Middle East studies in the News
Teaching Hate in the Academy [on Moustafa Bayoumi, incl. Reza Aslan]
This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror was published by New York University Press in September, 2015. On its webpage, this press announces its mission: "NYU Press aspires to nothing less than the transformation of the intellectual and cultural landscape."
Author Moustafa Bayoumi received his PhD at Ivy League Columbia University. He teaches at Brooklyn College. He has served on the National Council of the American Studies Association. He's the winner of an American Book Award. His work has appeared in, and has been positively reviewed by, the New York Times, taxpayer-funded National Public Radio, and CNN. His work is frequently listed as required reading in school syllabi.
This Muslim American Life consists of seventeen brief essays. They range in style from a transparently manipulative, bathetic epistle to an FBI agent to a tongue-in-cheek description of working as an extra in Sex and the City.
The self-pitying, self-dramatizing tone of the book is set on its cover: a film noir scene. A defenseless naïf glances nervously over his shoulder, his lips slightly parted and his eyebrows high. He is apparently being trailed by an invisible killer. His face is brown and the only splash of color. This is why they hate him. He is in a black-and-white landscape. Get it? The cover is black-and-white because Americans are white supremacists and because Americans are so stupid that they simplify things to black-and-white. Get it now?
Because Americans are white supremacists, Americans hate, vilify, and murder Muslims. Americans conduct "massive and covert surveillance" and (1) "biased policing" (6). American spies "crawl into mosques" and into the "souls of Muslims." Americans "sneak and peek into the conscience" of Muslims (7, 9). America is producing "unrelenting vilifications of Islam and Muslims" (174). Muslims live under such threat in America that they must "sit stationary in our homes, unsure of what will happen to us if we step beyond the threshold of our doors" (26). Americans "paint targets on" mosques (31). Americans announce to Muslims "we are coming for you" (31).
America, for Muslims, is a "penal colony" (32). "We have a difficult time finding out where our friends are as you fly them around the country with shackled legs and hands in midnight planes. You claim everyone has an attorney but we have heard differently. You come in the middle of the night and take away our brothers and fathers and sons ... simply for the kink of our hair, the caramel of our skin ... your violence is lashing our backs " (32-3). There is "no way of knowing how many innocent civilians are being held captive" (82). Muslims in America are "forced to eat pork" (85). When Syria tortures Syrians, Americans are responsible (86).
Americans commit crimes against Muslims because they are white supremacists and Muslims are black people. The problem is caused by the "tricknology of white folk," "white supremacy" (35), "sepia tones of black, brown, and beige" (36), "institutional racism" and "white nationalism" (39). "Bitter and fearful whites" inhabit an America "lost in its own prejudices" (39). "Christianity and narrow nationalisms" render "the racialized United States" deaf to music that "flutters beyond white America's ears" (47). Americans act out of "racist fears and vengeance" (83). Islamophobes are "driven" by "an anxiety held by older, white and Christian America that is nervously confronting the end of its majority" (161). Americans are "threatened by the browning of America" (165). "An explicit white power movement" is growing "explosively" (164). Americans "turned Islam into a race" (51). "Arabs are the new blacks" (185). Muslims are persecuted merely for the crime of "flying while brown" (186).
Just one page of text – page fifty-eight – includes nine iterations of variations on the word "race." The reader encounters the word "jihad" a handful of times in the entire book, usually in scare quotes.
In addition to their rampant Islamophobia, Americans are generally disgusting specimens. Americans "consistently live up to underestimation" (27). America "prefers rats" (33). Americans are "anti-intellectual" (92). America is "turning the world stupid" (96). Americans are "vitriolic and idiotic" (123). American TV consists of "loudmouth media braying" (123). The King hearings were mere "buffoonery" (136).
Beyond white supremacy, other precedents inspire Americans to persecute Muslims. These motivations include the Spanish Inquisition (57), the internment of Japanese during World War II (4), the Chinese Exclusion Act (15), American imperial history (80) Nativism and Know-Nothingism (137), and McCarthyism (137).
Terrorism is not the cause of American surveillance of Muslims. If you look at numbers in relative terms, terrorism ceases to exist. More people are killed in mass shootings, and by rightwing Americans, than by Muslims. Terrorism is trumped up by American authorities; most of those arrested have been entrapped (11). "Paid informants ensnare gullible Muslims into dubious terror plots" (122). "Muslim attitudes are easily ventriloquized and distorted" (143). Terrorism is inflated in order "to assume ever-expanding powers over American lives and to justify military intervention overseas" (11). Sharia law is a "nonissue" (135).
One notorious case of entrapment: the September 11, 2012 murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens and others at Benghazi, Libya. These murders were all the fault of a YouTube video that disrespected Mohammed. "Islamophobes provoke. Too many Muslims respond ... The Islamophobic right sleeps well at night with their cozy dreams of a mission accomplished." These machinations are part of the "Fox effect" (211-12).
Named American Islamophobes and other thought criminals include Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, Thomas Friedman, Ben Affleck, Rihanna, PBS' Frontline, TV, Hollywood and popular music, members of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Mitt Romney, Michelle Bachman, Michael Bloomberg, John McCain, George Bush, John Ashcroft, Martin Kramer, Daniel Pipes, David Horowitz, Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Irshad Manji, Bernard Lewis, Reza Aslan, the Tea Party and of course Fox News.
Bayoumi twice calls Raphael Patai's classic work The Arab Mind "trash" but refuses to name Raphael Patai when doing so. Bayoumi does not deign to explain why The Arab Mind is trash. Bayoumi calls Manji "puerile," dismisses Hirsi Ali's work as mere "musing" (102). Reza Aslan is "ridiculous" (114). There is one really good scholar on Islam, Edward Said. Said is cited numerous times, with unquestioning approval. Also cited with approval: Amiri Baraka's "Somebody Blew Up America," an anti-Semitic document accusing Jews of being behind the 9-11 terror attack. Also cited with approval: this line by prep-school and Seven-Sisters graduate June Jordan, "I was born a black woman and now I am become a Palestinian" (205).
America's ally, Israel, is also evil. International recognition of the modern state of Israel was a "catastrophe" "that broke our hearts" (27). Israel is engaged in "extermination" of Muslims (28). "A Palestinian life counts less than another" Israel should cease to exist as a Jewish state (97).
Muslims, of course, are blameless and angelic. "I will be good to you nonetheless" Bayoumi, speaking for all American Muslims, reports (34).
"Yes, but ..." What about the 9-11 terror attacks? Isn't terror, rather than white supremacy, the reason the FBI monitors Muslims? No, according to Bayoumi. Muslims are, indeed, the primary victims of the 9-11 terror attacks, because the most significant impact of those attacks was that Americans were incited to hate and victimize Muslims. On that day, Muslims realized "your life was about to change for the worse" (121). Bayoumi remembers "the tremulous anxiety ... we would meet up regularly to trade FBI stories which was weirdly consoling." This consolation did not stop him from "crying" (121-2). "Crimes against Muslim Americans skyrocketed" (131). Muslims live "under siege" (132) threatened by "blatant acts of vigilante violence" and "rampant scapegoating" (156-5).
"Yes, but ..." What about Obama's election? Doesn't that show that America is not as white-supremacist as Bayoumi insists? No, because Obama's election was manipulated by behind-the-scenes, imperialist powers. These unseen hands placed a dark-skinned man in the presidency the better to trick the world. Bayoumi quotes, with approval, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. "One dark face from the US is of as much value as millions of dollars in economic aid" (206).
"Yes, but ..." What about Hindus' success in America? Hindus, originating in the Indian subcontinent, are often quite dark-skinned. What about prototypical Indian-American success stories like Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal and South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, both reasonably dark-skinned, one from Hindu, and the other from Sikh ancestry? Bayoumi insists that Hindu and other Indian success doesn't count because Americans consider Hindus white and Muslims black (190-91). Why? Don't ask. Because Bayoumi says so.
"Yes, but ..." What about the fact that millions of Muslims are not dark-skinned at all? Bayoumi himself, as seen on internet videos, is not as dark-skinned as his cover illustration depicts. The Tsarnaev Brothers, who carried out the Boston Marathon bombing, were literally Caucasian, from the Caucasus. Bayoumi never mentions these inconvenient facts that might interfere with his black-and-white theory.
"Yes, but ..." What about Arab and Muslim racism? Muslims enslaved between ten and eighteen million people, including millions of black Africans, a million Western Europeans and two million Eastern Europeans. They did so in complete obedience to the Koran and the example of Mohamed. "Abdi," meaning "slave," is an Arab insult for blacks. Muslim countries were the last to outlaw slavery. Saudi Arabia did not outlaw slavery till 1962. Mauritania did not outlaw slavery till 2007.
Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy published "Racism: The Arab World's Dirty Secret" in the New York Times on December 10, 2008. This exposé received massive attention. "The racism I saw on the Cairo Metro has an echo in the Arab world at large, where the suffering in Darfur goes ignored because its victims are black and because those who are creating the misery in Darfur are not Americans or Israelis and we only pay attention when America and Israel behave badly," Eltahawy wrote. "We love to cry 'Islamophobia' when we talk about the way Muslim minorities are treated in the West and yet we never stop to consider how we treat minorities and the most vulnerable among us." Surely Bayoumi is aware of Muslim and Arab racism, its past and present. He never mentions it, suggesting that Black people can find their true selves only as, or at least allied with Muslims, not as Christians (40, 208).
"Yes, but ..." What about Moustafa Bayoumi himself? Given that he describes the US as a hellhole for Muslims, why is he here? Why does he pay taxes to this evil regime? What about his membership in the economic and cultural elite? Bayoumi is the son of a professor. He is himself a professor. He is a published and prize-winning writer. He is invited to speak around the country, to spread his ideas of American evil and Muslims' unadulterated benevolence. Doesn't his own existence weaken his thesis?
Perhaps Bayoumi nurtures a truly Kafkaesque conspiracy theory. Perhaps Bayoumi believes that his own, comfortable life, the awards, the applause, the power, his sitting on the American Studies Council and dictating what professors in the United States are allowed to teach young Americans about their own country, are all merely the twitching of an unseen, imperial puppet master's fingers bestowing limited power upon him to serve some nefarious, secret end.
Scholarship, Bayoumi's profession and NYU Press' product, is designed to reach truth. Scholarship has standards. These standards include coherent speech, rigorous research design, and replicable results. This Muslim American Life meets none of these standards. Bayoumi undertook no original research; he merely stitches together extensive quotes from other material to prove his anti-American point. This is called cherry-picking. It is not scholarly. Cherry-picking serves Bayoumi's stereotyping and evasion of responsibility.
Bayoumi's attention-deficit writing whipsaws from police surveillance to drones and back again on one page. He shifts style from treacly sentimentality to personal memoir to citation-studded outrage. These shifts in style and topic create a shifting target. The citations might appear to lend the gloss of scholarly, peer-reviewed truth to Bayoumi's fulminations. If you criticize Bayoumi for his lack of a research design, he (like Jon Stewart) can dodge that criticism behind this hedge: "Just kidding!" If you mention that he presents a skewed and genocidal take on the existence of Israel, he can say, "This is a memoir. I'm just telling you how I feel, and Israel makes me feel sad. That's why I want Israel to go away. You can't hold memoir up to the same standards as scholarship."
Other than repeating the book's main point over and over – Americans bad; Muslims good – there is no larger design. You could pick the book up and read page ten or page two or page two-hundred; the prose goes nowhere so it wouldn't make any difference. He repeats material. The Special Registration program, NYPD surveillance and Michelle Obama bestowing the best picture Oscar on Argo are mentioned several times, each time as if they had never been mentioned previously.
The writing is often subpar on a sentence-by-sentence level. Example: "Victory in a potentially never-ending war assumes a relationship of power to the production of knowledge where wisdom has fallen into intelligence and knowledge has lapsed into information" (89).
And, "To have a soundtrack to a movement does not mean to play an anthem. Rather than indicating a representational scheme of signifying a specific community, I am interested in listening for the ways in which the yearning for a new kind of community, one based on a new universalism that has a (but not by necessity the only) base in Islam, can be heard in the ways in which the music is pushing itself" (44-5).
The writing is subpar on a global level. This Muslim American Life purports to be about America. You will note the word "American" right there in the title. There is no America in this book. There are no Americans.
Bayoumi's parents were Egyptian. He was born in Zurich, Switzerland. He grew up in Canada. He came to the US to attend grad school at Columbia. Ivy League grad school bears little resemblance to the mainstream of American life. We PhDs live in libraries, not in countries. He voices no enthusiasm about becoming an American citizen; he is merely happy he didn't have to give up Canadian citizenship to do so (126). My guess is that Moustafa Bayoumi has never had any gut-level contact with anything American.
When I was young and stupid I read Jack Kerouac and promptly hitchhiked coast to coast and back again. I was shocked when I saw cellulite on the thighs of a California girl in shorts. I knew I shouldn't have been so naïve to be brainwashed, but I was – I thought the Beach Boys were right and all California girls were cover models. The depth and commitment of the artists I met in LA blew me away. I had thought LA to be a frivolous Tinseltown. I was ashamed when I met intelligent, decent Southerners, people much more Atticus Finch thanDeliverance. I realized I was bigoted against the South. I don't think Moustafa Bayoumi has ever had these kinds of moments of truth where he realized his own prejudices and ignorance were slapping him in the face. I don't think he knows or cares a damn thing about the country he has been authorized to present to his readers.
There's no Islam in This Muslim American Life. There is no definition of Islam, merely a postmodern charade that Islam means whatever whoever is defining it as at any given moment wants it to mean. The very word is often encased in scare quotes, as if there were no such thing as Islam (100). I kept waiting for Bayoumi's manifesto. What, exactly, is he embracing? Defending? Nothing, apparently. His refusal to take a stand is another avoidance of scholarly responsibility; another dodge of potential criticism of his work.
The world confronts killers who insist on the God-mandated application of these words: "Kill the unbelievers wherever you find them, and capture them and besiege them, and prepare for them each and every ambush." And these words "I have been instructed by Allah to declare war and fight all mankind until they say 'No God except Allah and Mohammed is the prophet of Allah.'" Bayoumi alludes to these world-shattering, life-destroying commands only once. Bayoumi places these words in the mouth of a British alleged Islamophobe, not in the Koran and the Hadith, their real origin (245).
Bayoumi skirts in and out of memoir. In an ostensibly scholarly book, he tells his reader that he has "hairy toes" and that as a child he was a "fussy, skittish, neurotic little shit" (242). But there is no Bayoumi in the pages of this book, either. Is he gay or straight, married or single, a parent or childless? Does he like teaching? Bayoumi perhaps consciously refuses to include so much as one sentence in his book about what Islam is to him. Does he pray five times a day? Eat pork? Believe in the status of Mohammed as the final prophet, Christianity and Judaism as corruptions of Islam that must be extirpated by force, or the Koran as eternal and uncreated? The reader never learns.
Another thing missing from This Muslim American Life: a solution. Bayoumi suggests no way that relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims can improve.
These stylistic complaints are not peripheral to the problem of the book. "Writing clearly is thinking clearly," teachers' folk wisdom insists. Chaotic, undisciplined references to the Spanish Inquisition, treatment of Gitmo prisoners and the "catastrophe" of the recognition of the modern state of Israel is a great way to monger hate. It is no route to truth or solutions for anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim. These complaints are not unique to this book. Academia has long exercised lesser standards for some identities. I cannot see a university press publishing a book by a patriotic WASP male describing his own experience in post 9-11 America that is in any way stylistically similar to This Muslim American Life. Yes, I am accusing NYU Press of a kind of racism. Select identities get to lower the net when they play.
It is especially abhorrent that Moustafa Bayoumi and New York University Press published a book that utterly rejects Muslims' ethical responsibilities in the age of ISIS. Did Bayoumi not see footage of a Jordanian pilot burned alive in a cage? Did Bayoumi or the editors at NYU Press not read of the caliph ripping out aid worker Kayla Mueller's fingernails before raping and murdering her? Does Bayoumi really not care that ISIS is selling Yazidi women and girls as sex slaves?
A few lines of text in This Muslim American Life moved me deeply and I hope never to forget them. Bayoumi describes his childhood in Canada and the burden of a foreign name. Though a Muslim, Bayoumi's dad annually presented him with a candy Easter egg personally inscribed with his name. This made Bayoumi feel a sense of belonging. I thought of his dad communicating how to spell "Moustafa" to the confectioner wielding the pastry tube (241). I am a child of immigrants. Teachers had trouble with my name, too, and this was during the Cold War; we were the bad guys, then.
I asked NYU for a review copy of this book because I see prejudice against Muslims, which was virtually non-existent in the US fifty years ago, increasing. My heart breaks for my Muslim students and friends. As with all hatreds, its fruits will be poisonous. I posted an interview with Emmie, a Muslim friend, in an attempt to introduce readers to a very nice person they'd probably want to have as a neighbor who just happened to be a Muslim. You can read that interview here.
I worry for all my American students, including Muslim American students. They are taught by all too many professors who regard it as chic and sophisticated to be as contemptuous of and hostile to America and Americans as possible. I commented once at a staff meeting that students should be encouraged to read maps. Yes, a colleague agreed. He went on. Without reference to anything that had been said previously, he asserted emphatically that our students should be encouraged to read maps so that they can more thoroughly understand why the rest of the world hates them and why they are responsible for the September 11 terror attacks. If you think this anecdote is a joke or an exaggeration you are mistaken.
I want my Muslim friends to flourish in America, and to feel equipped and confident when confronting hatred. I want all my students to be aware of America's unique gifts and responsibilities. A key first step for my Muslim friends is an admission that Islam, in jihad and gender apartheid, presents unique challenges. Muslims must renounce jihad and gender apartheid. No one is asking anything of Muslims that is not asked of us all. As an American, as a person of Polish descent, as a Catholic, I have repeatedly renounced trends that are part of my heritage. I am sorry for the Muslim prisoners tortured with excessively loud and repetitive sounds. I am sorry for the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal. I am sorry for anti-Semitism. I renounce them all and stand ready to work to eliminate them.
Moustafa Bayoumi has played his hand well. He has parlayed his identity and his anecdotes into professional and academic success. He is doing his fellow Muslims no favor, though. Muslim Americans will benefit from leaders who encourage them to take on the full rights and responsibilities of citizenship, rights and responsibilities identical to those shouldered by all the rest of us in the land of "e pluribus unum."Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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