestic policing; they extend to the most intimate and personal spaces of social life. They have created among all of us—Muslim and non-Muslim alike—a new set of experiences and sensibilities, a new sense of community and collectivity. At the same time, Moustafa’s book is a long, sustained insistence that we understand all the ways in which people—particularly Muslim people—live their lives outside the War on Terror. "This Muslim American Life" documents the oozing influence of the state, but with its sense of humor and history, shows just how much of the Muslim American experience lies beyond that influence.

A literary critic and gifted essayist, Moustafa brings his formidable skills as a reader of texts to his analysis of contemporary political culture. He’s got that eye—and ear—for the way our most incidental phrases, those stray bits of language, betray our deepest feelings. Where other books on the War on Terror focus on high acts of state, Moustafa finds his materials in the most unexpected places: yes, in the fine print of a legal statute, but also in standup comedy, in the parables of Kafka, in the penultimate paragraph of newspaper article. His archive is everywhere.

Moustafa and I have been friends for years, and we’ve often talked over drinks or dinner, on campus and in cafés, about the topics he addresses in his book. But it wasn’t till I sat down with "This Muslim American Life" that I truly saw the unity of his vision. So I decided to do what we always do when either of us has a book or an idea we’re excited about: sit down with him and talk about it.

Why did you write "This Muslim American Life"?

American society hasn't really grappled with the way that it has changed during the War on Terror. We now live in an age of permanent war, and that war has justified everything from the government spying on its citizens (NSA surveillance) to the CIA torturing its detainees. We have adopted innovative forms of warfare (drones) and incarceration (Guantanamo Bay) without thinking through their consequences. And Muslim Americans are collectively caricatured, blamed and discriminated against, both by the public and by policy.

One way of thinking about these changes is to consider what I call a “War on Terror culture.” When we think of the Cold War, we think of the constant war-footing in American culture, the stereotypical images of people from the Soviet Union, even of a kind of palette of colors. (The FX show "The Americans" plays with this brilliantly.) Cold War culture changed the legal landscape of the country. It stoked our paranoia and drove our foreign policy. It influenced our novelists, painters, poets and filmmakers. And all of these fields—legal, political, entertainment—fed off of each other to create a broader Cold War culture. I think we see something similar operating right now, which we haven’t come to terms with.

But War on Terror culture is also different from Cold War culture. For one thing, there are 3 to 6 million Muslims living in this country today, and they feel the brunt of War on Terror culture directly. That’s different than during the Cold War, when the number of people in the United States from the Soviet Union was smaller and many had come as ideological dissidents. War on Terror culture also imagines Muslims in ideological terms, but it often further casts them as fundamentally dangerous because of their cultural, ethnic and religious ties as well.

You said that when we think about Cold War culture, there's a set of stock images and even colors. What are the images or colors of War on Terror culture?

A lot of screaming beards. And hijabs. It's comprised of images of Muslims as either victims or villains, and really nothing in between.

This is a theme in your book, images of Muslims as victims or villains but nothing in between. How does that work?

Take myself as an example. I have nothing to do with terrorism. Nobody I know has anything to do with terrorism. And yet, all Muslim life in America is seen through the lens of terrorism. So either you are a victim of this war or you are villain who is responsible for it. Like everybody else, Muslims live their lives in complex ways. But when you see a Muslim character on a television show, you can bet the story will be about national security.

When I began reading your book in August, I felt I was reading a book of history, since a lot of the events and policies you discuss date back more than a decade. But as I kept reading through the fall—when we had the attacks in Paris, then in San Bernardino, and new revelations of NYPD spying at Brooklyn College, where we both teach—my experience of the book changed. It started to feel like a present-day text. I know that for you nothing about the War on Terror feels like a document of history. But how do you write for a reader like myself, who has forgotten or drifted away or never knew certain things in the first place?

It’s true that Muslim Americans have been living through a long and exhausting present over these last 14 years, one that is hard for us to forget. But an important aspect of War on Terror culture is that it has made the rest of the country forget even our very recent history. One example of this is the idea bandied about by Donald Trump of registering Muslims in a special database. Many people were up in arms over the proposal; there were invocations of Japanese internment. But you don't have to go back that far in history. In fact we have had a Muslim registry in this country during the War on Terror. In my book, I talk about NSEERS, the program commonly called “Special Registration,” that was begun by the Bush administration one year following the September 11 attacks. This program required non-immigrant Muslim men coming from 24 Muslim-majority countries to register with the government. It was a colossal failure, put thousands into deportation proceedings, and broke apart many families. It also resulted in zero terrorism prosecutions.

How is that possible? I mean, I was around during Special Registration: I even wrote about it at the time. Yet I had forgotten about it until I read your book. This was very significant. And yet, it disappears from consciousness. How do you have a War on Terror culture when you have so much amnesia? I mean, part of any culture is memory, right?

The nineteenth-century French intellectual Ernest Renan wrote that a nation is made up of individuals who have a lot in common with each other but who have also forgotten many things. Nations memorialize certain events while forgetting others. This amnesia is a constant part of any culture. But it’s always worthwhile to try to recall what has been forgotten because it's revealing of how power is distributed in any society.

You write, “To be a Muslim American today is to be full of potential, and not in the sweet way that grandmothers and elementary school teachers used the word…. In the grammar of Islamophobia, the future is tense.” What do you mean by that?

Well, we only have to look at the justifications the NYPD offered for its blanket spying program on Muslim communities here in New York City. They were saying that the NYPD has to patrol Muslim Americans before they become terrorists. That was the testimony the NYPD delivered to a Senate committee in 2007: “Rather than just protecting New York City from terrorists,” one of their advisers said, “the New York Police Department believes that part of its mission is to protect New York City citizens from turning into terrorists.” This is an extraordinary statement. Is the NYPD really aiming to crawl into the souls of Muslims and discover their true essence even before Muslims know themselves? In today’s Islamophobia, people don’t merely hold intolerant ideas about you as a Muslim. In fact, they are scripting their assumptions about your future for you as well. And that’s an extremely debilitating place to be in. It renders anything you say inconsequential—

–or symptomatic—

Yes, exactly. Everything you say will be taken to mean something else. It's disarming. Not only are you a kind of walking stereotype, but the stereotype has also disempowered you from being able to respond to that stereotype at the same time.

It's hard to be a player in a game when it's not just the move and the counter move but also every future move that has been anticipated for you. You lose any sovereignty over yourself.

Absolutely. There's no indication to me that this is changing either. The idea of the future Muslim menace is so pervasive that Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, said the U.S. shouldn’t admit any Syrian refugees, “not even orphans under age 5!” That’s not vigilance. It’s vengeance. Rather than being seen as individuals, Muslims are considered on a collective level while being held responsible for some unknowable future. It’s really an impossible position to occupy.

There’s a cruel irony here. The future is the quintessential American tense. In the United States, we are all future selves, what we can make of ourselves, who we can become. And to take that orientation and to turn it against people is a double assault, because what is so quintessentially American as a virtue becomes a vice.

In a chapter called “The Race Is On,” you write about the long history and relationship between Muslim Americans and African Americans. It’s a fascinating chapter, which helps take us out of this villain-victim paradigm.

It’s important to recognize that Muslims were in the United States since the colonial era. Sizable numbers of Muslim Africans were brought here and enslaved. Many were literate in Arabic. The WPA narratives, collected in the 1930s, recorded ex-slaves reminiscing about the religious rites of their ancestors. “Mustapha,” the historian John Inscoe tells us, was a fairly common name among slaves in the colonial Carolinas.

As a country, we’ve made some progress in changing our thinking about African American history; African Americans play a much larger role now in the national pageant than they used to. But what you’ve just mentioned, the intertwining of Muslim and African America, hasn’t really achieved visibility in our culture.

That story of Muslim America had some kind of hold prior to 2001, but it has completely receded since. If you had asked the average American before 2001 to name an American Muslim, the answer would have been Muhammad Ali or Malcolm X. Both Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X were aware of this history. Malcolm X talks about it in his autobiography.

Ask the same question today, and people will likely imagine a brown-skinned immigrant from the Middle East or South Asia. But African Americans comprise the largest single group among Muslim Americans. According to Gallup, about 36 percent of Muslims in the U.S. are African American.

Wow, I didn’t know that.

You quote James Baldwin, who wrote, in 1972: “Any real commitment to black freedom in this country would have the effect of reordering all our priorities and altering all our commitments, so that for horrendous example, we would be supporting black freedom fighters in South Africa and Angola, and we would be supporting the Arab nations instead of Israel.” How does that connect with what you’re saying about the relationship between Muslim Americans and African Americans?

In their liberation struggles, African Americans have often opposed the U.S. empire. They fought against the Philippine-American war, the Vietnam War, and supported many African struggles for independence. There’s a deep connection between their liberation struggles at home and these struggles abroad.

But in a lot of contemporary pop culture, you see African Americans at the helm of American institutions like the FBI or the U.S. military, bravely leading the United States in its adventures around the world. When the United States is represented, in a movie like “The Kingdom,” by somebody who is African American, with the power of the state on his or her shoulders, what’s conveyed is that racism has been overcome in the United States, and that U.S. actions oversees are not driven by conquest but by the desire to promote our version of multicultural coexistence.

In movies like “The Siege,” which came out before 2001 but has the same cultural logic of the War on Terror behind it, you see a replay of black/white buddy movies of the 1980s. Those older films suggested that interracial friendship is all that’s needed to overcome centuries of racism.

Like Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.

Exactly. But with Arab/African American friendship in contemporary movies, you have an international dimension attached. Friendship also illustrates a kind of American leadership quality, since within the friendships, the Arab characters always play a subordinate role to the African American characters.

Like the Tony Shalhoub character in “The Siege.”

In fact, “The Siege” is interesting too because it has what seems like a very deliberately multicultural FBI, and yet Tony Shalhoub is the only agent who speaks with an accent. That also works to distance him from viewers, considering the language politics of the United States.

This is why we can’t forget that long history of African American opposition to American overseas adventurism. Otherwise, we miss how new these representations are.

In that same essay you quote W. E. B. Du Bois from his testimony to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in 1949. Talking about the Cold War and about the U.S. thinking it would bring freedom abroad, Du Bois says, “We want to rule Russia, and we cannot rule Alabama.” After reading that, I was thinking, how would we rewrite that today? There was such a consciousness during the Cold War, at least on the part of American elites, that the treatment of African Americans posed a real problem for the U.S. in its competition with the Soviets for the allegiance of the decolonizing world. I wonder, today, with reports of police surveillance of Muslim communities, where is the consciousness of how that plays out in the rest of the world?

Republican candidates for president speak as if the rest of the world can’t hear them. In fact, I think a lot of our policies, whether it be local law enforcement or at the federal level, also speak as if the rest of the world can’t hear them. But the rest of the world, especially with the spread of social media, is definitely listening.

How has the situation of Muslims and Arabs in America changed between the Bush and the Obama administrations?

When Obama was elected president, we saw a rise in popular Islamophobia around the country. And much of that is often displaced racism because you can’t talk about Obama’s race openly in negative terms. That is not socially acceptable, generally speaking, in the United States. But, you can talk about him negatively and openly as a Muslim because that is socially acceptable today.

Which is all the more ironic, coming back to your point that the largest plurality of the Muslim community is African American.

Yes, exactly. It’s wrong to think that the Bush administration was better toward Muslim Americans than Republicans are today. That is too simple. The Bush administration was trying to keep its monopoly on power because there was a lot of vigilante violence against Muslims and Arabs directly following 2001, and the Bush administration was planning a war. So they offered consoling words to a worried public, telling them essentially: “We have this under control, so you don’t have to take it into your own hands.” So, yeah, it’s too simple to think that Bush was good to Muslims, and Obama is not. Unfortunately, that narrative keeps getting spread over and over.

You saw it very recently with Trump when everyone said, Oh, it’s so different from the Bush days, because Bush, in one speech, said: Be nice to Muslims.

Yes, and at the same time, his attorney general, John Ashcroft, was appearing on TV almost every day telling the public how many Muslims they had arrested, and how many were being deported. But again, people remember what they want, and forget what they want.

By Corey Robin

Corey Robin is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. Author of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin and Fear: The History of a Political Idea, he is currently writing a book about Clarence Thomas.

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