Islamophobia in the US

February 8, 2017

Moustafa Bayoumi

On February 8, 2017, Moustafa Bayoumi (Brooklyn College) gave a talk titled “Islamophobia in the US,” which was organized by Cornell University’s Ottoman & Turkish Studies Initiative. Bayoumi’s timely intervention was to place President Trump’s executive order aimed at banning immigration from seven predominantly-Muslim countries in historical context. Far from being a sui generis act of xenophobic foreign policy on the part of the United States government, Bayoumi argued, the order belongs to a lineage of anti-Muslim policies dating back to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and intensified under the Obama administration.

Bayoumi began by observing that President Trump signed the so-called Muslim ban on the same day the U.S. military carried out a commando attack in Yemen on the President’s order, which resulted in the murder of civilians, including women and children. The attack was the first time the U.S. sent troops in support of Saudi Arabia’s war against Yemeni Houti, according to Bayoumi, which has so far displaced over 3.1 million people and caused a refugee exodus to Djibouti, Egypt and Malaysia. But it was not, Bayoumi noted, the first instance of American support for the war. Rather, it was the culmination of previous policies under President Obama, which aided Saudi Arabia through weapons sales and drone bombing.

While Bayoumi noted that xenophobic government policies in the United States date back to the nineteenth-century Asiatic Exclusion Act, which led to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, he insisted that it was following the September 11, 2001 attacks that policies began to be directed against Muslims. President Trump’s “Muslim ban” is itself modeled on the “improvement in terrorist prevention act,” which prevented individuals with multiple citizenships from entering the U.S. visa-free, even if one of their passports was from a visa-waiver country. In 2002, the NSEERS program expanded these restrictions to demand the strict vetting of individuals entering and exiting the country from twenty-four listed nations. Following the implementation of this program, further restrictive measures were implemented, including the CARP program, which prohibited field officers from approving visas from certain countries (many of which are Muslim-majority), and the “countering violent extremism program,” which sought to profile predominately Muslim extremists.

Anti-Muslim discriminatory measures, Bayoumi noted, have been directed not only against foreign citizens, but against Muslim-Americans as well. As an example, he cited an NYPD surveillance program supported by the CIA, which has been intensively monitoring Muslim communities in New York City, collecting detailed information on everything from license plate numbers to shopping habits.

Bayoumi criticized President Obama not only for expanding these discriminatory policies against Muslims, but also for failing to counter anti-Muslim sentiment among Americans at home. Not only did President Obama remain relatively quiet concerning anti-Muslim xenophobia, but he did not visit a mosque during the first few years of his presidency and even edited Muslim women out of his campaign photos, according to Bayoumi.

Bayoumi ended his talk by suggesting that Islam now plays a crucial role as a figure of alterity in American consciousness. Being Muslim in America today, he suggested, means being made to represent potential terrorism. By localizing violence in the “foreign” figure of the Muslim, Americans unaffected by this violence can preserve their own innocence and overlook violence cultivated in the name of America. Bayoumi advocated for cross-cultural alliances to counter this reactionary “closing of the American mind.” (Matteo Calla)