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Narratives of Arab American Muslim Youth

Context: Paris and the Syrian Refugee Crisis

In our media-saturated culture there is a pattern to world events. We all know the pattern. First, an unanticipated event. Second, endless streaming of “Breaking News” graphics – even if there is no breaking news – about the unanticipated event (this is especially evident if you ever stand in front of a row of televisions; for example, at a gym or in a department store). Third, the barrage of discourse on how society-country-world should react to the unanticipated event. Fourth, the reaction enacted, followed by more endlessly streaming “Breaking News” graphics flashing across the television, broadcasting the chosen reaction. Mixed in with all of this are the quote-unquote “experts” – who appear across our television screens to opine, analyze, unpack, and project into the future what is occurring; how it will change our way of life and sometimes (though rarely) the origins of the unanticipated event. “Experts” and the 24-hour news cycle have elevated pontificating one’s supposedly authoritative opinion to a highly valued status in our society.

There are myriad examples of these phenomena in our society presently, but I want to focus on two in particular: the recent attacks on Paris and the Syrian refugee crisis. These two issues are, of course, inextricably intertwined with many other issues, not the least of which is post 9/11 United States foreign policy – although even this is a vast oversimplification and reduction of the complex historical narrative – and rampant Islamaphobia that has permeated “Western” society since 9/11.

What many in the United States are watching on television in regards to the Paris attacks and the Syrian refugee crisis cannot be disentangled from the larger cultural narratives of our society: our cultural imperialism, both past and present; systemic racism, xenophobia, and religious intolerance; our penchant to react violently, rather than thoughtfully, to just about every global situation since World War I; our failure to take responsibility for our role in many unfortunate historic events, often through the rewriting of history in our country’s favor; and most generally our disdain for critical thinking. The present United States tends to be a reactionary society, rather than a society that values introspection, careful examination of issues, and dialogue. This is increasingly fueled, I believe, by the pontification of “experts” that I discussed in the first paragraph of this post.

Let’s Start with Re-Humanization

In response to Paris, as well as to the ridiculously predictable narratives surrounding Syrian refugees in the United States, it struck me that a larger project is underway, though this is a project that has been ongoing for much of world history, and certainly throughout the history of the United States. That is the project of de-humanization. Many colonial imperial projects are rooted in dehumanization (Bhaba, 1994; Rushdie, 1992; Said, 1979). We do not hear much about the human stories of Paris or Syria; rather, we hear a lot about amorphous concepts: radical Islam, terrorism, refugees, bombs, suicide belts, clashes of civilization, targeted bombing, airplanes, drones, and ‘boots on the ground.’

12301617_10104063136673570_3919657519894602614_nAs an educator, I recognize the power education can make toward unpacking the very complicated nature of human relations (as well as human and more-than-human relations). For several years I have had a book on my shelf – Moustafa Bayoumi’s (2008) How Does it Feel to be a Problem: Being Young and Arab in America – and in reflecting on these current world events I felt compelled to finally pick this text up to advance my understanding of an often un-discussed topic in the United States: the lived realities of Arab Muslim Americans in our society.

The book is an experience in humanization – unpacking complicated socially constructed realities (race, ethnicity, religion, nation), public policy, educational practices, cultural narratives, history, and gender – through the narratives of seven young Arab Muslim American youth. While it might be easy to focus solely on the Arab Muslim American markers, Bayoumi (2008) is careful to articulate that “the main character in the book is youth” (p. 6) and that narratives are used because “stories connect us to each other” (p. 12). The book is not only thought-provoking and humanizing, but also hopeful. The book is also educative. As Akram, one of the young men profiled in the book articulates, “‘Education is important. Being educated about certain things. You have to do that instead of using violence’” (p. 142).

Parallel Experiences in the United States

One aspect of this book that is a compelling thought experiment is Bayoumi’s (2008) equating the Arab American (and Arab Muslim American, in particular) experience as parallel to the African American experience. The title of the book comes from W. E. B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk: “Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question. . .How does it feel to be a problem?” Reading this book in the present historic moment – where we are having a national debate around unchanged issues of systemic racism on college and university campuses, within policing, and I would argue within the economic structuring of our society – raises questions about the nature of Arab Muslim American identity – “multiple identities” (Bayoumi, 2008, p. 12) emerging and becoming in the complicated socially constructed spaces of race, ethnicity, religion, spirituality, and immigrant status.

Reading the stories in this book force one to recognize that while we rightfully examine oppression against the African American community, there is, as Audre Lorde reminds us, no hierarchy of oppressions. Systemic racism, ethnocentrism, and the religious privileging of Christianity in the United States results in real life consequences for Arab Muslim Americans as well. As Bayoumi (2008) describes in his preface: “what you will find are seven Arab American narratives that are in the end very American stories about race, religion, and civil rights, and how the pressures of domestic life and foreign policy push on individual lives” (p. 11).   Whether one agrees or disagrees with Bayoumi’s equating the Arab Muslim American experience with the African American experience, what readers walk away with is greater understanding that dismantling racism, ethnocentrism, religious privilege, and other –isms impacts our entire society; this is why ongoing student and citizen protests around these issues in the United States is so vitally important.

12308293_10104063124702560_4488151810382933014_nFor Bayoumi (2008), racism against African Americans or other racial and ethnic groups (including Arab Americans) cannot be disentangled from issues of United States foreign policy (particularly in the Middle East), the “war on terror,” or religious intolerance. Focusing narratives of Arab Muslim American youth allows us to further complicate the role of racism, ethnocentrism, and religious intolerance in the United States. Bayoumi (2008) is quite forceful in his assessment of these entangled realities: “What we are currently living through is the slow creep of imperial high-handedness into the rest of American society, performed in the name of national security and facilitated through the growth of racist policies” (p. 269). Bayoumi’s (2008) use of narrative as humanizing project is also couched as an act of resistance: “the fight to retain standards of fairness and mine human compassion are themselves acts of resistance, ways of opposing the imperial push in the age of terror” (p. 269).

Policy and Practice

Within the seven narrative stories Bayoumi (2008) unpacks issues of policy and practice across United States society. Rasha’s story demonstrates the country’s reaction to the 9/11 attacks, where large numbers of Arab Muslim American immigrants and Arab American United States citizens were rounded up and held in detention centers, investigated for possible connections to the attacks. Bayoumi (2008) equates this history with that of the Japanese internment campus during World War II, noting that on average, post 9/11 detainees were held 80 days in federal and local prisons. Of particular importance to Rasha’s story is immigration status. Regardless of how long a family had been in the United States, the Bush “administration exploited the jingoism and racism of the moment” (p. 40) to target legal immigrants based on religion and country of origin. Following the Paris attacks, the rhetorical parallels occurring within public discourse are striking. As citizens we must be asking whether similar practices are occurring presently.

There is the issue of employment discrimination in Omar’s story. A successful college student, Omar studied communications and media, graduated with impeccable credentials, and had references from big-name media industry professionals. Yet he is unable to secure solid employment. Two possible reasons: his name and his internship experience working at the United Nations for the Al Jazeera network. “Could it be that American media organizations won’t hire him because they find an Arab American with Al Jazeera credentials too problematical?” (Bayoumi, 2008, p. 191). Bayoumi (2008) goes on to dissect issues of employment discrimination within the Arab American community.

To this, we can tie Sami’s story. Sami served in the Marines during the invasion of Iraq, serving two tours of duty. While Sami seeks to navigate the challenges of the military as an Arab American fighting a war in the Middle East, his story also parallels Omar’s story in relation to language. Both Omar and Sami speak Arabic, and in various ways their Arab American identity was or is exploited in the ‘war on terror.’ Unpacking this complicated storyline is one intriguing aspect of policy and practice, both within the United States and abroad in physical conflicts around the world.

The Role of Schooling

All the youth in this book have a relationship with the United States education system. Yasmin’s story is particularly striking – and for me was the most inspiring narrative in the book. As a high school student, Yasmin ran for and was elected to student government as freshman representative. However, she was forced to resign her position when she was unable to attend the school dance due to her religious convictions. Attending all student government sponsored activities was a supposed responsibility of the elected position. Yasmin goes on to fight for her ability to serve on student government, educating herself on legal issues, seeking pro bono legal council, and eventually winning her right to serve as student representative. In her senior year she was elected student government President.

The book includes many other narratives of schooling and discriminatory, racist, or prejudicial practices. Akram describes the attitude and behavior of teachers in his Brooklyn school following 9/11. Lina articulates her troubled relationship to schooling, not unlike that of most teenage youth. Rami discusses his interactions with Muslim youth in school as part of his religious practice. Returning to Yasmin’s story, Bayoumi (2008) writes that “‘Contrary to what a lot of people think,’ Jimmy Yan told me when I called him to discuss the case, ‘most of the racism in our society happens to the most vulnerable members in our public schools’” (p. 109).

There are also other stories of schooling, however. Omar’s story of finding his passion for media studies, despite the challenges associated with his finding a job post-graduation. Rami’s story of better connecting to his Muslim religious identity through a religious organization on his campus. Stories of being the first person in the family to graduate from college. These narrative stories highlight the complicated role of schooling in the lives of young Arab Muslim American people.

Continued Engagement

If we are to move beyond an unending war on terror, a continual recycling of racial, ethnic, and religious oppression, and predictable patterns of immigrant demonization toward a more hopeful future, then my sense is that we must start reading more narrative stories. We must start listening, rather than talking (Garrison, Hickman, & Ikeda, 2014). And I believe this means we really must engage youth. In regards to Arab American Muslim stories, Moustafa Bayoumi’s How Does it Feel to be a Problem: Being Young and Arab in America is a good place to start our education.

I have picked up Bayoumi’s (2015) newest book This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror as well as Deepa Iyer’s (2015) book We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape our Multicultural Future. These texts I hope will continue my own understanding, listening, and thinking about our responsibility as educators not to “know” everything, but to open to the continual unfolding of the world, and the inability to disentangle issues of education from systemic oppression, colonialism, and foreign policy. As Bayoumi (2008) asserts at the end of his book, “the principles at stake revolve not only around issues of full equality and inclusion, but fundamentally around the consequences that American foreign policy has on domestic civil rights” (p. 261).


In this regard, I will also promote an upcoming webinar on the topic of supporting Muslim students on college campuses in the United States. It will be hosted this Tuesday, December 1, from 12:00 – 1:00 PM CST as part of the Higher Ed Live series.


Bayoumi, M. (2008). How does it feel to be a problem? Being young and Arab in America. New York, NY: Penguin Press.

Bayoumi, M. (2015). This Muslim American life: Dispatches from the war on terror. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Bhaba, H. (1994). The location of culture. New York, NY: Routledge.

Garrison, J., Hickman, L., & Ikeda, D. (2014). Living as learning: John Dewey in the 21st century. Cambridge, MA: Dialogue Path Press.

Iyer, D. (2015). We too sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh immigrants shape our multicultural future. New York, NY: The New Press.

Rushdie, S. (1992). Imaginary homelands: Essays and criticism, 1981-1991. New York, NY: Granta Books.

Said, E. W. (1979). Orientalism. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

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