THERE WAS A TIME when to be Muslim in the United States was a curiosity, something of intrigue. One would ask amiable questions about the religion, just as you might inquire about the belief system of, say, Buddhism or Taoism. I remember as a college freshman meeting an Egyptian American named Amr whose loudmouth political statements about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rubbed me the wrong way. He was an Arab and a Muslim and therefore, I thought, utterly exotic, but certainly not someone to fear — one did not fear Muslims in those days.
After we got over our months-long objections to one another, with our particular narratives and cultural differences (I was French-Moroccan and Jewish and thus, exotic to him), Amr invited me over to his house to meet his family, his mother, father, and younger sister, where we sat down to a typical Egyptian meal. They were warmhearted, funny, and friendly. Their home was decorated in the Arab-Islamic style, with elaborate calligraphy on paintings and book covers, Egyptian Ottoman poufs, an Egyptian couch with cylinder armrests, mashrabiya and mother-of-pearl side tables, and antique Damascene inlaid brass platters. It was a beautiful home, and I felt completely welcome.
This was long before 9/11, after which prototypical terrorists replaced the old Soviet bogeyman as public enemy number one. Suddenly, to be Muslim in the United States was to have your loyalty questioned by association — as if overnight, Arabs/Muslims were the US’s fifth column.
In his debut novel Native Believer, Ali Eteraz explores the post-9/11 landscape in an elegant narrative set in today’s Philadelphia, where we are introduced to a “mixed” couple: a born-in-the-USA husband we know only as M. (Mohammed? Moustafa?) and a well-to-do Southern belle named Marie-Anne. The stakes in this relationship are raised early on as we learn that the tall, buxom Marie-Anne is officially estranged from her beautiful mother for having married “out” — though her father seems not to mind M. and in fact has taken a liking to him. M.’s parents, meanwhile, are liberal, secular Muslims who don’t so much as object to Marie-Anne’s breeding as fear that “it was a risky thing for a non-white to marry a white.” But we are left to wonder throughout the novel just how “non-white” M. is, and how analogous his identity might be to that of African Americans, who cannot hide their ethnicity, any more than M. can pass.
M., who tells this story in the first person, positions himself as not-quite-all-American culturally, and yet he claims to know nothing else — he is of this land and never says whether he’s of Arab, Western, or South Asian heritage. His library contains German classics by Nietzsche and Goethe, as well as a small, portable Qur’an given to him by his mother, which he has never read. M. and Marie-Anne’s life together is challenged when M. is summarily laid off, without much of an explanation, apparently because his boss, realizing he was of Muslim heritage, felt he didn’t fit in. “I have a different vision for the kind of culture I want to incubate here,” he says. The remote boss, who will be a character in the wings throughout the novel, uses words like “democratic” and “advocate” as if to suggest that M. cannot quite embody the right American values in the firm. And that is the crux of this novel — can a Muslim be an American like any other citizen? Of course, you say as the reader, why not? The United States is a kaleidoscope of cultures, a glittering mosaic of identities. To be American is not simply to be a Euro-American Christian. And Eteraz’s writing sparkles with so much wit and invention that we immediately and completely embrace his characters as if they were neighbors, without reserve.
Yet something dark roils under the surface of Native Believer, an injustice certainly in the loss of his job — one harbors little doubt that his dismissal is caused by anti-Muslim sentiment — but also M.’s fragmented, troubled identity as an American whose parents are Muslim but who also has no cultural memories that bind him to their past. You are free to reinvent the definition of what it means to be American and Muslim, the reader thinks while appreciating M.’s valued friendship with a Jewish-American attorney, who wants him to take his former boss to court. Indeed, I found myself rooting for M. throughout most of the narrative, thinking, This is someone I could talk to, an educated, reflective person.
“When the towers fell,” M. reflects,
I simply attested to myself that I wasn’t a Muslim — There’s no known god, nor is there an unknown god, and if there must be a god, then all are god — and moved on from any feeling of complicity or guilt or involvement. I decided that I was nothing but a millennial […]
But let’s face it: to be Muslim in the United States after 9/11 means that you’re not just like everyone else, you’re not just another millennial. You’re suspect. You’re randomly searched at airports. You’re kicked off airplanes for speaking Arabic. You’re thrown out of restaurants for wearing a hijab. You’re likely the victim of government surveillance.
As Moustafa Bayoumi framed it in the title of his 2008 book, based on interviews with young Arab Muslims, How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? He noted that profiling of Arabs/Muslims went well beyond law enforcement. “Arab and Muslim Americans are now routinely profiled in their places of employment, in housing, for public-opinion polls, and in the media.”
Not that discrimination is anything new to this country. The United States has been proficient at making “others” the problem, going back to the slaughter of Native Americans and the treatment of African Americans under slavery, followed by the Jim Crow laws, and now the “new Jim Crow” reality (see Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness) in which almost every week you hear about another black male killed by the police — but almost never hear that the shooting constituted murder and the officer got a prison sentence.
Americans found no shortage of “others” to hate during the first half of the 20th century, from the Japanese Americans we put into concentration camps at Manzanar to shutting out the Irish and the Mexicans. Not so long ago, signs in Texas read “No Dogs, Negros, Mexicans” [sic] while signs on the beach in Miami as late as the 1950s read “No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs.”
As I write this, we’re marking not only the 15th anniversary of 9/11 but also the 45th anniversary of the prison uprising at Attica, which Dr. Heather Ann Thompson uncovers in her groundbreaking new book, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy. Her research and interviews explore how the prison uprising and subsequent state-sponsored massacre by troopers and correctional officers on September 13, 1971 underpin today’s oppressive prison industry, because the State of New York managed to portray Attica’s prisoners, many of whom were members of the Nation of Islam or were other prisoners of color, as violent animals who had to be put down. For decades now, prison authorities have based decisions on the lie that mostly African-American prisoners had killed Attica hostages, when in fact the 39 deaths that day were directly attributable to the actions of the officers ordered to shoot to kill by New York’s then-governor Nelson Rockefeller. The memory of Attica has perpetuated the myth among law enforcement officers that Blacks are likely to be violent and should therefore be feared.
Muslims are not quite the new Blacks in terms of how they are treated by law enforcement — they are not being shot dead at the same rate — but there is little doubt that hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims have shot up astronomically after 9/11. Each time there is a major news story about extremism in the Middle East or Europe, or a crazed shooter in the United States turns out to be Muslim, average American Muslims suffer the backlash.
Eteraz is but one of many young American writers exploring this troubled territory. Others include the playwrights Yussef El Guindi, Ayad Akhtar, Nathalie Handal, Betty Shamieh, Mona Mansour, and Lameece Issaq; novelists Rabih Alameddine, Mohja Kahf, Randa Jarrar, Diana Abu-Jaber, and Naomi Shihab Nye; and creative nonfiction writers Mir Tamim Ansary, Evelyn Alsultany, Reza Aslan, and Moustafa Bayoumi.
Bayoumi has continued to explore the condition of being Muslim and American in his latest book, This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror, which just won a 2016 Arab American Book Award. The essays in the book don’t pull any punches and make for a companion volume to Native Believer. The war on terror runs on a murderous prophylactic logic: kill them not for what they have done or what they are doing, but for what they might do, if we don’t get to them first.
This may sound like a line from Minority Report — the Philip K. Dick–inspired film from Steven Spielberg in which ordinary people are targeted for extinction based on their thoughts or criminal fantasies. But these words could be spoken by Obama Administration officials in the CIA, State Department, and White House to justify American drone assassination policies of the last seven years, in which we’ve bombed military-aged males (MAMs) suspected of nefarious activity in seven Muslim countries. Some of the dead were American citizens. This is in part what Moustafa Bayoumi refers to as “this Muslim American life”:
This idea that you are seen not as a complex human being but only as a purveyor of possible future violence illustrates the extraordinary predicament of the heart of contemporary Muslim American life. To be a Muslim American today is to be full of potential, and not in the sweet way that grandmothers and elementary school teachers use the word.
Native Believer makes you believe in this potential because M. is well-read and articulate, yet at the same time, he comes to the realization that, “as long as you had a Muslim name you were presumed to be a believer. Your name was your blood and your blood was your faith.” Your name was your fate.
Ask yourself how you would feel being inextricably identified with the religion of your parents or grandparents, with say evangelical Christians, Bible-thumping Baptists, or Orthodox Jews? Or even just mild Unitarians? And even then you can’t imagine what M. or Bayoumi are talking about, because to be Muslim isn’t just to be a practicing or unaffiliated member of a religion. As Marie-Anne says to her freshly laid-off husband, “You can’t even be yourself.”
Eteraz is suggesting that if you happen to be Muslim, it isn’t possible to be comfortable in your own skin. “Trying to hide who we are doesn’t work,” he writes, “because nowadays everything is about identity, and we have been identified.”
Native Believer explores a range of Muslim identities, particularly when the unemployed and aimless M.’s life goes adrift. He meets a thirtysomething pornographer named Ali Ansari, who introduces him to an unfamiliar world of hip young Muslims, bicultural Americans who are into new music and contemporary culture but who remain attached to Islamic ritual and tradition (they pray, they drink, they have sex, but they don’t eat pork). By way of reference, you might want to sit down and watch the film version of Michael Muhammad Knight’s novel The Taqwacores, which explores a fictitious Islamic punk rock scene. It reminds one of the new generation of young Muslim Americans — Pakistani, Indian, Arab, North African — who are now gravitating to the spoken word–writing movement organized by a New York–based group called the Muslim Writers Collective, who have begun publishing books themselves in what is the beginning of a growing American Muslim literary movement.
While 15 years have passed since 9/11, and Ali Eteraz has plenty to say that doesn’t concern what happened in Manhattan that day, its infamy is never far from the Muslim-American mind. M.’s compeer Ali talks about it at length in a nearly unforgettable soliloquy:
Those towers went down and suddenly everyone starting pinning their gripes on a thing called a Muslim. The word became synonymous with devil. With every goddam evil thing America has fought. I’m surprised they didn’t compare Muslim to imaginary villains. Never mind, they did that too, like when they made the hordes of Mordor look like Muslims, or when that bastard Frank Miller made the pre-Islamic Persians look like Muslims. And the rest of the world fell in line with this new game. If you’re Indian, pissed off about Pakistan complaining about your occupation of Kashmir? Hey, just call them Muslims and get them declared a terrorist state. If you’re Israeli and you don’t want to release an inch of the West Bank to the Palestinians? Hey, just call them Muslims and you don’t have to move your tanks. If you’re Russian, struggling with a bunch of Chechens telling you to stop raping their women? Hey, just call them Muslim and blow them to bits. If you’re Chinese and struggling with a bunch of poor Uighur demanding some respect from the Han? Hey, just call them Muslim and jail all their leaders. If you’re European and you’ve got millions of illiterate Turks and Moroccans and Algerians and Libyans who you didn’t allow to become citizens for decades? Hey, just call them Muslim and declare them Fascist or lazy or criminal or all of the above. And if you’re American and you want to fly around the world and bomb the boogers out of countries that object to you taking their oil and resources? Hey, just call them Muslim and go to town.
At the end of the day, you wonder if being Muslim in the United States today is akin to being an African American during the 1960s, or a Jew in Europe during the 1930s when, as Sartre suggested in his landmark work Anti-Semite and Jew, with oppression comes the need to belong to one’s hated group.
The more they hate you, the more Muslim you become?
I always objected to Sartre’s thinking that as a Jew your very existence was determined by those who despised you. But isn’t it another form of the yin-and-yang equation — two qualities which are after all complementary and which cannot exist without each other?
Native Believer is a page-turning contemporary fiction that addresses burning issues about the very essence of identity, and without question Ali Eteraz is a writer’s writer, one whose ear for the English language is just as acute as fellow naturalized Americans Vladimir Nabokov (born in Russia) or Viet Thanh Nguyen (Vietnam). But this Pakistani-born American novelist concludes his tale with a climactic piece of drama that I felt was out of character for M. — as if to suggest that being Muslim somehow commits you to inexplicable acts. Almost as if to say that being American commits us to the inexorable sins of empire.