How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America—the controversial book assigned for freshman reading at Brooklyn College—is, in my opinion, an important but seriously flawed work, and one that should be read, but not as a sole required text for incoming English students.
In the book Brooklyn College English professor Moustafa Bayoumi decries what he sees as the pervasive bigotry that Muslim youth have faced since 9/11. After citing past groups that have been singled out for discrimination, including Japanese Americans during World War II, in an interview Professor Bayoumi concluded, “You would have thought that this would never happen again.” A number of New York City newspapers condemned its selection as the required reading for all Brooklyn College freshmen. By contrast, the New York Times claimed that the condemnations were fomented primarily by outsiders and allowed Professor Bayoumi to respond to his critics. In this essay, I will discuss: the inappropriateness of its selection, the inaccuracy of many of Professor Bayoumi’s generalizations, and the motivation for the position taken by the New York Times. An accurate assessment will find that Muslim Americans have been treated remarkably well by the American public and that Muslim Americans have a very positive view of their personal situation and experiences, undermining the victimization narrative that Professor Bayoumi promotes.
The Daily News Weighs In
For the past six years, Brooklyn College has selected a book which is now required reading in all freshman English courses. In response to press criticisms, the College has claimed that this selection follows previous selections of other memoirs, including Angela’s Ashes. Unfortunately, the seven interviews that make up the core of Professor Bayoumi’s book are placed in an overtly explicit political context he provides in his “Preface” and “Afterword.” This context is what dominated the newspaper criticisms. For example, a New York Daily News editorial stated,
“Bayoumi chose the profiles to support his argument that social attitudes have combined with the effects of U.S. foreign policy to deprive Muslims and Arab-Americans of civil rights, with the effects felt most severely by the young.
Had he chosen to tell stories of seven other Arab-Americans, people who immigrated from, say, Lebanon or Syria and followed well-trodden paths to success, he could have just as easily titled his book, ‘How Does it Feel to Live in the Land of Opportunity?’
“Bayoumi sees America more darkly. In the book’s afterword, he writes that ‘Muslims and Arabs are scrutinized for sedition at every turn,’ that Arab-American life includes ‘substantial government surveillance and repression,’ that ‘today, everyone – immigrant and citizen, activist and spectator – has become vulnerable,’ that ‘spies and government informants have penetrated Muslim-American communities’ and that ‘torture has been normalized into American culture’.”
What this editorial ignores is the inherent problem faced by instructors in freshman English: Virtually all of the most interesting readings that could be selected invariably have some political context. For example, Angela’s Ashes has stinging criticism of the Catholic Church; Toni Morrison’s Sula, gives a particular account of the horrors of slavery. While these books present personal accounts, how does an English instructor trained in literary criticism handle the generalizations that are implicit in these works?
In most cases, the problems faced by freshman English instructors are submerged because the readings are situated in an historical past, are assigned in a decentralized manner – by individual instructors – and the generalized implications are implicit. By contrast, Professor Bayoumi’s work is contemporary, chosen in a centralized way, and its political generalizations are explicit. While those on the Right have condemned its selection, the same response would have come from the Left if Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book, Infidel, had been chosen. This personal memoir takes a Somali-born Muslim woman through her life in Africa, her escape from an arranged marriage to Holland, her assessment of the Dutch society’s response to its growing Muslim immigrant population, and her eventually emigration to the United States when faced with death threats for her criticisms of Muslim treatment of women.
I believe that it would have been inappropriate for the English Department to have chosen either book because of their contemporary implications when the political generalizations made are so explicit. It puts undo pressure on instructors who may feel ill equipped to discuss the highly-charged, explicit politics found in each book. Just as important, the book’s politics may undercut their ability to focus on the primary role of freshman English: to strengthen writing skills.
How Accurate Are The Political Generalizations?
Professor Bayoumi should be commended for making real through the seven stories he tells the hardships the Muslim American community endured in the immediate aftermath of 9/11: unjustifiable arrests, deportation, and violence. These are stories that had to be told and he does so in a way that provides an understanding as to why the protection of civil liberties is an ongoing struggle in the United States that should be vigorously defended. The protection of minority rights and unpopular opinions is a core principle of democracies and should not be so easily sacrificed when they become cumbersome or in conflict with other objectives.
Professor Bayoumi’s seven interviews highlight the civil rights abuses ordinary Muslim Americans experienced in the aftermath of 9/11. Unfortunately, the larger context in which he situates these interviews is less defensible and detracts from the stories he tells. In particular, he inflates the intensity of these abuses beyond the immediate aftermath of 9/11, makes problematic analogies to other examples of civil rights abuses, and wrongly suggests that ongoing anti-Muslim attitudes and actions have significantly impaired the life chances and outlook of young Muslim Americans.
In his preface, Professor Bayoumi presents statistics on anti-Muslim hate crimes. He states,
“Biased crimes against Arabs, Muslims, and those assumed to be Arab or Muslim spiked 1,700 percent in the first six months after September 11 and have never since returned to their pre-2001 levels.”
These figures reflect FBI hate crime statistics comparing 2000 to 2001. On the same page of the reference Professor Bayoumi cites, the actual numbers are listed and some comparisons to the hate crimes experienced by other groups are presented. This seventeen-fold increase is striking, particularly since it overwhelmingly reflected hate crimes during the last fifteen weeks of 2001, not the six months that Professor Bayoumi incorrectly states. This percentage increase, however, was due to the very small number of anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2000 (and previous years.) As a result, even with this unprecedented percentage increase, the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2001, was one-half the number of anti-Jewish hate crimes, about one-quarter the anti-male homosexual hate crimes, and one-sixth the anti-black hate crimes (table 1). If we focus only on the much more serious biased assaults, 2001 anti-Muslim incidents when calculated on a per capita basis may be higher than some of the other groups (table 2).
Nor was the modest violence against Muslim Americans – 85 biased assaults reported in 2001 – treated with indifference by the majority of local police nationally. The Human Rights Watch publication Professor Bayoumi cites, surveyed the police response after 9/11. In its summary, it reported,
“Our research demonstrates that action in advance of potential outbreaks of hate crimes can help mitigate the harm to individuals and property from backlash crimes. The success in combating backlash violence in Dearborn, Michigan, for example, where only two violent September 11-related assaults occurred in a city with 30,000 Arab-Americans, reflected steps taken by local and state officials long before September 11.”
This suggests that if Professor Bayoumi had conducted representative interviews in Dearborn, they would not have been so negative.
It was the federal government that singled out Muslim Americans through unwarranted arrests and deportations. Besides the damages this did to the families directly and indirectly affected, it set a dangerous precedent that today has adversely affected many Latino immigrants. But Professor Bayoumi, in my opinion, weakens his case by comparing these actions to the 1919 Palmer raids. He stated,
“Special Registration initiated deportation proceedings for almost 14,000 people, many times more than the 556 foreign nationals deported between 1918 and 1921, during the Palmer Raids that followed several bombings in the country, including one on the house of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer.”
Note that Professor Bayoumi compares the actual number of deportations during the Palmer raids to “deportation” proceedings after 9/11– really the number of people asked to appear at the national registry office, most of whom were asked to clarify registration irregularities. Most troubling, he strongly suggests that these registries and so-called deportation proceedings impacted on Muslim Americans. While he mentions that the registry was for only “men from twenty-four Muslim-majority countries,” he neglects to be more specific. As the publication Bayoumi cites clearly indicates, the national registry “is for temporary foreign visitors (non-immigrant aliens) arriving from certain countries … [and does] NOT include U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents (green card holders), refugees, asylum applicants (who filed before November 22, 2002), asylum grantees, and diplomats or others admitted under A or G visas.” As a result, it had no impact on Muslim Americans. Indeed, if you look at the disposition of these proceedings, it doesn’t even suggest significant deportations of these non-resident aliens.
Just as troubling, Professor Bayoumi does not report anti-Muslim hate crime statistics after 2001. The data show they fell precipitously. The total number of anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2002 was 170, less than one-third the 2001 figure; and it remained at that level or lower for almost all subsequent years. After a particular gruesome anti-Muslim crime in the Sacramento (CA) area in 2010, Michael Doyle looked at the 2008 FBI hate crime data and concluded, “Hate crimes directed against Muslims remain relatively rare … There were 10 times as many incidents that were recorded as anti-Jewish …”
Those 105 anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2008 included intimidation and vandalism (defacing property), as well as more serious crimes, such as assault. When we look at assaults, the Jewish-Muslim gap is smaller but in every year except 2001, biased assaults on Jews were higher. More important, biased assaults on both religious groups pale when compared to those against other groups. In 2008, there were only 35 anti-Muslim assaults compared to 83, 347, 464, and 967 biased assaults against Jews, Hispanics, male homosexuals, and black Americans, respectively.
While Professor Bayoumi is certainly correct when he stated that anti-Muslim hate crimes “never returned to their 2001 levels” (as Doyle does), this distorts the real dynamics that occurred in the ensuing years. Table 3 calculates the per capita incident of hate crimes and bias assaults for the entire seven-year period, 2002 through 2008 using some reasonable group population estimates. The results contradict Professor Bayoumi’s claim that Muslim Americans have been singled out by the American public beyond the immediate 9/11 aftermath.
The small number of anti-Muslim hate crimes could reflect an unwillingness of Muslim Americans to report biased crimes to government officials. For example, there is no question that many Hispanics are fearful that reporting crimes would lead to deportations. By contrast, there are relatively few undocumented Muslim Americans and indeed, two-thirds are U.S. citizens. Unlike Hispanics, their income distribution is quite similar to native-born U.S. citizens – one quarter have college degrees – so that they are not a poor, isolated community where underreporting, particularly of biased assaults would be substantial. And even if actual anti-Muslim assaults is double the reported numbers, it would still be no more than the rate of reported anti-Jewish biased assaults and far less than other groups. When Doyle interviewed the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) for its reaction to the latest FBI statistics, its spokesperson Ibrahim Hooper did not mention underreporting. Instead he said, “We see hate crimes generally go in spurts, and are often in relation to international or domestic events.”
Probably most disheartening has been Professor Bayoumi’s suggestion that American Muslim youth have been psychologically scarred and lost their faith in the American system. In 2007, the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life completed a comprehensive survey of the U.S. Muslim community – a survey that Professor Bayoumi quotes on Muslim demographics. It conducted more than 55,000 interviews in five languages to obtain a national sample of 1,050 Muslims living in the United States. It found that Muslim Americans have a generally positive view of the larger society and most say their communities are excellent or good places to live.
While they certainly believe that their lives had become more difficult since 9/11, “nearly eight in ten say they are either very happy or pretty happy with their lives.” Most striking, in contrast to the image Bayoumi projects, younger Muslims are the happiest. Specifically “Just one-in-ten Muslims younger than 30 say they are not too happy with their lives, while 89 percent are either very happy or pretty happy.” In addition, 71 percent of all Muslims interviewed and 76 percent of those 18 to 29 years old “agreed that most people who want to get ahead in the U.S. can make it if they are willing to work hard.” Nearly three-quarters of Muslim Americans stated that they had never experienced discrimination.
Could you imagine, 75 percent of male homosexuals, Latino immigrants, or black Americans stating that they never experienced discrimination? Can you imagine 76 percent from these groups believing that their hard work will be sufficient for them to get ahead? Thus, whatever their legitimate grievances, the evidence suggests that in many ways Muslim Americans have much more positive experiences and are much more hopeful than many other groups that experience biased crimes and discriminatory behavior.
U.S. News Goes Too Far
For a variety of reasons, a distorted view of anti-Muslim attitudes and behavior has also been reflected in the media. In a 2008 issue of U.S. News and World Report, reporter Susan Headden stated,
“The scapegoating of America’s more than 5 million Muslims was immediate and lasting. As late as 2004, the Council on American-Islamic Relations reported a 70 percent increase in Muslim bias and violence in the United States. And in countless media accounts, Muslims have complained of exclusion, discrimination, and harassment. The acts of 9/11, it seemed, had only reinforced the impression of Islam as a militant faith that has spread by war, not peaceful conversion.”
Indeed, just as the book selection controversy unfolded, the New York Times not only provided Professor Bayoumi a forum but published a front-page article documenting the malaise in the Muslim American community as a result of the persistence of anti-Muslim attitudes and behavior. Laurie Goodstein reported,
“For nine years after the attacks of Sept. 11, many American Muslims made concerted efforts to build relationships with non-Muslims, to make it clear they abhor terrorism, to educate people about Islam and to participate in interfaith service projects. They took satisfaction in the observations by many scholars that Muslims in America were more successful and assimilated than Muslims in Europe. Now, many of those same Muslims say that all of those years of work are being rapidly undone by the fierce opposition to a Muslim cultural center near ground zero that has unleashed a torrent of anti-Muslim sentiments and a spate of vandalism.”
On what basis does this reporter make such sweeping generalizations about the attitudes and behavior of Muslim Americans since 9/11? She knows because she has spoken with Muslim organizational leaders, including Ibrahim Hooper, the ubiquitous CAIR spokesperson. While not the only measure of a genuine condemnation of terrorism, it might be of interest to know if Muslim Americans believe that Arabs were responsible for 9/11, especially given the current controversy over the construction of the so-called Ground Zero mosque and community center.
As it happens, the 2007 Pew survey asked this question: “Did groups of Arabs carry out the 9/11 attacks?” It surveyed two groups of Muslim Americans: the 47 percent who considered themselves Muslim first and the 28 percent who considered themselves Americans first. (The fact that a plurality of Muslims put their religion before their country is consistent with other religious groups.) Among those who considered themselves Muslim first, only 28 percent answered “yes” while 40 percent answered “no.” Among those who considered themselves American first, 61 percent answered “yes” while 20 percent answered “no.”
Maybe these data were not included in Goodstein’s story because it did not fit the narrative the New York Times and the Muslim organizations it relies on desired to tell. Maybe they feared that these data would only encourage the anti-Muslim attitudes that they believe fester in the minds of most non-Muslims. Given these types of stories in the media, it is not surprising that in the United States, “Nearly six-in-ten adults say that Muslims are subject to a lot of discrimination, far more than say the same about Jews, evangelical Christians, atheists or Mormons, according to a new report based on a recent national survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. In fact, of all the groups asked about, only gays and lesbians are seen as facing more discrimination than Muslims.”
The symbiotic relationship between sections of the media and certain Muslim organizations was forged after 9/11 with the search for moderate Islamic organizations to counter the notion that all Muslims supported terrorism. Despite some problematic associations, CAIR was chosen to be the face of moderate Islam. As American Jewish Committee (AJC) director, David Harris documented, “CAIR thus became simply ‘an advocacy group based in Washington’ (New York Times, June 16, 2003) or ‘a nonprofit civil rights group in Washington’ (New York Times, March 28, 2003), as if it were nothing other than the Muslim version of the NAACP.”
The AJC was particularly concerned when CAIR began claiming that there were over six million Muslim Americans. A 2001 AJC-funded study concluded that “the best estimate of Muslims in the United States is 2.8 million at most,” less than one-half CAIR’s estimate. In response, Ibrahim Hooper called the report a “desperate attempt to discount the role of American Muslims. Very often the representatives of the extremist wing of the pro-Israel lobby such as the American Jewish Committee seek to block Muslim political participation,” Hooper said.
As it happens, the AJC estimate was on the high side compared to virtually all other professional estimates. For example, a 2009 Pew study placed the Muslim American population at 2.5 million. Using a more restrictive definition, the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey estimated the Muslim American population at 1.3 million.
These and earlier studies didn’t stopped Muslim spokesmen from insisting higher numbers which began to be reported uncritically in the media. For example, on December 28, 2002, the New York Times cited CAIR’s estimate of ‘seven million Muslims in the United States’ without comment, while another article (June 16, 2003) reported that various groups put the number ‘between four million and eight million’ ignoring the findings of the scientific studies which the paper had previously reported. Meanwhile, the Washington Post (Feb 26, 2004) was declaring that ‘Muslims number 6 million to 7 million, or about 2.4 percent of the population,’ without even mentioning a source. These numbers, as the ones used by Susan Headden, reflected the decision to embrace CAIR, making it difficult to criticize its claims.
Worse Than The Japanese Internment?
The stories of how in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 the civil liberties of Muslim Americans were trampled on and their suffering from unwarranted abuses must be told, as Professor Ba-youmi does through the seven interviews. However, his claims that these abuses were sustained beyond the 9/11 aftermath and are similar if not worse than Japanese internment or the Palmer Raids caused him to misrepresent evidence. He selectively uses FBI hate crime statistics, misstates the government’s registry policy, and ignores survey evidence on the attitudes and more recent experience and outlook of Muslim Americans. Unfortunately, some of these distortions have been embraced by sections of the media as a price they pay for aligning themselves with some Muslim organizations.
Most importantly, a more accurate assessment of FBI hate crime statistics and the 2007 Pew Research Center survey tell a very hopeful story. Yes, the U.S. government trampled on the civil rights of Muslim Americans in the immediate 9/11 aftermath. Yes, the American public has unfair views of Muslim Americans. However, these attitudes have not been translated into overt actions that serious harm the life experience and life chances of Muslim Americans. The name calling and hostile stares that Muslim Americans report have not resulted in more than isolated cases of violence or discrimination. Americans have overwhelmingly treated individual Muslim Americans fairly and respectfully despite the negative stereotypes many harbor. This is totally at odds with the broader victimization narrative Professor Bayoumi projects.
In some ways, Professor Bayoumi held in check his animus towards Israel. Only once did this attitude surface. When discussing the pre-9/11 government harassment Muslim Americans faced, he gratuitously ventured, “[T]hey were often used to limit the speech of Arab Americans in order to cement U.S. policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Bayoumi provides no source for this claim, relying implicitly on the widely held view of Palestinian supporters that a vast Israeli lobby controls U.S. Middle East policy. This animus is full-blown in Professor Bayoumi’s just released book on the Gaza Flotilla where it is claimed that the incident this past spring will have an effect on the Palestinian cause equivalent to the effect the Selma March had on the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s.
Finally, let me make clear that nothing I have said detracts from my belief that Professor Bayoumi is an important asset to Brooklyn College, particularly its students. He is widely respected for his teaching abilities and, unlike some of his colleagues, has a firm commitment to separate his political beliefs from his teaching. Professor Bayoumi is not responsible for the book selection decision. On balance, as I said, the book is an important work despite its serious flaws; but assigning it as the sole required text for all freshmen English sections was a mistake.