Moustafa Bayoumi, This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror. NYU Press, 2015.
Review by Keith P. Feldman
In 2008 Brooklyn College English Professor Moustafa Bayoumi published his first book, the critically-acclaimed How Does It Feel to Be a Problem: Being Young and Arab in America. Constructing textured portraits of seven Arab youth navigating Brooklyn’s fractured post-9/11 terrain, the book’s essayistic prose and deft narrative approach makes the sustained claim that Arab Americans have been and continue to be a vibrant, if persistently misunderstood, part of an American polycultural reality. The book’s humanism calls on readers to recognize the complex personhood of their Arab American neighbors. Given that the U.S. foreign policy establishment had embraced the deeply fraught “clash of civilizations” thesis and in the process reheated stale Islamophobic, Orientalist, and racist stereotypes, the book’s portraits were graciously received by many readers as a much-needed alternative. How Does It Feel is one of those rare first scholarly books: published with a mass market press, sparse in endnotes, and rarely concerned with methodology, historiography, or disciplinary debates.
Bayoumi’s highly-anticipated second book reads as the quasi-academic complement to the first. This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror collects seventeen stand-alone articles and essays. Loosely organized around four themes (Muslims in history, in theory, in politics, and in culture), the book weaves together over a decade’s worth of mostly previously-published work to examine “War on Terror culture and its repercussions on Muslim American life” (p. 15).
Specialists are not lacking for resources to understand the cultural logics shaping the post-9/11 period; This Muslim American Life, however, is one of the few books I know that centers Muslim American perspectives. Bayoumi braids together the legal and cultural history of West Asian immigration, a counter-cultural Ahmadiyya American Muslim universalism, the xenophobic logics legitimating racialized internment, and the intensifying demonization of Palestine and Palestinians. Among the broad range of topics, Bayoumi takes up the “neo-orientalism” of high profile Muslim commentators Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Irshad Manji, and Reza Aslan; the Park51 Muslim Cultural Center; the New York Police Department surveillance of American Muslim communities; the massacre at a Wisconsin Sikh temple; the author’s own positioning in the culture wars; and the use of music as sonic torture in U.S. detention facilities.
Bayoumi’s light touch and occasional humor invites nonspecialists to grasp the particular ways Muslim Americans have been situated at the precarious interface of race and religion. Among the book’s most affecting chapters is “Letter to a G-Man,” written in the months after September 11, 2001. Penned in epistolary form, the reader is positioned as an FBI agent who wants to speak with the letter’s author, figured here as a long-time Muslim resident of New York. The letter-writer condenses several centuries of Muslim presence in North America, surfacing the lived complexities of everyday Muslims (and Arabs) in “our modern Granada” (p. 28). Pride, anxiety, love of home and homeland, unvarnished honesty, and a sense of history make up the texture of this letter—while putting readers in the awkward position of the government investigator where we can’t help but squirm.
Taken together, This Muslim American Life is ideal for a wide readership, including undergraduate courses. The book pays heed to, and indeed contributes to, a war on terror “counter-culture” through multiple registers, tones, and styles. Bayoumi calls the idea behind this variety a “general program of interference in the representational and political logic regarding Muslims and Muslim Americans” (p. 17). Such interference is desperately needed in a moment of intensified anti-Muslim xenophobia and racism. Some readers may have qualms with the book’s loose organization and structure, its abiding humanism, or its diagnosis of Islamophobia. For me, these elements offer crucial opportunities for engagement. They invite us to learn not only about the culture of the War on Terror from what Edward Said in another context called “the standpoint of its victims,” but also how to think and write about those less dehumanizing, more egalitarian futures being lived in our midst.