"Any Muslim or Arab would suffice as their punching bag": that's what Moustafa Bayoumi told me when I contacted him about his new book, How Does it Feel to be a Problem?
America's Arabs want its best face to shine through
"Any Muslim or Arab would suffice as their punching bag": that's what Moustafa Bayoumi told me when I contacted him about his new book, How Does it Feel to be a Problem? His book follows six young Arab-Americans who came of age around 2001. The point of Mr Bayoumi's effort was to shed some light on how the "war on terror" has affected the lives of the many Americans who are severely mistrusted by their compatriots.
Readers of The National might be familiar with the work - a part of it was previewed in the paper last year. It was on the road between Alexandria and Cairo at a rest station's bookstore where I first encountered it. I was intrigued because the subject matter has a lot of a parallels with Muslims in the UK, my own country - although, Arab-Americans had the luxury of not having to defend their own community, whereas Muslim Britons have had to. Arab-Americans are an old and well-established community in the US, and none of them were implicated in the September 11 attacks, while a few Muslim Britons were complicit in the attacks on London in 2005.
Mr Bayoumi's thesis, however, was that even though Arab-Americans had no role whatsoever in the attacks eight years ago, they were held to account for them. He reminds us that a University of Michigan anthropologist succinctly described the situation as such: "in the aftermath of 9/11, Arab and Muslim Americans have been compelled, time and again, to apologise for acts they did not commit, to condemn acts they never condoned and to openly profess loyalties that, for most US citizens, are merely assumed."
None of that would be particularly surprising - except for one important detail. This is the United States of America, which purports that its society is a beacon of freedom and opportunity for anyone who chooses to come to its shores. The Arab-Americans whom Mr Bayoumi describes in his book are, in fact, Americans who believed in that dream. But as the book makes clear, many Arab-Americans now feel betrayed by many of their institutions and the public discourse at large. Mr Bayoumi's underlying premise is that the treatment of Arabs and Muslims in America stands - just as the treatment of African Americans did in years past - as a test of what America stands for.
It was a compelling read, and I wanted to see how it had been received. On the one hand, there are dozens of marvellous reviews of the book. It's well written, interesting, and it has a powerful set of lessons to teach the reader - it's not surprising that I found all sorts of people in different media supporting the book. And despite what the image of the American people may be in many parts of the Muslim world, particularly within the Arab region, I was not surprised that so many non-Muslim and non-Arab Americans were outraged by what the book reveals. They understood the infringement on civil liberties that the book painstakingly details. They heard the excuses that were provided to justify the wholesale deportation of so many people, without due process or upholding the noble principles upon which the US was founded. And today, in 2009, a mere eight years later - an instant in terms of human history - one can find huge numbers of people who do not wish to allow the "war on terror" to destroy their values. It just so happened that around the same time, an African American from Chicago decided to run for the US presidency.
But it is not all good news. Yes, many people wrote to Mr Bayoumi thanking him for his work and he's heartened by the reception from young Arabs and Muslims whom he has never met, but who insist that their stories were also told in his book. He is amused, but I sense in a rather sombre way, by the Christian minister who told him that she enjoyed the book, but confessed that she was so scared to read the book in public because of the Arabic script on its cover that she removed the cover.
Yet there are others who view his book as a threat to the construction of a narrative that perpetuates the viewing of Muslims and Arabs in America and abroad as enemies of the US. Mr Bayoumi told me of the many "Islam bashers" who now consider him the "defence attorney for Osama bin Laden". He seems sure, however, that they have not even read the book and do not care about his opinions. Mr Bayoumi has just signed a deal to have his book translated into Arabic and it should soon appear in the Arab world. I wish Arab writers could speak as honestly about the challenges that they feel exist within their own societies as Mr Bayoumi does about America's. The Arab-Americans in his book may not all be from the dominant sector of the US, but they are still fully American and present a face of America that is just as authentic as any other. In fact, the case could be made that because they are from one of the most marginalised segments of that society, their story tells us things about the US that we might never have realised. For all the faults that it has, most Arabs and Muslims in America are still proud to be Americans. They just want her to get better.
Dr H A Hellyer is a fellow of the University of Warwick and director of the Visionary Consultants Group. His book, Muslims of Europe: the "Other" Europeans, will be released by Edinburgh University Press in October