Published: Feb 13, 2007
By Robin Roger
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.
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
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.”
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
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.
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
“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.
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
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.