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Moustafa Bayoumi, associate professor of English at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, gave a lecture at the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Middle East Studies (CMES) last month titled, “How Does It Feel To Be a Problem: Why Arabs and Muslim Americans Are at the Heart of Today’s Culture Wars.”
Bayoumi is the editor of How Does it Feel To Be a Problem: Being Young and Arab in America, a collection of biographical stories about young, Brooklyn-based Arab-Americans that the CMES website describes, among other things, as “a catalog of mistreatment and discrimination.”
Baymoui’s narrative of Arab victimhood extends beyond America’s borders—he is also the editor of, Midnight on the Mavi Marmara: the Attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and How it Changed the Course of the Israeli-Palestine Conflict, as well as co-editor of The Edward Said Reader; victimization has long been a staple of his academic career.
CMES’s Sultan Room—so-named for its Saudi patron, the Sultan bin AbdulAziz Al-Saud Charity Foundation—was full. The audience of approximately 75 students and adults acted like fans; they laughed in all the right places, appeared to be in full agreement with Bayoumi throughout, and offered no challenging questions.
At the time, Egypt’s recent revolution was dominating the headlines and Bayoumi was on his way to speak on a UC Berkeley panel on the subject directly afterward. As a result, his lecture seemed rushed and, at times, the wording sounded remarkably similar to his October 24, 2010, Chronicle of Higher Education article, “My Arab Problem.”
Referencing the situation in Egypt, Bayoumi began his talk by quoting from The Autobiography of Malcolm X: “How is it possible to write about your life when it’s changing so quickly?” Later, he paraphrased Invisible Man author Ralph Ellison: “We are surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass.” He noted that his book’s title, How Does It Feel To Be a Problem, originated with a quote from W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk:
I stole the title from Du Bois; it resonated with me . . . what to do about the increasing dehumanization of the Arab American population.
Clearly, Bayoumi is heavily influenced by African-American literature—the chapters of his book are prefaced by quotes from famous black authors—but in equating African-Americans with Arab-Americans, he is conflating two very different historical experiences.
To support his position that Arabs, including Muslims, in America are “dehumanized,” Bayoumi cited polls conducted by the Economist and the Washington Post, which found—not coincidentally—a steady rise in negativity towards Islam beginning with the 9/11 atrocities and culminating in the Park51 (ground zero mosque) controversy. He omitted any possibility of a rational basis for these negative perceptions and later rejected what he called “the rhetoric of the opposition to the ground zero mosque.” Echoing the project’s organizers, he claimed that
the idea behind Park51 was to improve our image; model our image along successful lines like the 92nd Street Y [92nd Street Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association] a major Jewish cultural institution.
This comparison is inapt in that the 92nd Street Y—in the secular tradition of Jewish community centers—does not include a synagogue, while Park51 is intended to include a mosque. Also, 92nd Street is not near a site where Jews massively attacked New York City.
Bayoumi next addressed the controversy that erupted in August 2010 after Brooklyn College assigned his book as its “common reader,” thereby making it required reading for all incoming students and setting up a “meet the author” discussion. Complaints poured in that the book was too lopsided and the debate eventually—as Bayoumi claimed the college feared—went “viral,” pulling him into “the center of a small culture war.”
Citing retired Brooklyn College philosophy professor Abigail L. Rosenthal, who, in a letter to college president Karen Gould, alleged that “the book smacked of indoctrination,” Bayoumi responded:
Is my writing that powerful? No. They have not actually read my book, but only the Amazon page.
He blamed the “tabloid media” and “conservative bloggers” such as Bruce Kesler—a Brooklyn College alumnus who broke the story by publicly cutting his bequest to the college over the Bayoumi decision—for the controversy. In fact, a variety of publications ran articles on the subject, including the Jewish Week, the New York Daily News, the New York Times, and the Huffington Post.
Summing up his thoughts on the matter, Bayoumi remarked that:
Opposition to my book seems symptomatic of our times . . . all things Muslim or Arab are called radical.
Bayoumi decried FBI counterterrorism efforts involving Brooklyn’s large Arab-American population, comparing it to investigating “the mafia; investigating family structures” and calling it “patronizing.”
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