What to Make of Trump, Islam in America, and the War on Terror

Here’s a recent interview with me by Signature, the book blog of Penguin Random House. 

SIGNATURE: You’ve been an extra on the movie “Sex and the City 2,” playing the part of one of many international revelers in a club in the Middle East (filmed in Brooklyn). Your name was used for a terrorist character in a detective novel. And, as we saw most obviously during the second U.S. presidential debate, you’re an avid Twitter user. There’s a solid place for the dissemination of knowledge about Muslim culture in the pop culture lexicon. Take the Swet Shop Boys, for example, and their album Cashmere, on which they rap about the experience of being Muslim in the Western world. Is the pop culture landscape the answer to creating a more accepting landscape for Muslims in the West? If not the answer, is it, viably, an answer? Are there any dangers to taking education down a notch from academia to mainstream media?

MOUSTAFA BAYOUMI: When it comes to Muslim Americans, the role of popular culture is incredibly important because, as studies have shown, more than sixty percentof Americans don’t know any Muslims personally. What this means is that most Americans must be getting their information about Islam and Muslim Americans primarily – if not exclusively – from the media and from pop culture sources such as television shows and movies. And I think most people will agree that media and pop culture references to Islam are usually based on irreconcilable conflict, are not very sophisticated or sympathetic, and tend generally toward caricature. So the need for complex – not positive, but complex – representations of Muslims and Muslim Americans is acute. I don’t think we need a didactic popular culture to teach us things we didn’t know about Islam and Muslims. I’m turned off by preachy pop culture as much as the next person. But I think we can all benefit by seeing how Muslims actually live their lives in all of their complexity and not seeing Muslims only as cartoonish villains or tragic victims.

SIG: There’s a lot that the U.S. government has done poorly in regard to fighting terrorism – including equating Islam with terrorism at the most general level. Is there one single thing that you think they should be focusing on that they haven’t been?

MB: Terrorism is a not a new phenomenon. Unfortunately, the idea of terrorizing civilians to achieve political ends has been around since, well, probably since people began keeping records. I mean, think of that time in 88 BCE when over 80,000 Roman and Italian men, women, and children were killed on a single day (the Asiatic Vespers) in a massacre led by Mithridates of Pontus to protest Roman rule over his territory. So the idea that we can eliminate terrorism – and eliminate it by war, no less – is rather fanciful, it seems to me.

In other words, terrorism is immoral and a scourge on humanity, but greater militarism will not succeed in defeating it. In fact, the lesson we need to be learning from the last fifteen years is that waging an ever-expanding war is not ushering in peace but bringing more war to this world. The military historian Andrew Bacevich writes often about how the United States is relying more on the Pentagon at the expense of the State Department when engaging the world, and how that’s a huge problem. I agree. The issues surrounding global conflicts and terrorism are of course complex and can’t be reduced to a single solution, but we’ve become too attached to the bad idea that military solutions will solve our problems.

Read the whole interview here

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