Islamophobic? How Does it Feel to be a Problem?

6 September, 2018


Politicians, not terrorists, are the chief instigators of Islamophobic prejudice, and with election it gets worse.

Moustafa Bayoumi

If you had told me in 2008, when How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? was first published, that ten years later the United States would be in the midst of a national debate about banning Muslims from entering the country, I would have scoffed in disbelief.

Of course, I knew then, as I know now, that there have been many times in American history when the nation has turned on its vulnerable minorities. But back in 2008, I had grown optimistic about the future of the country, mostly owing to the experiences I had while writing this book. The young people I wrote about in these pages faced all kinds of problems stemming largely from being Arab or Muslim at a time when that fact alone could prompt undue suspicion from others. These were ordinary young people thrust into extraordinary circumstance, and I was fortunate to witness firsthand the creativity, energy, and commitments they found to overcome the problems they faced. Here were young people who were not only determined to make their lives better but were also, in many cases, devoted to making the United States a better, more equitable place. They inspired me and gave me hope for the future.

Hope was a prominent word in 2008. A few months following the publication of How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?, Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. The iconic poster by Shepard Fairey of Obama gazing into the distance with the word “HOPE” below came to represent Obama’s campaign and the future his election would herald. How could we not be optimistic? Obama was our first African American president, he spoke about the need for “change we can believe in,” and Hussein was his middle name.

Besides, after eight years of George W. Bush as president, the necessity for new ways of governing was acute. As the stories in this book show, the state of civil liberties in the United States under Bush had become precarious at best. The nation’s wars were also expanding, the economy was crashing, and the government’s attitude toward its citizens had been laid bare in its abhorrent response to Hurricane Katrina, whose victims were disproportionately poor and African American. By 2008, the American people were yearning for another direction, perhaps none more so than Arab Americans and Muslims Americans. Exit polls showed that both Arab Americans and Muslim Americans voted overwhelmingly for Obama. We believed a new day had to come.

But the reality is that Muslim American life didn’t improve during the Obama years. According to polls taken by ABC News/Washington Post in 2001, 39 percent of Americans admitted to holding unfavorable views of Islam. By 2010, that number had grown to 49 percent. A YouGov/HuffPost poll from 2015 saw that number rise again to 58 percent. Also in 2010, the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy exploded, and it was not an isolated case: Muslim communities around the country continued to see mosque construction projects face obstacles unseen by any other faith group. A 2016 Department of Justice review of discrimination cases involving religious land use and zoning discovered that investigations and cases concerning discrimination against mosques or Islamic schools had risen dramatically in recent years. From 2000 to 2010, they already accounted for 15 percent of the department’s total land use and zoning caseload. From 2010 to 2016, that number jumped to 38 percent. Muslim Americans, it should be remembered, make up approximately 1 percent of the total U.S. population.

Muslim communities in and around New York City also had their suspicions finally confirmed that law enforcement was indeed spying on them for no other reason than for being Muslim—a concern expressed by the young Muslims in this book—and had been doing so for many years. In 2011, the Associated Press published a series of stories that detailed how the New York City Police Department was engaged in a massive secret program of blanket surveillance monitoring the lawful and peaceful activities of Muslim communities in the tristate area. The series won the Associated Press a Pulitzer Prize and, through the herculean efforts of local activists, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, eventually led to the installation of a new inspector general to oversee the activities of the police department.

For its part, the Obama administration widened the War on Terror to include military action in more predominantly Muslim countries, intensified its drone warfare operations throughout the world, and continued to pursue a secret domestic program that was rolled out in the waning days of the Bush administration.

In 2008, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) implemented a covert plan called the Controlled Application Review and Resolution Program, or CARRP for short. The program required immigration services field officers to deny or delay, often indefinitely, any application with a potential “national security concern,” which was defined incredibly broadly by USCIS. For some applicants, a process that normally took about six months was stretched out for years. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a lawsuit in 2014 against the government over this scheme, more than 41,000 people from Muslim-majority countries or regions have been subject to the program since it began in 2008, and those who had their applications denied had no means of discovering why nor any meaningful opportunity to respond. In other words, the War on Terror was not winding down under Obama. It was growing roots.

And while the power and reach of al Qaeda may have diminished over the years, a comparable decline in global hostility and violence didn’t follow. High-profile terrorist attacks—such as the one in Paris in 2015, which claimed 130 victims, or the Orlando nightclub shooting, where a gunman killed 49 people—rightly drew the attention, horror, and condemnation of the world. But that attention also meant that ordinary Muslims would continue to be viewed with suspicion and were often associated with a newly formed group that emerged out of the wreckage of the Iraq war. ISIS is even more grotesque than al Qaeda, but both groups—and all such extremist groups—share one fundamental characteristic: These extremists constantly seek to foster as much hatred and division as possible between Western societies and their Muslim minorities. Such a strategy deliberately furthers their agenda of triggering a global war between Muslims and non-Muslims, while also enabling their hunt for new foot soldiers among the disaffected for their immoral campaigns. ISIS and their ilk are not fighting Islamophobia. Rather, they are profiting from it.

Despite the wishes of the extremists, it may come as a surprise that anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States spikes not when there is a major terrorist attack but instead under more routine—and predictable—circumstances. The statistician Dalia Mogahed has closely examined the data since 2001, and she found that public opinion concerning Muslims didn’t fall precipitously after the 9/11 attacks, didn’t dip after the Boston bombing, and didn’t plummet after the Orlando shooting. Public sentiment has hardened against Muslims, however, at regular and identifiable moments, namely every four years, when our country is embroiled in a presidential election. What this means is that Islamophobia in the United States is not merely a matter of personal opinion or private bias but has become a political phenomenon to be exploited by our politicians.

The politicization of anti-Muslim sentiment is how we can best understand the appeal of Donald Trump’s Islamophobic rhetoric during the 2016 presidential campaign. After all, what Trump essentially
did was speak out loud an Islamophobia that was already quietly in practice. When Trump responded positively when questioned about instituting a Muslim registry, many people sucked in their breath in horror. But what the public seemed to have forgotten or perhaps didn’t know is that the Bush administration had carried out a limited version of a Muslim registry beginning in 2002, to very little public outcry but with major upheavals in Muslim communities in the United States. (Bush’s “Special Registration” program placed almost 14,000 people from Muslim-majority countries in deportation proceedings and resulted in zero terrorism convictions.) Also during his campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly called for surveillance on mosques, enraging many who said that he was betraying the primary American value of freedom of religion. Yet, once again, people seemed to have forgotten or were overlooking how the FBI (in addition to the NYPD, as previously mentioned) had already engaged in large-scale surveillance of mosques without probable cause. And when Donald Trump announced on December 7, 2015 that he was calling for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on,” much of the country recoiled in horror at the statement. Most probably didn’t know about CARRP and other initiatives that had already made it more difficult for Muslims to come and remain in the United States.

Donald Trump didn’t invent Islamophobia, but he certainly did magnify it. There was undoubtedly something different—and frightening—about the brazenness of his rhetoric and the divisiveness of his message, which was clearly not limited to attacking Muslims but included everyone from Mexicans to people with disabilities. Since the rise of Donald Trump to the national political stage in 2015, Muslim American life has taken a decidedly more perilous turn. Hate crimes against Muslims in the United States in 2015 reached levels not seen since 2001. According to the FBI, 2015 witnessed a 67 percent increase in hate crimes incidents against Muslims from the previous year, and in 2016, the number rose again, this time by almost 20 percent compared to 2015. The number of violent assaults (one of the worst forms of hate crimes) in 2016 also exceeded the number from 2001, previously the record-high year. And 2017 is on track to being another record-breaking year.

As grim as this reality is, something else important has been happening over the past few years. In growing numbers, the general American public is now recognizing the contemporary struggles that Muslim Americans and Arab Americans confront. The polls tell us that a majority of Americans now believe that Muslims face significant levels of discrimination. Members of the American Psychological Association are investigating the psychological impact of Islamophobia on multiple levels. With HBO’s The Night Of and Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, Hollywood finally seems interested in creating more complicated representations of Muslims for our screens.

There is a rising and profound interest among many Americans to move away from the demagoguery of our politicians and to understand how Muslim Americans really live their lives. That desire has led many readers to this book. Since about 2015, I’ve encountered so many readers who tell me they’re surprised How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? was first published in 2008. The book, they tell me, seems like it describes our moment even more accurately than the time period when it was written. As gratifying as it is for me to hear that readers continue to find this book relevant, I’m also, truth be told, saddened by the observation. In 2008, I believed that I had written a book that I assumed would soon be read as an account of our recent history. I didn’t realize then that I was writing a chronicle of our future.

Nevertheless, it’s been a very meaningful experience for me to share the lives of these seven young people with so many readers. And, since 2008, the young people I wrote about in How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? have gone on to live rich and interesting lives.

Rasha eventually gained her U.S. citizenship and became a high-school social-studies teacher. After years of working in the public-school system in Brooklyn, she decided to teach in the United Arab Emirates, though she has recently returned to live and work in the United States.

After serving in the Marine Corps, Sami managed a restaurant in Brooklyn for a number of years and then worked for a staffing agency that recruited accounting and finance professionals for employers. He is now a senior human resources associate at the Community Service Society of New York, a leading anti-poverty organization. Sami recently married and will soon be a father.

Yasmin graduated from law school, after which she clerked for a federal judge. She then worked as an assistant district attorney in the Brooklyn D.A.’s office and is now a supervising attorney at New York City’s Taxi & Limousine Commission.

After graduating from college, Akram moved to the United Arab Emirates to become a high-school teacher there. He married a Palestinian American woman from Brooklyn, and they have two children. In 2015, he and his family moved back to Brooklyn, and he currently works as a high-school English teacher in Brooklyn.

Lina divorced her husband, recently returned to Brooklyn with her three children, and is currently back in school studying criminal justice.

Omar did not get a job in the media but did get a career-track job in human resources, and he married Nadine. He now works in logistics for a large corporation and lives with his wife and children in New York City.

Rami’s father was eventually deported to Jordan, and Rami lives in the Dallas/Fort Worth area with his wife and two children while working full time for the Muslim American Society.

Ten years ago, I wrote that these seven young people mostly wanted what the majority of young people want: opportunity, marriage, happiness, and the chance to fulfill their potential. A decade later, they have, for the most part, been able to achieve those goals. Their accomplishments are testaments not only to their individual talents and abilities but also to America’s capacity to provide prospects for its younger generations, something we must preserve at all costs if we are to succeed as a society. What’s interesting is that most of the people I wrote about have since chosen professions in law, education, or community building—in other words, careers dedicated to social justice and serving others. This spirit tracks with the increasingly progressive bent of the larger Muslim American community today, a quality clearly captured by the Pew Research Center’s survey of Muslim Americans in 2017. That sense of service has also brought with it a strong sense of identity mixed with responsibility. Rasha recently wrote me that “Muslim Americans have firmly established a voice for themselves that dispels the stereotypes of the past and commands dialogue and respect.” Sami and his brother are not Muslim, but they are Arab, and they started the popular Twitter account @ArabsForBernie (“we will always #feelthebern,” reads their Twitter bio). Yasmin was a founding member of the Arab American Bar Association (AABA), an organization with “a particular focus on serving underserved, underrepresented communities,” according to their mission statement. The AABA also “seeks to provide the resources necessary to youth to spark their interest in the law,” which is not only a worthy goal but also one directly related to Yasmin’s own experiences.

Yet it’s also undeniable that the extra burdens placed on young Arabs and Muslims a decade ago are not easing but piling up. Ten years ago, Lina saw Syria as a haven for Iraqis. Now Syria, Rasha’s birthplace, is its own tragedy. And the difficulties aren’t reserved for overseas wars, either. Muslim Americans as a whole are deeply worried about
their fates under the Trump administration. A Yemeni American friend of mine is today separated from her husband directly due to Trump’s Muslim ban. Another friend recently watched her father, who lived in the United States for almost forty years as a successful businessman and father of four, be deported to Jordan, a victim of the Trump administration’s merciless immigration policy. Muslim kids are currently four times more likely to be bullied at school than the general population. A fifth of the American Muslim population is making plans to leave the country “if it becomes necessary.” Yasmin, who always finds a reason for optimism even under the direst of circumstances, told me that she cried the night Donald Trump was elected.

Hope may be harder to find these days than in 2008, but it hasn’t disappeared. Finding hope is necessary for the simple facts that despair is not an option and resignation will never lead to solutions. Where hope lies today is not with our elected officials but with the people of the United States who are bravely willing to stand up to injustice when they see it. During a cold weekend in late January 2017, tens of thousands of people ran to airports across the country to protest and block Trump’s first attempt at a Muslim ban. This rapid mobilization was one the most inspiring things I have ever seen, and it’s been followed by tens of thousands of other, lesser known but no less meaningful acts by individuals in support of Muslims, immigrants, refugees, and others. In these acts of solidarity lies an important lesson that we have been learning profoundly since the election of 2016. As a nation, we all share in the responsibility to take care of one another. And since the health of the nation is directly related to the state of its weakest members, the fight for the rights of Muslims Americans or immigrant Americans or Native Americans or African Americans or LGBTQ Americans is the fight for the rights of all Americans.

In his 1964 speech titled “The American Dream,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told his audience at Drew University a simple but important message. King began his address by describing the “schizophrenic personality” of the United States, where “on the one hand we have proudly professed the great principles of democracy [but] on the other hand we have sadly practiced the very antithesis of those principles.” He followed by telling his listeners that “the shape of the world today does not afford us the luxury of an anemic democracy.” King then offered a pointed solution to these problems, a solution that he delivered almost in the form of a commandment. “We must all learn to live together as brothers [and sisters],” he said, “or we will all perish together as fools.”

King’s commandment was true in 1964, just as it was true in 2008. It remains true today. And it’ll be true tomorrow, too.


The foregoing is from the new Afterward to Professor Bayoumi’s now-classic and ever timely book How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America, (Penguin Books 2008, 2018) by Moustafa Bayoumi. It first appeared in the Daily Beast and appears in the Markaz Review by arrangement with the author.

Moustafa Bayoumi is the author of the critically acclaimed How Does It Feel To Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America (Penguin), which won an American Book Award and the Arab American Book Award for Non-Fiction. The book has also been translated into Arabic by Arab Scientific Publishers. His latest book, This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror (NYU Press), was chosen as a Best Book of 2015 by The Progressive magazine and was also awarded the Arab American Book Award for Non-Fiction.

An accomplished journalist, Bayoumi is also a columnist for The Guardian, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, New York MagazineThe NationalCNN.comThe London Review of BooksThe NationThe Chronicle of Higher EducationThe Progressive, and other places. Bayoumi is Professor of English at Brooklyn College, City University of New York.