This Muslim American Life: An Interview with Moustafa Bayoumi

by Corey Robin on December 27, 2015

Moustafa Bayoumi is a professor of English at Brooklyn College, where I teach political science. His book, “This Muslim American Life,” came out in September. It’s a fascinating collection of pieces—sometimes hilarious, often unsettling, always probing and provocative—about, well, Muslim life in America, past and present.

There’s a mini-memoir about the time Moustafa worked as a Middle Eastern extra on “Sex and the City 2″; a Philip-Roth-like story about his discovery of a terrorist named Mustafa Bayoumi in a detective novel (that really did happen); a loving deconstruction of the Islamic undertones and overtones of John Coltrane’s music (“A Love Supreme” becomes “Allah Supreme”); a harrowing essay on how the American military uses music to terrorize and torture its victims (the phrase “Disco Inferno” takes on a whole new meaning); a long and learned history of the relationship between Muslim Americans and African Americans.

The book ranges widely, but it’s held together by a single premonition: that the wrenching changes of the War on Terror have been not only legal and political but also cultural. They are not confined to foreign policy or domestic policing; they extend to the most intimate and personal spaces of social life. They have created among all of us—Muslim and non-Muslim alike—a new set of experiences and sensibilities, a new sense of community and collectivity. At the same time, Moustafa’s book is a long, sustained insistence that we understand all the ways in which people—particularly Muslim people—live their lives outside the War on Terror. “This Muslim American Life” documents the oozing influence of the state, but with its sense of humor and history, shows just how much of the Muslim American experience lies beyond that influence.

A literary critic and gifted essayist, Moustafa brings his formidable skills as a reader of texts to his analysis of contemporary political culture. He’s got that eye—and ear—for the way our most incidental phrases, those stray bits of language, betray our deepest feelings. Where other books on the War on Terror focus on high acts of state, Moustafa finds his materials in the most unexpected places: yes, in the fine print of a legal statute, but also in standup comedy, in the parables of Kafka, in the penultimate paragraph of newspaper article. His archive is everywhere.

Moustafa and I have been friends for years, and we’ve often talked over drinks or dinner, on campus and in cafés, about the topics he addresses in his book. But it wasn’t till I sat down with “This Muslim American Life” that I truly saw the unity of his vision. So I decided to do what we always do when either of us has a book or an idea we’re excited about: sit down with him and talk about it.

Salon ran the interview this morning.




Rakesh Bhandari 12.27.15 at 4:59 pm

What Prof Bayoumi is saying here reminds me of this book from 1988:
Michael Rogin, Ronald Reagan, the Movie and other Episodes of Political Demonology:

The fear of the subversive has governed American politics, from the racial conflicts of the early republic to the Hollywood anti-Communism of Ronald Reagan. Political monsters—the Indian cannibal, the black rapist, the demon rum, the bomb-throwing anarchist, the many-tentacled Communist conspiracy, the agents of international terrorism—are familiar figures in the dream life that so often dominates American political consciousness. What are the meanings and sources of these demons? Why does the American political imagination conjure them up? Michael Rogin answers these questions by examining the American countersubversive tradition.


otpup 12.27.15 at 6:12 pm

Though I don’t have a theory of the structural/cultural connection, there is a structural need for the demonology, it is the glue of the conservative governing coalition. We live in essentially is a “veto state”, basically government by consensus since the electoral and legislative processes represent powerful (i.e., well moneyed) interest groups disproportionately to their advantage (See Robert Dahl). So well so, that the aforementioned interests only have to drum relatively little cross-class support to effectively block reform. Alternatively, the false-consicousness driven subalterns, give cover masking how well the existing system protects the privileges of wealth (and this long predates Citizens United), does the average lower middle class tea partier really care about allocation of Senate seats, etc? Probably not, but their puppet masters do passionately. Ergo demons.


Rakesh Bhandari 12.27.15 at 6:45 pm

Why in some cases do we find that because people fear something they consider it more likely to happen than the evidence warrants (see Elster, Explaining Social Behavior)? Which kinds of fears and whose fears tend to be those thought to be more likely to be realized than the evidence warrants? What are the psychological, social and political conditions for fear and paranoia? I understand that Corey Robin has taken up such questions as did my old teacher Michael Rogin.

And under what conditions are people likely to project onto others the properties that would justify the exterminationist hatred that they already have? This Trump has already done quite possibly to his political advantage; he has created demons dancing in the shadow of the destruction of the World Trade Center.

That “Muslims” have been so demonized makes the experience of real American Muslims as American as those real people who suffered as a result of past exercises in American demonology–American Indians as cannibals, African-American men as rapists, exploited immigrant workers as bomb-throwing anarchists, Japanese Americans as spies, progressives as Soviet stooges, and now American Muslims as celebrants of American humiliation.


Rakesh Bhandari 12.27.15 at 8:23 pm

Love to hear Prof Bayoumi analyze what’s going on in “The Blacklist” and “Quantico” with the characters who appear to have West and South Asian “heritage” but who don’t seem to be related to those “heritages” or to reality in any way. In fact those shows seem to have the same relation to reality as, say, the “X Files”.
In “Quantico” there is a Jewish American figure who hangs out with an apparently orthodox Jew who is a bomb-maker; the plan is to have duds go off in a temple and a mosque to teach people to get along.
Meanwhile the (hot and famous) Indian woman straining to speak American English is named “Alex Parrish”, though she does not look mixed in any way; her “Indian” Mom may have worked for the ISI (what?) and her late mysterious Dad who seems to have been from Nebraska may have carried out a false flag operation before “Alex” shot him for being abusive to her Mom.
At any rate, “Alex” stands falsely (?) accused of exploding a bomb at Penn Station, but a blond debutante from Atlanta who has been sending money to a girl who claims to be her half-Saudi sister may have had something to do with it. Though it seems that a white boy may be the terrorist because his Mom is a Republican and his parents don’t get along; he is more likely to have done it than the black kid who wanted to carry out a Columbine killing before his Mom the FBI training director stopped him (how many mass school shootings do black kids carry out?). The debutante dumped the likely white terrorist for his father who seems to head the Secret Police. This dumping makes the white dude look even more suspicious.
At any rate, any help as to what this show is about would be appreciated. What for example do we make of the “Arab” twins who are recruited to be one FBI agent who can go in and out of groups they infiltrate with the other one reporting back? The twins though struggle to get along because they are diametrically opposed, one traditional and the other not (externalizing the opposition that all Muslim women feel within apparently). Well one of the Muslim women has the hots for the Jewish bomb-maker who was pretending to be gay.
“The Blacklist” makes even less sense.


Fred Herring 12.28.15 at 1:59 am

Fascinating! Just today–not even 4 hours ago– I was lamenting the blindness to and/or disinterest in US foreign policy by academics in the humanities. It’s so fantastic to have someone pull these issues of race and foreign policy together–partly reminding us how they used to be pulled together. This sounds like a book a lot of us need to read, I think.


Dan 12.28.15 at 4:43 am

The entertainmennt industry will always have the need for villans/enemies.
There are only so many times it can use neo-Nazis or ‘rouge Russian agents’.


Rakesh Bhandari 12.28.15 at 5:17 am

The more I think about popular culture, the more likely it seems that it is not the home for the political demonology of the other. That’s in populist political ranting.

Instead of spy stories that play on people’s anxiety that the predictable and calculable reality created by the nation state is more fragile than it appears and then depict heroes who must work outside the law to stabilize everyday reality against foreign threats (Boltanski), we today have conspiracies that play on the anxiety that the secret powers of the state have been appropriated by insiders bent on projects of personal vengeance that actually destabilize reality.

Both the corrupt insiders and those virtuous few who fight them work primarily outside the formal institutions of the state, in the shadowy world of conspiratorial, the disavowed, the illegal, and the unmentionable.

All this seems to play on the popular anxiety that the state has lost its capacity to steer reality and that the sources of events cannot really be known, as they result from private idiosyncrasies of individuals.

Popular culture seems to express an irrationalization of society, i.e. the presentation of society as something that cannot be understood except in terms of the irrational and deeply personal motives of people who have become powerful exactly to act on such motives.

Popular culture seems to express not demonology but depoliticization even when the ostensible subject is politics.
I also note that Sidney Mintz has passed.


Bruce Wilder 12.29.15 at 5:34 pm

RB @ 7

Interesting speculation.

Most people have no clear or fixed ideas concerning what politics is about, so verisimilitude in fiction can be satisfied by gestures toward the most vague forms and conventions.

I wonder to what extent the scriptwriters cater to the audience and to what extent they cater to the class of corporate executives, who buy and pay for the entertainment, but may have concerns about details.

Part of stepping outside the prison of hierarchy and rules is relief from the combination of alienation, epistemic doubt, weary routine, and conflicting demands paralyzing individual achievement. Emergencies are a relief, because they simplify ethical imperatives, even to some extent eliminating cost-benefit calculation.


Tabasco 12.29.15 at 8:52 pm


The Americans , an excellent television show, does very well with rouge Russian agents.


Lenoxus 12.30.15 at 12:41 am


The Americans, an excellent television show, does very well with rouge Russian agents.

Better morte than rouge. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.)


Rakesh Bhandari 12.30.15 at 7:07 pm

Bruce Wilder writes: “Part of stepping outside the prison of hierarchy and rules is relief from the combination of alienation, epistemic doubt, weary routine, and conflicting demands paralyzing individual achievement. Emergencies are a relief, because they simplify ethical imperatives, even to some extent eliminating cost-benefit calculation.”

Yes interesting!

From Harry Potter to Jack Reacher–have never myself read all the analysis of such characters in cultural studies. I think Drucilla Cornell wrote a book on Clint Eastwood, which I am betting would be a great read. Perhaps Eastwood read it before his performance at the RNC after which he presumably tweeted Obama” “Job completed as ordered”. Well at least according to Chris Rock.


Rakesh Bhandari 12.30.15 at 7:08 pm

Not Harry Potter. Dirty Harry. Oh goodness. But are there secret connections between the two?

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