Moustafa Bayoumi is an accomplished journalist and speaker, and a Professor of English at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. In 2015, he was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters by Southern Vermont College. He is the author of the critically acclaimed How Does It Feel To Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America, which won an American Book Award and the Arab American Book Award for Nonfiction. His latest book, This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror, was chosen as a Best Book of 2015 by The Progressive magazine and was also awarded the Arab American Book Award for Non-Fiction.
If you don’t know him from any of these accomplishments, perhaps you know his tweet – the one that became the most-re-tweeted tweet of the 2016 USA presidential debates.
After reading his latest book, we had a few questions for Moustafa. He graciously got back to us with his thoughts on Islam in America, a Trump presidency, terrorism, and more. Read on.
SIGNATURE: You’ve been an extra on the movie “Sex and the City 2,” playing the part of one of many international revelers in a club in the Middle East (filmed in Brooklyn). Your name was used for a terrorist character in a detective novel. And, as we saw most obviously during the second U.S. presidential debate, you’re an avid Twitter user. There’s a solid place for the dissemination of knowledge about Muslim culture in the pop culture lexicon. Take the Swet Shop Boys, for example, and their album Cashmere, on which they rap about the experience of being Muslim in the Western world. Is the pop culture landscape the answer to creating a more accepting landscape for Muslims in the West? If not the answer, is it, viably, an answer? Are there any dangers to taking education down a notch from academia to mainstream media?
MOUSTAFA BAYOUMI: When it comes to Muslim Americans, the role of popular culture is incredibly important because, as studies have shown, more than sixty percentof Americans don’t know any Muslims personally. What this means is that most Americans must be getting their information about Islam and Muslim Americans primarily – if not exclusively – from the media and from pop culture sources such as television shows and movies. And I think most people will agree that media and pop culture references to Islam are usually based on irreconcilable conflict, are not very sophisticated or sympathetic, and tend generally toward caricature. So the need for complex – not positive, but complex – representations of Muslims and Muslim Americans is acute. I don’t think we need a didactic popular culture to teach us things we didn’t know about Islam and Muslims. I’m turned off by preachy pop culture as much as the next person. But I think we can all benefit by seeing how Muslims actually live their lives in all of their complexity and not seeing Muslims only as cartoonish villains or tragic victims.
SIG: There’s a lot that the U.S. government has done poorly in regard to fighting terrorism – including equating Islam with terrorism at the most general level. Is there one single thing that you think they should be focusing on that they haven’t been?
MB: Terrorism is a not a new phenomenon. Unfortunately, the idea of terrorizing civilians to achieve political ends has been around since, well, probably since people began keeping records. I mean, think of that time in 88 BCE when over 80,000 Roman and Italian men, women, and children were killed on a single day (the Asiatic Vespers) in a massacre led by Mithridates of Pontus to protest Roman rule over his territory. So the idea that we can eliminate terrorism – and eliminate it by war, no less – is rather fanciful, it seems to me.
In other words, terrorism is immoral and a scourge on humanity, but greater militarism will not succeed in defeating it. In fact, the lesson we need to be learning from the last fifteen years is that waging an ever-expanding war is not ushering in peace but bringing more war to this world. The military historian Andrew Bacevich writes often about how the United States is relying more on the Pentagon at the expense of the State Department when engaging the world, and how that’s a huge problem. I agree. The issues surrounding global conflicts and terrorism are of course complex and can’t be reduced to a single solution, but we’ve become too attached to the bad idea that military solutions will solve our problems.
SIG: In the chapter titled “The God That Failed,” you address one of the theories that Reza Aslan puts forth in his book No god but God: Islam is going through a reformation much in the same way that Christianity is. That book was published in 2005. Your commentary appears in your book This Muslim American Life, published ten years after that. Now, a year-plus later, do you think that there are still very definite parallels between these two reformations happening?
MB: I was (and remain) critical of this idea that Aslan and many others have put forth that Islam is going – or must go – through a “reformation.” For one thing, this idea places the history of Protestant Christianity as the model of all religions. Then it assumes that Islam (or any other religion) will or must follow suit, but none of that is intellectually tenable. The history of Islam is different from the history of Protestantism, which is different from the history of Hinduism, etc. Religions are born, develop, and change in our world due to a series of reasons that have to do with human society, and they won’t all travel down the same linear path.
Yes, parts of the Muslim world are in crisis today. But we would be better served by looking at the specific histories of nations and regions, understanding the legacies of colonialism and foreign interventions, examining the roles of resources and their allocations or misallocations, and more. Thinking that the problem today is that Muslims lag behind Christians in their development is much easier to do, but I think it’s just wrong.
In fact, there are so many different versions of Islam in the world, and Islam has no single central authority (such as the pope for the Roman Catholic Church) to define doctrine, so it’s also very difficult to talk about Islam as one single thing, which leads me to my other reservation with Aslan’s way of thinking in his book. It assumes that Islam is the main or sole reason Muslims act in the world, but that’s also ludicrous. When we are looking to understand other people’s motivations for their actions, we will consider politics, history, economics, psychology, and the whole panoply that makes up human behavior. But when we talk about Muslims, we reduce everything to Islam. The concept that Islam is the sole motivator of Muslim behavior is not only wrongheaded but is also simplistic, leading us to bigoted ways of thinking and not providing us with any useful answers to our questions.
SIG: As a Muslim American, what does Donald Trump represent to you?
MB: Donald Trump is a threat to the core values of tolerance and respect that the United States espouses. Since he has won the presidency, we keep hearing we should give the man a chance, but come on! Trump ran a campaign that not only vilified Muslims but also insulted Mexicans, women, the undocumented among us, disabled people, and many more. The level of anti-Semitism exhibited by Trump supporters was frightening. And look at his cabinet choices. General Michael T. Flynn, his pick for National Security Advisor, has called Islam “a cancer.” So if you ask me what Donald Trump represents to me, my answer is that Trump represents the opportunity for all of us who want to live in a society based on tolerance, respect, equality, and opportunity to unite forcefully and loudly in opposition to those backward values expressed by Trump, his campaign, and advisors. I think we have a lot of work ahead of us, but I’m ready. And I’m far from the only one.
SIG: The so-called War on Terror is, to you, a stupid war, many facets of it grounded in misconceptions and incorrect assumptions and generalizations, perpetuated by fear mongering on the part of the U.S. government. And yet terrorism is a very real fact of the world today. Terrorist organizations carrying out attacks across the world certainly is grounds for a war on a particular concept. The unconstitutional rounding-up of Muslim Americans and civilians in the West and elsewhere should, in many persons’ opinion including my own, not be part and parcel of this effort. Do you see a distinct divide in this concept of the War on Terror? If so, where is that divide? Who has it right, and do you see any chance of it being reframed and carried out in such a way that is both productive and constitutionally correct?
MB: Of course, terrorism is a reality that must be confronted and combated. But if the policies we establish to fight terrorism are based on blanket assumptions about large groups of people, alienation will only increase, as will the threat of more violence. But more fundamentally, we should recognize that terrorism is a malleable concept. According to the Washington Post, the major news media in this country won’t even consider an act of violence as terrorism unless the government names it as such first, giving the government tremendous power over labels and abdicating the media’s own independence. And we all know that when white guys are involved in a mass shootings, every mitigating factor and mental health question is raised when discussing the heinous act. If a mass shooter is a Muslim, the narrative is immediately and reflexively set that this was an act of terrorism, until proven otherwise. That double-standard is a problem.
We must also recognize that terrorism doesn’t exist in a vacuum. We need to understand the motivations behind political violence today, and that includes reckoning with American foreign policy in the Middle East and South Asia. Unfortunately, there’s this reflex in American political culture today that often labels those seeking to understand such motivations as sympathizers of terrorism. Well, that’s just ridiculous, and that kind of name calling won’t move us forward.
SIG: Aside from your own writings and lectures, where should non-Muslim Americans turn for a fuller understanding of both Islam and Islam in America in order to be more informed?
MB: There are many good books on Islam in general and on Muslim Americans in particular. A few recommendations include Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time (2006) as a good general overview and introduction to the life of Muhammad; Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s The Heart of Islam (2002), which examines the spiritual life of Islam with sensitivity; and a new book that is getting much buzz, Shahab Ahmed’s What Is Islam? (2015), which investigates how Muslims have historically considered what is or is not Islamic.
Any reading list about Muslim Americans must include The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), which is foundational to Muslim American identity. Sally Howell’s book Old Islam in Detroit (2014) also provides much history and many interesting anecdotes about earlier waves of Muslim immigrants to this country. Mohja Kahf’s novel The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf (2006) also offers a lot of insight and humor into growing up Muslim in Indiana in the 1970s.
SIG: You state: “Despite a history that stretches back to the days of slavery… Islam was rarely considered an American religion.” And yet its history here speaks for itself. Do you foresee the possibility of Islam’s consideration and eventual inclusion in the repertoire of “American religions”? How do we go about getting to that place, where it’s as accepted a part of our culture as Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and beyond?
MB: Well, I’m not sure that Buddhism or Hinduism are yet fully considered American religions. I think that, as a nation, we still have work to do to recognize the complexity of who we are as a people. With regards to Islam in America, the long history of Islam in this country, dating back to the Atlantic slave trade, ought to be taught in our schools. It’s part of our American history and the stories of the enslaved African Muslims are themselves completely fascinating. Some of them can be found in Allan Austin’s book African Muslims in Antebellum America (1997), which I also recommend reading!
SIG: Are you optimistic about the future of Muslim Americans?
MB: Depends on the day of the week! What I mean is that on some days I am optimistic and others I’m quite pessimistic. I can’t recall a time in my life when the amount of vitriol and misunderstanding around Muslims was higher than it is today. Donald Trump’s proposed Muslim ban has wide appeal in this country. Add the violence and terrorism of today to the mix and you have a recipe for depression. But I also believe that we can’t allow ourselves to be defeated by pessimism. There are always other alternatives, and we have to explore those with all kinds of creativity and compassion. What gives me hope is that now many people – both Muslim and non-Muslim alike – understand that fighting anti-Muslim bigotry is not really about protecting Muslims but is really about preserving our pluralistic and democratic society. And that’s a fight worth fighting.