The Chronicle Review

My Arab Problem

Frank Fournier for The Chronicle Review

Moustafa Bayoumi, in Brooklyn
October 24, 2010

This past August, I briefly occupied a small corner of the culture wars, and I felt like a fish in a fishbowl. Everybody was staring at a distorted image of me, and all I could do was blink and blow bubbles.

I teach at Brooklyn College, where the undergraduate writing program has for the past several years assigned a "common reading" to all incoming freshmen. This year the program selected my book How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America, in which I tell the stories of seven Arab-American men and women, all in their 20s and living in Brooklyn, coping in a post-9/11 world.

The criteria for the common reading are that the book should preferably be set in New York City, have a significant immigration component (since many of our students are themselves immigrants or come from immigrant backgrounds), and be in the form of life stories. It should be by a living writer, since the author is invited to the campus to talk with students. My book fit the bill. (Previous readings have included Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes and Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.)

Everything was fine until about a week before classes began. That's when the chair of my department called me to report that the college had received a small number of complaints from alumni and an emeritus faculty member about the selection. She assured me that the college was standing by its decision, and the dean of undergraduate studies subsequently told me the same thing. But I knew that in today's wired world, administrators worry about complaints' hitting the Internet and going "viral." And that's exactly what happened.

The tempest was kicked off when Bruce Kesler, a conservative California-based blogger who is a Brooklyn College alumnus, labeled me a "radical pro-Palestinian" professor in one of his posts and called the book's selection an "official policy to inculcate students with a political point of view." He said he was cutting out a "significant bequest" to the college from his will. (He didn't mention how significant his bequest would have been.) In another letter, posted on a different blog under the title "Brooklyn College-Stan," a retired Brooklyn professor wrote that assigning my book "smacks of indoctrination" and "will intimidate students who have a different point of view."

My first reaction was one of disbelief. Wow, I thought, is my writing really that powerful? But on closer inspection, it became clear to me that my detractors hadn't actually read the book. Next I realized how insulting those objections were to our students, suggesting that they are unable to form independent judgments of what they read.

I hoped the noise would fade, but within days, tabloid news media had grabbed the issue from the right-wing blogosphere. Articles appeared in New York's Daily News, The Jewish Week, and Gothamist and were picked up by The Huffington Post and New York Magazine. The New York Post ran an op-ed by a retired history professor at City College who deftly illustrated that one need read only a book's Amazon.com page to reach conclusions about it. The op-ed called the selection of my book a "scandal" and claimed that it paints "New Yorkers in particular as completely Islamophobic" (patently untrue). I received calls at home from television news shows, and the local Channel 11 even broadcast my picture, calling me "this guy!" in the teaser.

I was ready to hide behind a piece of coral. Both The New York Times and The New Yorker pointed out that the controversy was driven almost entirely by off-campus conservatives, but it didn't matter. Now I—not those manufacturing the storm—had become the controversial one, and Brooklyn College was not advancing a liberal education by having students read a book about the post-9/11 life experiences of young Arab-Americans, but was, rather, "pushing" an "anti-American, pro-Islam" book, at least according to rightwingnews.com.

I was getting a very personalized education about how all things Muslim are at the center of today's culture wars. I might have found the fracas amusing were it not unpleasant to be called all kinds of names in public. I certainly didn't recognize my book or myself in the descriptions being tossed about. I mean, the only radical organization I belong to is the Park Slope Food Coop (from which, I must confess, I've been suspended several times).

My surprise at being at the center of a controversy, even a trumped-up one, wasn't based on naïvete. Rather, it came from the fact that the book had been out for two years already without sparking a storm. The Wall Street Journal profiled it and me in 2008. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review (no doubt with an invisible crescent surrounding that star), CNN and NPR interviewed me about the book, and Francine Prose reviewed it favorably for O Magazine. Vermont's Johnson State College selected the book for its common reading in 2009 without any pushback that I'm aware of, and I had already spoken about it at a number of high schools and colleges, in the United States and Canada, and in front of church leaders, a Jewish congregation, and several community groups. The book even won a 2008 American Book Award (not an anti-American Book Award).

Opposition to my book seems more symptomatic of our moment than produced by its contents. And Brooklyn College's reading list isn't the only one under attack. The Texas State Board of Education recently voted to limit references to Islam in their high-school textbooks, even though, as the Associated Press noted, "the resolution cites world-history books no longer used in Texas schools." According to the Texas Freedom Network, which advocates for religious freedom, the resolution was "based on superficial and grossly misleading claims," including allegations that the textbooks "whitewash" Islam while vilifying Christianity, and that Arab investors are taking over the American publishing industry. (That accusation was based on a 2008 decision by Dubai's royal family to invest heavily in a company that owns Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; but this year the family lost its stake in the company.)

In other words, the Texas resolution is another attempt to create a controversy where there is none. It's contrived to give the idea that Islam is on an ideological march in this country, and that opponents of such nefarious plots are America's noble defenders. The fact that this bears little relation to reality is immaterial, and those who venture to point out as much are attacked as duped liberals or ideological warriors for political correctness.

Understanding this topsy-turvy world, where assailants driven by ideology paint their targets as the ideological ones, also explains the rhetoric around Park51, the so-called Ground Zero mosque (not at Ground Zero and not a mosque). Here the flip comes mostly around the words "tolerance" and "sensitivity." Park51's opponents, like Sarah Palin, claim that their opposition is based not on bigotry—though it's hard to see how they aren't equating all Muslims with terrorism—but on the project's being blithely "insensitive" to the memory of September 11. That argument is a sleight of hand, though. It shifts the burden of sensitivity away from the opponents and heaps it onto the weaker party, making the Muslim Americans exercising their constitutional rights appear as the intolerant ones.

We have seen this kind of shadow play before. When the New York City educator Debbie Almontaser opened a dual-language Arabic-English public high school in New York, in 2007, she was immediately attacked personally, and the very idea of teaching Arabic (prioritized, incidentally, as a "national-security language" by the U.S. Department of Education) was maligned. The conservative columnist Daniel Pipes wrote that "Arabic-language instruction is inevitably laden with Pan-Arabist and Islamist baggage," thus finally explaining the legions of Islamist Arab Christians in the world.

What is going on here? As soon as Muslims such as Debbie Almontaser, Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, or myself are on the cusp of entering the mainstream fully (through a school, a center, or a common reading), we are hit with a wave of opposition attempting to render us or our work invisible. Never mind that we are, by all reasonable accounts, downright moderates on the political spectrum. The trick is simply to attach the word "radical" in front of a Muslim name, and, like a magician, make the actual person disappear in a cloud of suspicion.

If you happen to be the president of the United States, "First Muslim" will suffice.

At a time when The Economist reports that 55 percent of Americans hold unfavorable views of Islam, and Time found that nearly one-third of Americans say Muslims should not be permitted to run for president (too late!), I would like to think that the opposition to our work illustrates the need for it even more profoundly. Knowledge about Arabs and Islam is woefully inadequate. Projects like the dual-language school, Park51, and a common reading of my book can help Americans experience the Arabic language, Islam, or Arab-American youth culture through a kind of empathy, which is a far greater threat to the culture wars than even sympathy is. Sympathy asks for charity; empathy produces understanding.

Ideology, on the other hand, blinds people to the point where they won't even admit the experiences of others. To be invisible means to be twisted beyond recognition, to have others speak for you, or simply to be not seen. Borrowing from Ralph Ellison, it is as though we Muslim and Arab-Americans have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When our opponents approach us, they see only our surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, anything and everything except us.

Today's culture wars are being fought on a terrain ravaged by the worn debates around liberal education, the poverty of a political discourse fomented by the Web, the unrelenting vilifications of Islam and Muslims, and the zero-sum game by which the politics of the Middle East are too often played in the United States. In the wings is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Part of the opposition to me may stem from another book, Midnight on the Mavi Marmara, that I have just edited about the Israeli attack on the Gaza flotilla in May. (As I make clear in my introduction, I'm a believer in coexistence, in favor of a negotiated settlement, and opposed to terrorism and occupation.) But criticism or acceptance of the Israeli government's actions shouldn't determine acceptable speech in the United States. Anyway, students were not assigned that book.

Or maybe there's another source of the animus against me. Back in May, I published a short essay in The New York Times Magazine describing my experiences as an Arab extra on the set of Sex and the City 2. I was mildly critical of the movie for the way it used the Middle East, yet again, as an exotic stage for American pop-culture fantasies. Maybe that set some people off. After all, the show has a lot of hard-core fans.

Moustafa Bayoumi is an associate professor of English at the City University of New York's Brooklyn College.