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Speaker Declares Attitudes Toward Arabs the New Racism

Published: February 13, 2007
By Robin Roger
Web Writer

A Brooklyn College professor described attitudes toward Arab Americans as a new kind of racism when he spoke in Plant Hall of The University of Tampa the evening of Feb. 8.

Speaking at the beginning of Black History Month, Moustafa Bayoumi compared the experience of Arab Muslims in America today to that of African Americans before the Civil Rights movement. He quoted from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and the title of his forthcoming book comes from a question posed by black activist W.E.B. Dubois: “How does it feel to be a problem?”

“To be an Arab Muslim in America today is to be in the glare of the spotlight while at the same time remaining unseen,” Bayoumi said.

The professor's lecture, “How Does it Feel to be a Problem: Being Young, Arab and Muslim in Brooklyn Today,” drew from the stories of young Arab Muslims living in the Bay Ridge community in Brooklyn. While many of the stories are more dramatic than most people’s everyday lives, Bayoumi said they hit on issues that many people have experienced at some point.

He classified his work as literary journalism, which is not subject to the same rigor as traditional journalism and can be more interpretive. His book his based on anecdotes rather than scientific research. The author culled his stories from encounters with community leaders, shopkeepers, students and soldiers.

One student he spoke with, Yasmine, was elected secretary of her high school student government. When Yasmine could not attend school dances, because of her religion, she said the school told her she could not serve on student government. She fought the school and won, and was elected president the following year.

Many of the young people Bayoumi interviewed were concerned mostly with getting good jobs, getting married and establishing an identity, he said. But while their parents had been able to realize the American dream, he said they feel their upwardly mobile trajectory is in jeopardy.

“These youth are at a natural crossroads,” he said. “Their anxieties reveal much not only about their personal lives, but also global issues. The future of the Arab and Islamic community is tied not to domestic policy, but to foreign affairs, which makes changing things extremely difficult.”

The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, brought about an increased interest in Arab culture, he said, from the Islamic religion to the hookah pipe. But that awareness is coupled with fear and aversion, according to Bayoumi.

Some young Arabs have responded with an increased religiosity and isolation, Bayoumi said. Others refuse to speak Arabic in public or try to pass as Latino. Still others walk around in full ethnic dress, advertising their religion and inviting questions.

Many have chosen to do the defining, rather than be defined, Bayoumi said.

With recent terror plots being traced back to Arab immigrant enclaves in Britain, many people may ask what is wrong with racial profiling. People do terrible things in the name of Islam, Bayoumi said, but he believes they do not speak for a large percentage of the global Muslim population.

“Gross generalizations that are unacceptable for any other group—nevertheless a quarter of the world’s population—have become socially acceptable today,” Bayoumi said. “It’s very easy to generalize and dangerous to generalize. Why do we jump from the particular to the general so quickly in the case of Islam?”

Bayoumi’s lecture was both timely and important, said Esra Mirze, assistant professor of English at UT.

“It’s such a political tendency to use religion as a form of separation, and race adds into that,” Mirze said. “There’s a tendency to polarize all these ethnic groups. That’s a very reductive and simplistic way of looking at things.”

Roughly 50 people attended the lecture, sponsored by the department of English and writing and the International Programs Office. The event was part of the University’s Quality Enhancement Program, which aims to improve and enhance international education efforts.

Bayoumi teaches English at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and has published articles in The Nation, The Village Voice, Arab Studies Quarterly and other publications.