Islamophobia and the American Election

I wrote this essay on Islamophobia and “white anxiety” shortly before the November 2012 US election, and it was published in The Cairo Review of Global Affairs.

In August 2008, my book How Does It Feel To Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America was published by The Penguin Press. A few months later, Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. Despite my own delusions of importance as a writer, I must admit that there is no direct connection, but the facts are related nevertheless. Since my book is largely about how Arab Muslim Americans had survived the erosion of their civil rights after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the election of Obama, a constitutional lawyer and community organizer, is significant. His presidency seemed to promise a new era of racial justice in American politics, what many have called the arrival of a “post-racial” age in the United States. But in the years since Obama became president, Muslim Americans have witnessed something new and far from a nirvana of coexistence, namely the rise of an angry, populist movement across the nation that is opposed not just to the free exercise of their religion, but sometimes to their very presence in the country. How did this happen?

Before answering this question, it’s worth reflecting on what life for Muslim and Arab Americans was like under George W. Bush’s administration, the period that had inspired me to write my book. It’s no exaggeration to say that prior to the terrorist attacks of September 11, Muslim and Arab Americans registered very little on the daily radar of most Americans. We were largely an invisible minority, and if Americans thought about us at all, they conjured angry overseas mobs, swarthy terrorists, or gluttonous oil sheikhs, in other words the stock pictures of the Orientalist imaginary. With a few exceptions, such as the 1998 film The Siege, contemporary American popular culture almost never represented us in America, let alone as Americans. If we were present, it was as relatively harmless and isolated individuals. The cross-dressing Corporal Klinger, played by Lebanese American actor Jamie Farr, on the TV show M*A*S*H was probably the best known Arab American on television, and if you asked someone to name a Muslim American, you would probably hear an answer either of Muhammad Ali, now comfortably celebrated, or Malcolm X, who was killed long ago. But after September 11, the idea that Muslims and Arabs were actually living next door became a major source of terrorist anxiety. Immediately following the attacks, vigilante violence skyrocketed against Arabs, Muslims, and anyone who resembled “a Muslim,” which generally meant brown skin or something wrapped around one’s head. Almost overnight, we had become a shadowy community to be afraid of.

The Bush administration helped fuel this anxiety…. 

Read more here.

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