Sade and four of his twenty-something friends are at a hookah café almost underneath the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in Brooklyn. It's late, but the summer heat is strong and hangs in the air. They sit on the sidewalk in a circle, water pipes bubbling between their white plastic chairs.
Sade is upset. He recently found out that his close friend of almost four years was an undercover police detective sent to spy on him, his friends, and his community. Even the guy's name, Kamil Pasha, was fake, which particularly irked the twenty-four-year-old Palestinian American. After appearing as a surprise witness at a recent terrorism trial in Brooklyn, Pasha vanished. That's when Sade discovered the truth.
"I was very hurt," he says. "Was it friendship, or was he doing his job?" He takes a puff from his water pipe. "I felt betrayed." The smoke comes out thick and smells like apples. "How could I not have seen this? The guy had four bank accounts! He was always asking for a receipt wherever we went. He had an empty apartment: a treadmill, a TV, and a mattress. No food, no wardrobe." He shakes his head. "We were stupid not to figure it out.
"You have to know the family," Sade says. He points to those around the circle. "His mother is my aunt. I've known him since I was in second grade. I know where his family lives, and he's also my cousin," he says, ticking off each person in turn. He gets to me. "You I'm not so sure about!" he says, and all the young men laugh loudly.
Informants and spies are regular conversation topics in the age of terror, a time when friendships are tested, trust disappears, and tragedy becomes comedy. If questioning friendship isn't enough, Sade has also had other problems to deal with. Sacked from his Wall Street job, he is convinced that the termination stemmed from his Jerusalem birthplace. Anti-Arab and anti-Muslim invectives were routinely slung at him there, and he's happier now in a technology firm owned and staffed by other hyphenated Americans. But the last several years have taken their toll. I ask him about life after September 11 for Arab Americans. "We're the new blacks," he says. "You know that, right?"
How does it feel to be a problem? Just over a century ago, W.E.B. Du Bois asked that very question in his American classic The Souls of Black Folk, and he offered an answer. "Being a problem is a strange experience," he wrote, "peculiar even," no doubt evoking the "peculiar institution" of slavery. Du Bois composed his text during Jim Crow, a time of official racial segregation that deliberately obscured to the wider world the human details of African-American life. Determined to pull back "the veil" separating populations, he showed his readers a fuller picture of the black experience, including "the meaning of its religion, the passion of its human sorrow, and the struggle of its greater souls."
A century later, Arabs and Muslim Americans are the new "problem" of American society, but there have of course been others. Native Americans, labeled "merciless Indian savages" by the Declaration of Independence, were said to be beyond civilization and able to comprehend only the brute language of force. With the rise of Catholic immigration to the country in the nineteenth century, Irish and Italian Americans were attacked for their religion. They suffered mob violence and frequent accusations of holding papal loyalties above republican values. During World War I, German Americans were loathed and reviled, sauerkraut was redubbed "liberty cabbage," and several states banned the teaching of German, convinced that the language itself promoted un-American values. Between the world
wars, anti-Semitism drove Jewish Americans out of universities and jobs and fueled wild and pernicious conspiracy theories concerning warfare and world domination. Japanese Americans were herded like cattle into internment camps during World War II (as were smaller numbers of German, Italian, Hungarian, and Romanian Americans). Chinese Americans were commonly suspected of harboring Communist sympathies during the McCarthy era, frequently losing careers and livelihoods. And Hispanic Americans have long been seen as outsider threats to American culture, even though their presence here predates the formation of the present-day United States.
But since the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Arabs and Muslims, two groups virtually unknown to most Americans prior to 2001, now hold the dubious distinction of being the first new communities of suspicion after the hard-won victories of the civil-rights era. Even if prejudice continues to persist in our society, the American creed of fairness was now supposed to mean that we ought to be judged not by our religion, gender, color, or country of origin but simply by the content of our individual characters. The terrorist attacks, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the explosion of political violence around the world have put that dream in jeopardy for American Arabs and Muslims.
In the eyes of some Americans, they have become collectively known as dangerous outsiders. Bias crimes against Arabs, Muslims, and those assumed to be Arab or Muslim spiked 1,700 percent in the first six months after September 11 and have never since returned to their pre-2001 levels. A USA Today/Gallup Poll from 2006 shows that 39 percent of Americans
admit to holding prejudice against Muslims and believe that all Muslims—U.S. citizens included—should carry special IDs. Different studies from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Harvard, and Purdue have each concluded that the more positively one feels about the United States, the more likely one is to harbor anti-Arab feelings. Hostility remains high. Government policies certainly haven't helped the situation. Mass arrests following the attacks increased generalized suspicion against Arabs and Muslims in this country. The government demanded that nonimmigrant males from twenty-four Muslim-majority countries register their whereabouts in this country, leading to deportation proceedings against almost fourteen thousand people. And racial profiling, almost universally loathed prior to 2001, assumed a new lease on life in 2003 when President George W. Bush ordered a ban on the practice but included "exceptions permitting use of race and ethnicity to combat potential terrorist attacks." While it could now be said that profiling other groups was officially and legally un-American, profiling Arabs and Muslims made good national security sense.
But what exactly is a profile? It's a sketch in charcoal, the simplified contours of a face, a silhouette in black and white, a textbook description of a personality. By definition a profile draws an incomplete picture. It substitutes recognition for detail. It is what an outsider from the street observes when looking through the windowpane of someone else's life.
Profiling Arabs and Muslims has in reality expanded far beyond the realms of law enforcement. Arab and Muslim Americans are now routinely profiled in their places of employment, in housing, for public-opinion polls, and in the media. Yet they remain curiously unknown. Broadly speaking, the representations that describe them tend to fall into two types, the exceptional assimilated immigrant or the violent fundamentalist, with very little room in between. The questions they are asked in the media and in real life constantly circle simplistically around the same frames of reference — terrorism, women, and assimilation — fixations that may be understandable in this age but frequently overlook the complex human dimensions of Muslim-American or Arab-American life. Terms such as "moderate" and "radical" are bandied about so freely as to mean next to nothing, and cliched phrases like "sleeper cells," "alienated Muslims," "radicalization," and "homegrown terrorists" degrade the language to the point that they structure the thinking about the Muslims living among us.
It seems barely an exaggeration to say that Arab and Muslim Americans are constantly talked about but almost never heard from. The problem is not that they lack representations but that they have too many. And these are all abstractions. Arabs and Muslims have become a foreign-policy issue, an argument on the domestic agenda, a law-enforcement priority, and a point of well-meaning concern. They appear as shadowy characters on terror television shows, have become objects of sociological inquiry, and get paraded around as puppets for public diplomacy. Pop culture is awash with their images. Hookah cafés entice East Village socialites, fashionistas appropriate the checkered kaffiyah scarf, and Prince sings an ode to a young Arab-American girl. They are floating everywhere in the virtual landscape of the national imagination, as either villains of Islam or victims of Arab culture. Yet as in the postmodern world in which we live, sometimes when you are everywhere, you are really nowhere.
Frankly, it's beleaguering; like living on a treadmill, an exhausting condition. University of Michigan anthropologists Sally Howell and Andrew Shryock succinctly describe the situation when they write that "in the aftermath of 9/11, Arab and Muslim Americans have been compelled, time and again, to apologize for acts they did not commit, to condemn acts they never condoned and to openly profess loyalties that, for most U.S. citizens, are merely assumed." Yet despite the apologies, condemnations, and professions, their voices still aren't heard. And while so many terrible things have happened in the past years, plenty of good things have also occurred, from Japanese-American groups speaking out against today's wartime policies, to prominent civil-rights activists fighting for due process for Muslim and Arab clients, to ordinary people reaching out to one another in everyday encounters. Much of this happens quietly in church basements, in mosques holding open houses, in Jewish centers, or in university or community halls, but such events too are often obscured, drowned out by the ideology of our age. Yet what most remains in the shadows today are the human dimensions to how Arabs and Muslims live their lives, the rhythms of their work and days, the varieties of their religious experiences, the obstacles they face, and the efforts they shoulder to overcome them. In other words, what is absent is how they understand the meanings of their religion, the passions of their sorrow, and the struggle of their souls. But in today's landscape, none of that seems to matter. One could say that in the dawning years of the twenty-first century, when Arabs are the new chic and Islam is all the rage, Muslims and Arabs have become essentially a nagging problem to solve, one way or another.
And being a problem is a strange experience — frustrating, even.
Excerpted from How Does It Feel to Be a Problem: Being Young and Arab in America by Moustafa Bayoumi. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) August, 2008.