Opinion | Being a Muslim American Right Now is Like Living On Borrowed Time
By Khaled A. Beydoun
“This is worse than after the Muslim Ban, than after 9/11,” uttered Abed Ayoub, a lawyer and childhood friend, four blocks away from the White House and two decades apart from the day that changed everything.In between the prevailing custom of doom-scrolling and delivering bad news, Abed looked up with a stare that said everything. I knew that look well.
Like him, I’m an Arab, Muslim and American — an amalgam of identities that conjures up “pariah” in the world we live in. But now, it means something different. At this moment, when the horror of mass death unfolds in Gaza and on screens we hold in our palms, our identity spells absurdity. We see ourselves in the people of Gaza. The accosted people there share our names, our faith, our culture and our customs. We have friends in that 140-square-mile open-air prison turned into hell on earth, including journalists who were sheltering at the Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital at the time of the deadly blast. But what we continue to see on our screens is still half a world away. On the other side of our terrestrial reality and this virtual insanity.
Until this past few weeks.
“A Palestinian boy was killed in Illinois,” shared Abed. This sequence of foreign-to-domestic murder was a familiar one. Being American, like six-year-old Wadea Al-Fayoume was, does not protect us from the stigma of being Palestinian or Arab, Muslim and from the “Middle East.” Rather, these latter identities keep the security blanket of Americanness away from us, rendering us foreign and, during times of crisis, “terrorists.”
Wadea was stabbed 26 times with a military-style knife by his family’s landlord, a 71-year-old man who’s been charged with murder and hate crimes, among others. The attacker also stabbed Wadea’s mother more than a dozen times. She lived. But what does that word even mean anymore?
What does it mean for a mother who escaped war for the safety of an American suburb? What does it mean for Abed and me: an executive director of a civil rights organization and a law professor, standing at the crosshairs of American power and an Arab identity conflated with terrorism? What does “living” mean for millions of Arabs and Muslims who call the United States home, burdened with the impossible task of proving their allegiance, over and over again, in response to bellowing demands that bury our humanity?
It feels like we are living on borrowed time, like we were extended a contingent citizenship that can be stripped at any time, on account of events that unfold in America or on the other side of the world.
Calling it “Islamophobia” would be a severe understatement. This existential ballad of being Arab or Muslim in America is far more onerous, far more absurd. It feels like an existence that has no exit. A play where our daily routine is waking up to the news of war, the stark images and videos of slain children, rolling timelines of shattered villages and the roaring demands “to condemn Hamas.” While this plot sounds a lot like novels from Jean Paul Sartre or Albert Camus, this is not fiction.
This is our absurd reality. An absurd reality where we, in America, can only post on virtual timelines where the footsteps of suspicion stomp out our voices and censor our speech.
Our names and nationalities, faces and faith brand us with the stain of collective guilt for crimes that we did not commit. Moments like this — like the aftermath of 9/11 or the reckoning after former President Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban in 2017 — moved many to conceal their ethnicity or cover their faith, particularly women who removed their hijabs or young children who hid behind aliases. Hate crimes statistics skyrocketed after 9/11, and reached near proportions in the wake of the Muslim Ban. Wadea’s death foreshadows that these figures may spike again, and descend on the heads of Arab and Muslim
Americans shadowed by suspicion.
But we cannot shed our bodies. These are the corporal vehicles that connect us to the victims cast as villains in Gaza. And the symbols that tie us to distant places where “wars on terror” were wrought yesterday and are certain to wreck more lives tomorrow.
“Muslims are only newsworthy when villains, never victims.” I wrote those words, for the first time, as a law student weeks after the 9/11 terror attacks. I was much younger then, unprepared for what the world would come to be. But I knew then that it would never be the same.
I typed those very eight words 20 years later in my book, The New Crusades: Islamophobia and the Global War on Muslims. In between the wide-eyed optimism of a young law student and the sobered worldview of an aging law professor, 9/11 and today’s war serve as bookends for morbid middle passages for Muslims in America and around the globe – as evidenced by the genocidal campaigns in China, persecution in India, hijab and abaya bans in France, and far more. The law and language of Islamophobia have been exported transnationally by an American “war on terror” that was first enforced on the home front, upon the heads of Arabs and Muslims like me whose citizenship was cast aside.
Being American was no protection. Not then and definitely not now.
The barrage of cold stares and commands to condemn terrorism, assignment of collective guilt and characterization of our dead children as “collateral damage,” not only strips us from the substance of citizenship, it renders us inhuman. “People don’t have ideas,” wrote Carl Jung, “Ideas have people.”
And the idea that conflates our skin with terrorism not only grips the imagination of people, but sinks into the very marrow of American gates of power. We must exist, whatever that even means anymore, within the very lines that divide our identities and sever us from normalcy.
While I am in Washington and not Chicago, I can feel every one of those 26 stabs that plunged into little Wadea’s body. While across American cities large and small, we see ourselves in the grieving parents forced to bury their dead children in Gaza.
This is what it means to be us.
Perhaps it is time that this country begins to see us.
Khaled A. Beydoun is a law professor at the Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. He is the author of many books, including “American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear.” You can follow him at @khaledbeydoun