2010 In Review: The Year for Muslims In The U.S.

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Muslim Americans have fallen under suspicion in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11. 2010 was no exception. Moustafa Bayoumi, author of How Does It Feel To Be A Problem, talks about the year for Muslim Americans as it draws to a close.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This week, we continue a series of conversations with people from diverse backgrounds on what's changed this past year. Today, Muslim Americans and what might seem like an extension of the post-9/11 pattern: A pastor in Florida who threatened to burn the Quran, mass protests organized against the proposed Islamic cultural center two blocks from the site of the destroyed World Trade Center, vandalism at several mosques and tens of thousands of American troops in open war in two Islamic countries and in an undeclared war in a third.

But what's changed this past year also involves personal stories. If you're Muslim American, what's changed in your life in 2010? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Moustafa Bayoumi is professor of English at the City University of New York, author of "How Does It Feel to Be a Problem," and he joins us from his home in New York City. Nice to have you with us today.

Professor MOUSTAFA BAYOUMI (English, City University of New York): Thank you. I'm glad to be here.

CONAN: And I hope the weather is not too much of a problem.

Prof. BAYOUMI: No. I grew up in Canada, so I'm used to this.

CONAN: Well, given the title of your book, do you feel like more of a problem after this year or less?

Prof. BAYOUMI: Well, I think that this year saw the degree of hostility grow against Muslim Americans. So I think I would have to say more of a problem.

CONAN: And I wonder, just given what we are talking about, did those big stories - did they affect your life greatly? Or is it more the personal issues that affect you?

Prof. BAYOUMI: No, I think there's a way in which those big stories affect all of us - in fact, Muslim and non-Muslim American alike. But for Muslim Americans and for myself, I think that, particularly the Park51 story, the so-called Ground Zero mosque story, in the late summer, it really felt like, you could say, like, a door was closing in our face, for Muslim Americans. It felt like there was a kind of - a sense of excluding us from this idea of Americanist itself. And that was really quite new and it really was troubling and made me sad, actually.

CONAN: In what way? Just to recap for those of you who may have missed the story, this was a proposed Islamic center that included a mosque as part of it, but more along the lines, really, of a YMCA or something like that. And this was a couple of blocks from the site of the World Trade Center. And some portrayed this as a triumphalist move on Islamists' part to celebrate a victory over America somehow.

Prof. BAYOUMI: Yeah, exactly. Whereas I think that the idea behind the project and behind the Imam Feisal Abdul - Imam Abdul - I've forgotten his name - Abdul Rauf...

CONAN: Yeah.

Prof. BAYOUMI: ...Feisal Abdul Rauf, yes. I think the idea of - behind the project from the very beginning was precisely to model a place like the 92nd Street Y to have some place where we can see - Islam, see American Muslims and the rest of American society come together and create a culture together.

And, in fact, they did everything, as they should have, according to plan. They bought the building. They went to the community board and such things. And the project was announced in December of last year to little ado.

But then, somehow, in the early summer, it started to generate a lot of hostility. And by the end of the summer, you saw huge crowds around that site in New York to the point where, around the anniversary of September 11th this year, there was a significant demonstration in opposition to it, where - and I went, actually, to see that demonstration, and I've never really seen anything like that in New York City before. I mean, there were thousands of people on the street just yelling, no mosque, no mosque, no mosque, and - a kind of blatant in-your-face anti-Muslim sentiment that really left me quite depressed.

On the other hand, there was another demonstration just two blocks away that was a pro - you could call it a pro-Park51 demonstration that was very typical of New York City. It was loud. It was rambunctious. It was very diverse. And that one, to me, seemed much more representative of what New York City was all about. And that one didn't leave me depressed. That one left me quite optimistic.

CONAN: We have also, this year, seen more arrests of American Muslims who are alleged to have been involved in plans to target American - army bases, to recruitment centers, subways, Times Square?

Prof. BAYOUMI: Yeah. In fact, I think that's right. And I think that this is a problem. And I think it's a problem that has something to do also with the longevity of these wars. It seems to me that the longer that these wars go on the more opportunities there's going to be for this kind of attributive, you know, act. And that's why it's more important than ever to find some kind of conclusion to these wars.

I think that we really need to find a way to get out of Afghanistan. We need to find a way to resolve the situations around the world. You know, we've been now been in Afghanistan longer than the Soviets were. And it doesn't seem like there's much chance of that conflict declining in the near future. But I think that it's incumbent upon all of us to try to find a way for that conflict to end.

CONAN: Most Americans - I don't think I'm exaggerating here - would see those conflicts in terms of the experience of the American troops. Do you think most Muslim Americans see it through the experience of the Muslims in those countries?

Prof. BAYOUMI: Yeah. I think that most Muslim Americans see it from multiple perspectives. I think that they see it -- see them just like other Americans. Muslim Americans also serve in the armed forces just like (unintelligible) Americans.

CONAN: Of course.

Prof. BAYOUMI: And they also - though I think it's particularly - if they have family there or if they have family in nearby countries, then they feel the conflict in a more intimate fashion than a lot of other Americans. So I think one of the things that you see is that the Muslim American community is very diverse and it comes from the most - a lot of different places, and that they can bring a lot of different perspectives to the table.

CONAN: We're talking about the experience of Muslim Americans in 2010 as we draw towards the end of this year. We'd like to hear your story, whether it involves these big issues or your personal story, or as Moustafa Bayoumi suggests, our guest, maybe a little bit of both. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

Now, let's go to Mohammed(ph), Mohammed with us in Portland in Oregon.

MOHAMMED (Caller): Yeah. You know, one of the advance Muslims that have got up in Portland, Oregon, you know, kind of changed it a lot in terms of the viewing of your friends and how, you know, people asked you about what do you see as, you know, as an individual. So one event always kind of traces back to, you know, your living situations, you know, (unintelligible) and all other places. So I didn't expect that, you know - but unable the event to happen in Portland, Oregon. So when I had it, many friends have called me, telling me, you know, you had it. How do you feel about it? It's like as if, you know, they always connect you to those events. So that was one of the things that reminds me of the memory.

CONAN: And so, the events that happened completely outside your experience is somehow - you're implicated by just - by being a Muslim?

MOHAMMED: Yeah. Mainly, because, you know, people connect, like if one have, like the similar event, like the event that happened in Portland, Oregon, looks like, okay. Many people do view - because if they used to - enable - to allow us - connect us together with friends, you know, that - isn't that event is changing the whole thing. People view you as a different person. And, again, the guy who is, you know, from Somalia, and I'm a Somali person, that connects us, you know, to a bigger issue. And then it creates a lot of implications for youth even to connect with the other fellow friends from other religions or other, you know, beliefs, yeah.

CONAN: And thank you very much for the call, Mohammed. And we wish you the best of luck in the coming year. And Moustafa Bayoumi, I think he's referring to the alleged Christmas tree plot that was stopped in Portland just a little while ago. And the - I guess - is there an element of collective guilt?

Prof. BAYOUMI: I think quite definitely there is. In fact, what happened afterwards was there was an arson on the mosque in Portland, shortly after the announcement of that arrest. And so, this is one of the problems - social problems that I think we have to deal with. The idea that somehow blame can then be just transported across to the whole community is kind of scapegoating, a kind of ethnic or religious scapegoating that, unfortunately, does have its own precedence in the American history. And I think it's something that we should be vigilant in trying to prevent as well.

CONAN: Here's an email from Chris(ph) in Minneapolis: High unemployment equals high anti-Muslim sentiment.

Prof. BAYOUMI: Yeah. I think that that's partly true. I think that there's a way in which - when the economy is doing badly, people are looking also, again, for scapegoats. I also think that it's wrong. It's too narrow to see it as only a Muslim problem right now.

I think that - you also have a kind of anti-immigrant sentiment that's quite common in the country, perhaps most clearly expressed by the Arizona law, SB 1070.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. BAYOUMI: And so, you have that kind of anti-Muslim movement going on in the country. You have a kind of anti-immigrant sentiment that's popular as well, and I see that it's actually connected also to this idea that at least 20 percent of the population now believes that the president himself is a secret Muslim according to some polls.

And that to me is also - it's a kind of way of talking about race that's not talking about race in the traditional American fashion. So to be able to talk about President Obama by saying that he's just, you know, he's not one us, he's one of them instead, this is a way in which there is a kind of redefinition of what it means to be an American that's actually leaving a lot of people out in the cold right now. And I think that that's what happened this year to Muslim Americans.

They feel more and more like they as an entire community have been excluded or are being excluded from the American family.

CONAN: Our guest is Moustafa Bayoumi, author of "How Does It Feel to Be a Problem." He's a professor of English at the City University of New York, as one of the series of conversations with people of diverse background on what's changed for them over the past year.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

And let's go next to Paquia(ph) - excuse me, Paquiza(ph) in Fremont, California. I hope I didn't mispronounce the name too badly.

PAQUIZA (Caller): No. You pronounced it right. Hello.

CONAN: Hello.

PAQUIZA: So I was - I just overheard your interview. I didn't get a chance to hear everything. But the reason why I'm calling is because I've been here since 2001 myself, and I came from Pakistan, but my family is originally from Afghanistan.

And I feel like things have changed drastically over the last nine or 10 years, and still - I am an American citizen, but I'm still - I still come across times when I'm not regarded as a citizen. I do have an accent a little bit, and I work for a company as a sales representative.

And just last week, I had a customer call back and yell at me because of a delayed package, and she wasn't upset with the company, but she actually called me a foreigner, and she said you damn, foreigner.

And, you know, us being - having to go through so much when we lost our country and came here, we still haven't found our shelter.

CONAN: Do you think...

PAQUIZA: Same goes for my family back home. You know, I have cousins, I have uncles in Afghanistan, and their situation is no better. I mean, they're in their own country, but they don't feel like they belong there anymore because nothing - I mean, things have changed. There are new buildings. There's - but there is no peace, a lot of corruption, a lot of problems.

CONAN: I wonder if your experience - do you think it would have been different had your name been Indian or Vietnamese or Mexican?

PAQUIZA: No. The lady didn't even know my name. She actually called to ask for a package and it was delayed, so she said, you damn foreigners, possibly because the company I work for belongs to Indians, and a lot of people assume that, you know, we're all a family, that I'm their wife or their daughter.

So they just - it wasn't specifically because I was Afghan. It was just because I have that accent which is not so Americanized yet. So we get that. I mean, outside, I wear a hijab. I wear a scarf, so there are times when I go out, people cut me in the line.

I mean, those things really don't bother me, but somewhere I feel like I still haven't made my - you know, I still don't - I mean, I'm trying my best to, you know, settle down here to, you know, be like an average American, but it's still hard. It's hard. And I keep - I just feel like I'm, like, the middle person. I'm - I don't belong back home because I know I cannot survive there.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

PAQUIZA: But over here, I'm not completely accepted the way I am. And it's not easy. I have called your radio station a couple of times but I have hung up because I have an accent, and I feel like - or, you know, there are certain times when, you know, a certain issue I don't understand because of the - I just probably don't have that courage. I don't find myself, okay, I'm - yeah, I'm an American. I can speak up and stuff. But there are times when I don't feel like that, although I want to.

CONAN: Paquiza, your accent is no problem. And...

PAQUIZA: Thank you.

CONAN: ...you ask good questions, so please have the courage and stay on the line next time too, okay?

PAQUIZA: Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Thank you very much for the call.

PAQUIZA: Bye-bye.

CONAN: Let's see if we go next to - this is Brian(ph), and Brian is with us from Idaho Falls.

BRIAN (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

BRIAN: Am I on the air?

CONAN: Yes, you are.

BRIAN: I work - my name is Brian, obviously. I work at a small television station in Idaho Falls. And I - there was a reporter who was Muslim. And I was - I had a Quran, and I - we got to talking about it. And she told me, you know, start looking to the Quran, and I got really interested in that. And I let her know, I said, you know, what do I have to do to become Muslim or, you know, start going to the process, or it's a really intriguing faith. And, you know, growing up as a Christian, it just didn't seem right. But as I went to work, I brought the Quran with me, and I got a lot of flak for it from a lot of people at work, especially from a couple of on-air personalities. And I thought that it was just a little bizarre, especially since we're reporting about the world - the site going up next to the World Trade Center. And I was wondering, is that normal for everybody or is it just...

CONAN: Well, let's ask some - let's ask our guest Moustafa Bayoumi, just curiosity about the faith, curiosity about the Quran, should that be enough to get hostility?

BRIAN: That's what I was wondering. And this...

Prof. BAYOUMI: Yeah. I mean, I don't think it should, but I think unfortunately that it does quite often. And I know that even when I'm talking to people who've read my book, it has Arabic on the cover. And people have told me about how they get themselves curious looks or more scrutiny because of the book. Or when people are going through airports, it's quite common to hear stories that about extra, you know, a second look being taken at a book because there's Arabic on inside or Arabic on the cover, and that sort of thing. So unfortunately, I think this has become a kind of reality, but certainly it shouldn't be the case.

CONAN: Well...

Prof. BAYOUMI: And also, if I could just say about the previous caller, saying that she feels like she doesn't have a home because she's not quite at home in her place of origin...

CONAN: And you're going to have to make this very quick, please.

Prof. BAYOUMI: Oh, sorry. Yeah. I can't tell you how many times that my friends and I have had that same conversation, particularly over this past year. There's a sense about that we're not exactly sure where we belong anymore.

CONAN: Moustafa Bayoumi, thank you very much for your time today. He's professor of English at the City University of New York.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News in Washington.

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