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New Texts Out Now: Moustafa Bayoumi, This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror

[Cover of Moustafa Bayoumi, [Cover of Moustafa Bayoumi, "This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror"]

Moustafa Bayoumi, This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror. New York: New York University Press, 2015.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Moustafa Bayoumi (MB): The War on Terror made me write This Muslim American Life. I believe that the people of the United States aren’t taking sufficient notice of how much the War on Terror is structuring contemporary life, both in this country and abroad. Muslim Americans will feel differently. We have been subjected to sweep arrests and deportations, blanket surveillance of our everyday activities, scripted sting operations that really create rather than discover terrorist suspects, and much more. Within all of this, it matters little if one is devout or a believer or even if one self-identifies as Muslim. What really matters is whether the state can locate and define you as a Muslim. By closely examining what’s happening to Muslim American life, we can witness the ever-expanding power of the national security state, something the Snowden revelations of massive covert spying by the government further exposed.

But the actions targeting Muslims are not limited to the law-enforcement wing of the national security apparatus. Muslim Americans have become the subjects of several moments of national hysteria around difference in this country. Building houses of worship is frequently met with opposition. Prominent Muslims are maligned publicly. Media representations constantly repeat the notion that Muslims are either villains or victims. Put it all together and you can see a kind of War on Terror Culture being defined, a culture that promotes the idea that Muslims as a group are inherently suspicious and must be contained or controlled.

Needless to say, this way of thinking, which has both a racial and colonial logic behind it, not only forgets the Muslim American past—Muslims have a very long and productive history in this country—but by creating a kind of community of suspicion, also threatens all of our civil liberties in the present. In short, coming to terms with the multiple dimensions of the War on Terror, and how they affect Muslim Americans specifically and American society generally, is what drove me to write This Muslim American Life.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

MB: You could say that the book begins with Walt Whitman, detours through James Baldwin, and ends in dialogue with Philip Roth. (Some of the essays in the book, in other words, refer to these writers and interact with their work in various ways.) On the way, it discusses the legal legacy of the Chinese Exclusion Acts and how they relate to policing Muslims today, recalls the history of paranoia in American politics as a precursor to today’s panic over Muslims, and briefly considers the structural similarities between Japanese internment and Guantanamo Bay. I also consider how Orientalism continues to thrive in the United States today, but now often with Muslims themselves translating the Muslim world in neo-Orientalist fashions to the general public.

One of the aims of This Muslim American Life is to consider how politics, culture, and the law all reinforce the idea of the dangerous outsider Muslim for their own ends, and how together they create this War on Terror culture that is self-reinforcing and often ends up justifying American foreign policy goals. Since an important effect of War on Terror culture is to forget the long history of both Muslims and Arabs in this country, the book also recalls that thriving community that was once called “Little Syria,” which was in lower Manhattan, almost exactly where the World Trade Center stood, and investigates the intimate relationship that many of the key jazz figures of the mid-century had to Islam as well. We have become accustomed, I think, to expecting discussions about Islam and the United States to be about the irreconcilability of two distinct, distant, and incompatible forces, but this book challenges that notion. Much can be learned by viewing the Muslim American predicament through the long lens of American history and culture.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

MB: In many ways, This Muslim American Life is a companion book to my previous work How Does It Feel To Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America, which focused on telling the life-stories of seven young Arab Americans from Brooklyn in the post-9/11 era. While I do relay some of my own personal stories within it, This Muslim American Life book is based more fundamentally on analysis than on storytelling. Both are equally important, which is why I like to the view the two books as a kind of unit.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

MB: My hope is that this book will find multiple audiences, from general readers concerned or curious about the direction their country is taking in the War on Terror era to university students in advanced seminars on American studies or global politics. I have always tried to write in a way that makes the ideas accessible and interesting without requiring readers to come to the topic with highly specialized knowledge. I generally aim to reach a broad spectrum of readers in my writing. Since the issues addressed in the book are not just timely but in fact urgent, finding a broad audience for the book would be not only gratifying, but I think significant as well. 

J: How did you find ways of moving from your own personal experiences to larger issues?

MB: Perhaps the best answer I can offer to this is question is that it is necessary to read like a writer and not only like a reader. Readers read for content, complexity, and contradictions. Writers read as readers too, but they also read for craft. Essays are assembled as much as they are written, and paying close attention to how writers before you have resolved various problems of writing is how you learn how to write better. Writing is essentially a problem-solving enterprise of how you are going to translate thought and experience into words and sentences, and someone has already cracked any writing problem you face before you have encountered it. It’s also important to have a stake in what you’re writing. This is a lesson Edward Said taught me when I was a graduate student at Columbia University. After you would tell Edward what you were working on, he would often ask “so what?” This required you to detail why what you had proposed was important, not just because it would advance knowledge, but also because it would bend scholarship toward the arc of justice in this world.

Excerpt from This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror


In August 2011, almost exactly ten years after the terrorist attacks of 2001, the Associated Press published an article titled “With CIA Help, NYPD Moves Covertly in Muslim Areas.” The article’s authors, Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, described how the New York Police Department was working with officials “on loan” from the CIA to develop a massive and covert surveillance program that directly targeted the entire Muslim community in and around New York City.[1] Initially, the NYPD flatly denied the reporters’ findings. “Someone has a great imagination,” NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said.[2] The AP then posted on their website a trove of leaked internal documents from the police department that proved not only the existence of the program but also that the department felt free to lie outright to its public about its actions. Veteran police reporter Len Levitt also gained access to internal documents, and on September 5 published an article (reprinted two days later by the Huffington Post) on the scope of the surveillance.[3] Levitt noted that the NYPD had placed confidential informants in seven Muslim student associations (MSAs) at local colleges and that Brooklyn College, where I teach, and Baruch College had been listed as MSAs “of concern.” Levitt wrote about one confidential police report that listed “forty-two top tier ‘persons of interest,’” which included “a lecturer at Brooklyn College.” For weeks, people assumed that this lecturer must be me.

Frankly, I wondered the same while also thinking that it would be absurd for the police to waste their resources on me. The Associated Press called me to ask me if I thought I was being surveilled, and a New York Times columnist also interviewed me about the report. Later, someone I know and trust who was shown the file told me that it had identified someone else. Of course, just because I was not the person named in the report does not mean that the NYPD has not spied on me. It just means I don’t know for sure.

Others have learned something different. Mohammad Elshinawy is a young Egyptian American from Brooklyn with a popular following among New York’s devout Muslims. I know Mohammad, who was once my student, and he and I also spent some time together when I was writing my book about Brooklyn’s Arab Muslim youth. I could tell even then that he was a rising star with religious conservatives. Always dressed in a galabeyya with a kufi on his head, a fist-length beard on his chin, and sneakers on his feet, Mohammad commanded the respect of Brooklyn’s young Muslims with his eloquence, intelligence, scholarly knowledge, and mastery of Qur’anic Arabic. It wasn’t just the young people who were attracted to Mohammad. He has also been the subject of fastidious NYPD surveillance. According to Apuzzo and Goldman, Mohammad’s popularity had initially attracted the interest of the FBI, which became concerned that he might have been recruiting young men to fight overseas. That investigation was concluded with no charges filed. Yet the NYPD decided to pursue the matter—and Mohammad—further.[4]

I wondered what it’s like to know you’ve been surveilled by the police, so I contacted Mohammad to ask him. He invited me to one of the regular classes he offers on the Qur’an at Masjid Al-Ansar, a simple storefront mosque in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, that, as reports indicate, has also been under NYPD surveillance. After the class, we went to a quiet room in the mosque’s basement to talk. Boxes of canned foods, ready to distribute to the needy, surrounded us as we sat on the carpeted floor. I asked Mohammad what he felt after learning about the surveillance on him and its extent.

“Apprehension,” he said, after thinking a while. “To what degree is this going to affect me?” He shared that he carefully considered his actions and that he would “try to take a stand and get past this hump.” Mohammad was referring to being a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU (still pending as of this writing, in January 2015) against the police department. “There’s no reason why we should consider ourselves second-class citizens,” he said, speaking about Muslim Americans generally. “I’m born in this country like anybody else,” he said.

From the documents leaked to the AP, we know the character of the surveillance practiced on Mohammad and the NYPD’s views on the young man. Labeling his race as “ME,” that is, Middle Eastern, the police files describe Mohammad’s views as “hardcore Salafi ones.”[5] (Salafis are scriptural conservatives who seek a belief system based on their understanding of the early days of Islam, and the police department operates under the assumption that they are particularly prone to violence.) One report states that the “TIU [Terrorism Interdiction Unit] believes that [Mohammad] is a threat due to the fact that he is so highly regarded by so many young and impressionable individuals,”[6] as if charm were a weapon. In the same report and under the heading “Surveillance Objective” is written, “Target moves on a daily basis to many different spots. Every day of the week is beneficial….[Most beneficial would be] after 1500 (after target gets off of work),”[7] revealing essentially that Mohammad is a hardworking young man. The spying even invaded his love life and followed him around the city. The report continues, “Surveillance has revealed many things re: this target. His change of auto, the fact that he was going to get married b/c surv[eillance] observed him shopping for diamond rings w/ a female in the diamond district.”[8] I asked him about this detail. “I took my fiancée to go buy her a diamond ring, and even then I’m being tailgated,” he told me. “Many times we knew we were being tailgated,” he explained, “it’s just like, what are you going to do? Call the cops on the cops?” He laughed. “It’s quite a predicament!”


Looking closely at the NYPD surveillance program, we can get a larger sense of its dangerous presumptions and misguided activities. The program began in 2002, when Police Commissioner Ray Kelly hired David Cohen, a former deputy director for operations at the CIA, as his deputy commissioner of intelligence. Cohen succeeded in getting a judge to relax provisions of the Handschu Agreement, a 1985 consent decree developed in response to a lawsuit against the NYPD for spying on the constitutionally protected activity of political groups in the 1960s and 1970s. The Handschu Agreement previously allowed police surveillance only when officers had specific information a crime would be committed or was being planned. Under the new rules adopted in 2003, police no longer needed evidence to begin an investigation, just the possibility of criminal activity.

Cohen established four units in his Intelligence Division—the Demographics Unit, the Intelligence Analysis Unit, the Cyber Intelligence Unit, and the Terrorism Interdiction Unit—and hired Lawrence Sanchez, a CIA analyst, to oversee intelligence. Using data from the 2000 US census, the intelligence division proceeded to chart where the Muslims in New York lived.[9]

This mapping has precedents. It recalls a 1919 map of ethnic New York drafted by the NYPD and New York State Police that identified certain ethnic neighborhoods in an effort to root out socialists, communists, and anarchists.[10] It’s reminiscent of when the Census Bureau provided the government with information on where Japanese Americans lived to assist the War Relocation Authority in interning them during World War II.[11] And it bears a resemblance to specially tabulated statistics on Arab American populations, indicating zip-code-level breakdowns of Arab Americans by country of origin, which the Census Bureau produced for Homeland Security from August 2002 to December 2003.[12]

The NYPD did more than exploit publicly available data, however. They also sent out “rakers,” plainclothes officers who could blend in to the community, and “mosque crawlers,” informants working for the police. (Rakers were so dubbed because Cohen described their actions as akin to “raking an extinguished fire pit.”)[13]

The Intelligence Division viewed everything about ordinary Muslim life as suspicious and catalogued it all. They established sports leagues as a way to spy on Muslim youth.[14] They recorded license plate numbers from the cars of mosque visitors. They noted where Muslims got haircuts and they eavesdropped on conversations in cafés.[15] They considered it suspicious when café televisions were tuned to Al Jazeera and when they were not. (The “Egyptian Locations of Interest Report” states that in one café “the Al Jazeera news channel is prohibited inside this location because the owner feels it brings extra scrutiny from law enforcement.”)[16] They made more than seventy-five visits to thirty-four “targeted” travel agencies in South Asian communities around New York to discover that there were four principal airlines to Pakistan: Pakistan International Airlines, Emirates Airlines, Kuwait Airways, and Gulf Air.[17] They also often got facts wrong, identifying Sephardic Jews and Lebanese Christians as Syrian Muslims, Coptic Egyptians as more numerous than Muslim Egyptians in New York, and Sunni Muslims as Shi‘i Muslims.[18]

More troubling still, the NYPD designated selected mosques as “Terrorism Enterprises,” meaning any visitor to these Muslim houses of worship could be investigated and that speech, including sermons, would be monitored and recorded.[19] “It was an unprecedented moment in the history of American law enforcement,” Apuzzo and Goldman write in Enemies Within, their book about the surveillance program. “The NYPD regarded houses of worship—and everyone who prayed there—as possible criminal organizations.”[20]

All of this netted, the NYPD was later forced to admit, not a single lead on suspected terrorist activity.[21] After the facts of the program were no longer deniable and due in large part to the mobilizing efforts of New York’s Muslim communities and their allies, the department announced in April 2014 that they would disband the Demographics Unit. They did not however announce a halt to other aspects of their Muslim community surveillance, including designating mosques as “Terrorism Enterprises.”[22]

Nor has the NYPD announced an end to using informants to monitor Muslim communities without any probable cause. We now know the inner workings of informant life. One informant, Shamiur Rahman, who was a regular attendee of Mohammad’s lectures, emerged from the shadows in October 2012, revealing on his Facebook page that he had been sent by the NYPD to observe Muslims and “bait” them into saying inciting things, particularly statements containing “jihad” and “revolution.”[23] For this he was paid as much as a thousand dollars a month and given leniency on misdemeanor marijuana possession charges.[24] According to a New York Times report from May 2014, such practices are continuing.[25] The end of the Demographics Unit does not mean the end of bias-based policing of New York’s Muslims, who can still count on being treated by the NYPD as harbingers of terrorism just by going about their everyday affairs.


[1] Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, “With CIA Help, NYPD Moves Covertly in Muslim Areas,” Associated Press, August 23, 2011.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Len Levitt, “The NYPD: Spies, Spooks and Lies,” NYPD Confidential, September 5, 2011; Len Levitt, “The NYPD: Spies, Spooks, and Lies,”. Huffington Post, September 7, 2011.

[4] Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, Enemies Within: Inside the NYPD’s Secret Spying Unit and Bin Laden’s Final Plot Against America (New York: Touchstone, 2013), 193–94.

[5] NYPD Technical Operations Unit, “Surveillance Request: Mohammad Elshinawy,” February 2, 2009, 5.

[6] Ibid., 5.

[7] Ibid., 6.

[8] Ibid., 6.

[9] The Demographics Unit was renamed the “Zone Assessment Unit” in 2010 out of concern for how the former would sound to the public if discovered. See Apuzzo and Goldman, Enemies Within, 282. The CIA paid Sanchez’s salary from 2002 to 2004, despite the fact that the CIA is forbidden from having “any police, subpoena or law enforcement powers or internal security functions.” See the National Security Act of 1947 (P.L. 80-235, 61 Stat. 496, July 26, 1947). Sanchez remained in his post until 2010, and the NYPD paid his salary after 2004. After 2010, a former CIA clandestine officer, Lance Hamilton, replaced Sanchez until his identity became known, after which he was recalled. See ibid., 283. Working out of an office in the Brooklyn Army Terminal, the Intelligence Division divided the community into what they called “Ancestries of Interest,” twenty-eight countries mostly from the Middle East and South Asia as well as former Soviet states with large Muslim populations. They also included “American Black Muslim” on the list, as if being Muslim and black meant your ancestry belonged to another nation. See ibid., 75.

[10] Sam Harris, “Police Demographics Unit Casts Shadows from Past,” City Room: The New York Times, January 3, 2012.

[11] J. R. Minkel, “Confirmed: The U.S. Census Bureau Gave Up Names of Japanese-Americans in WW II,” Scientific American, March 30, 2007; William Seltzer and Margo Anderson, “After Pearl Harbor: The Proper Role of Population Statistics in Time of War” (paper, Population Association of America annual meeting, Los Angeles, March 2000).

[12] Lynette Clemetson, “Homeland Security Given Data on Arab-Americans,” New York Times, July 30, 2004.

[13] Apuzzo and Goldman, Enemies Within, 72.

[14] Here’s an example of the kind of hard-hitting investigative work the NYPD was involved in. The Intelligence Division produced a thirty-eight-page memo called the “Sports Venue Report,” pinpointing fifty-five locations in the five boroughs where Muslims gather to play or watch sports. The report begins by stating that “the Demographics Unit identified the sports of cricket, soccer and billiards as the primary sports within the communities,” and concludes that “there are distinct differences between the South Asian and Arab communities with regard to the sports played and the general level of sporting interest,” noting that South Asians play a lot of cricket and Arabs play pool. “Billiards serves a dual purpose in the Arab community,” the report says. “People play Billiards for the sport in it as well as the opportunity to socialize with their friends in a friendly atmosphere.” See NYPD Intelligence Division: Demographics Unit, “Sports Venues Report,” n.d., 2.

[15] Another study produced by the NYPD was the “Internet Café Report,” which used open-source research to identify Internet cafés located near “communities of concern.” The report states that “locations, public or private that only offer a wireless access point for your computer (i.e.,…Starbucks, Bryant Park etc) are not included in this report,” which naturally calls into question its usefulness, not only due to the limited technical overview of the report but also since cafés and stores change so frequently in New York. (And if you think nothing evil can happen in a Starbucks, you clearly have never used one of their restrooms.) NYPD Intelligence Division: Demographics Unit, “Internet Cafe Report,” June 15, 2007.

[16] NYPD Intelligence Division: Demographics Unit, “Egyptian Locations of Interest Report,” July 7, 2006, 14.

[17] NYPD Intelligence Division: Demographics Unit, “Pakistani Travel Agency Report,” n.d.

[18] Apuzzo and Goldman, Enemies Within, 87, 147. NYPD Intelligence Division, “Egyptian Locations of Interest Report,” 2.

[19] Apuzzo and Goldman, Enemies Within, 180.

[20] Ibid., 181.

[21] While testifying in a deposition on June 28, 2012, Assistant Chief Thomas Galati, commanding officer of the Intelligence Division, revealed that no leads had been discovered or investigations begun as a result of the Demographics Unit’s work. Galati also revealed that the NYPD was suspicious of foreign languages. The department was concerned about “Islamics [sic] radicalized towards violence,” and so it kept surveillance records on two Pakistani men who in a conversation in Urdu had complained about the mistreatment they felt Muslims received at the hands of airport security in the United States. When Galati was shown the document, he responded, “I’m seeing Urdu. I’m seeing them [the officers] identify the individuals involved in that [conversation] are Pakistani. I’m using that information for me to determine that this would be a kind of place that a terrorist would be comfortable in,” adding that “most Urdu speakers from that region would be of concern, so that’s why it’s important to me.” He says essentially the same thing about Bengali speakers later in the deposition. As the AP notes, “About 15 million Pakistanis and 60 million Indians speak Urdu. Along with English, it is one of the national languages of Pakistan.” See Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, “NYPD: Muslim Spying Led to No Leads, Terror Cases,” Associated Press, August 21, 2012. Also see Galati Deposition, June 28, 2012, 29, 85–86, 92.

[22] Noa Yachot, “NYPD Shutters Muslim Mapping Unit—But What about Other Tactics?”, April 15, 2014.

[23] Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, “Informant: NYPD Paid Me to ‘Bait’ Muslims,” Associated Press, October 23, 2012.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Joseph Goldstein, “New York Police Recruit Muslims to Be Informers,” New York Times, May 10, 2014.

[Excerpted from Moustafa Bayoumi, This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror, by permission of the author. © 2015 New York University Press. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.] 

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