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Boston: The Conversation In Arab-American And Muslim Communities


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Celeste Headlee.

For Arab and Muslim-Americans, news of a terrorist attack or possible terrorist attack on U.S. soil is complicated by fears that the perpetrator might be a member of their own community and in the hours after the Boston Marathon, rumors of a young Saudi suspect spread like wildfire despite statements from law enforcement that no suspect had been identified.

In a moment, we'll talk to Khaled Beydoun. He's a critical race study fellow at UCLA School of Law. And in a piece he wrote for Al Jazeera, he describes his feelings after the new of the attacks broke. These interim moments, he writes, between catastrophe and discovering the real culprits define what it means to be Arab and Muslim-American today. Other Americans are afforded the space to grieve and mourn and demonstrate concern without the color of guilt.

So we want to hear today from Arab and Muslim-Americans. What is the conversation you're having about this? 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. Or go to our website, npr.org, and join the conversation by simply clicking on TALK OF THE NATION. Khaled Beydoun joins us now from a studio at UCLA. Welcome.

KHALED BEYDOUN: Thanks for having me.

HEADLEE: So let's talk about your initial reaction when you first heard this had happened. What ran through your mind?

BEYDOUN: You know, it's like a concert of words, if you will. You know, it was kind of like Oklahoma City, 9/11, Aurora, Sandy Hook were playing, you know, all at once. And, you know, again, as illustrated in the article, it was this very stark fear, you know, that just kept on rushing in my mind and replaying in my mind that, you know, hopefully, you know, please, don't let the culprit be Arab or Muslim for fear of backlash.

HEADLEE: And, you know, they immediately - there were immediately rumors of a young Saudi man who ended up to be a completely innocent Saudi bystander, and then there were the two people of Saudi origin who were running in the race. Immediately, rumors of people pointing to these people as suspects. They've since been cleared, but I wonder what your reaction was to that. I saw comments from friends of mine saying, look, when something like this happens, how does one as a Muslim look innocent?

BEYDOUN: No. Exactly. I mean, the only modicum of evidence that led to these individuals being suspected was their race and their religion and their phenotype, they way they looked.

You know, Amy Davidson wrote a great, great piece in The New Yorker called "The Saudi Marathon Man," which really spells out, you know, why this individual, this 20-year-old man who was a student, who was, you know, very likely just, you know, attending, to partake in, watching the marathon like everybody else, you know, was singled out because he looked a certain way and because he fit a specific racial caricature that's associated with terrorism.

HEADLEE: In the days following 9/11, not the very initial reaction, but in the weeks and months later, many people saw that incident as a chance to educate Americans who knew very little about Arab-American culture, knew very little about Islam, educate them about this culture they knew little about. I wonder if you think things have gotten worse in terms of ignorance of your community or better?

BEYDOUN: You know, it's hard to assess. I mean, 12 years is a long time. But, you know, when you - when you're reading these very ubiquitous reports, you know, coming from places, you know, that aren't as credible like the New York Post, but coming also from, sometimes, legitimate sources like CNN, you know, singling out a dark-skin color individual, you know, very - an ambiguous kind of profile, it lends me to believe that not a lot of progress has been made over the last 12 years.

HEADLEE: In your - I mean, in your piece I just quoted, you actually pointed to that moment when you were praying that was not an Arab-American or Muslim-American who perpetrated the act, you were talking about that, defining what it means to be an Arab-American. What do you mean?

BEYDOUN: Well, I think so. I mean, I think Arab-Americans today struggle, you know, with this, you know, existential state of where we belong, where do we fit? You know, legally speaking, technically speaking, we're considered white Caucasian by the federal government. But, you know, during times of crisis like this, obviously, our otherness, you know, our sense of being, you know, pigeoned as the villain, really clashes with that designation. And I think that there's nothing more definitive than this moment where, you know, that mockery of us being considered white legally speaking is completely, you know, undermined.

The fact that we're the instant, immediate suspected villains, suspected culprits of acts like this without any due process, without any fact-finding and before a resolution is made. So it's that, you know, interim kind of suspension, if you will, between, you know, I guess, like I stated in the article, when crisis, you know, commences and before a culprit is fully indentified that Arab-Americans are Americanist, if you will. The latter half of our identity is summarily stripped from us, you know, until the fact-finding process is concluded. And sometimes, when it's concluded and a Caucasian or white individual is found to be the culprit like in Aurora or Sandy Hook or Oklahoma City, that suspicion is not alleviated, that suspicion is not mitigated, and we're still classified as the terrorist as we see with the Boston explosions.

HEADLEE: We're speaking with Khaled Beydoun, but we're reaching out to Arab and Muslim Americans today. What's the conversation you're having about what happened in Boston? 800-989-8255. And on the line right now is Megan(ph) is Pensacola, Florida. Megan, what's your conversation like about this?

MEGAN: Well, you know, as soon as it happens, you can't help but to be completely heartbroken because it's your country, you know? America is our country. We love America. So as soon as you get that heartbreak and feeling, you immediately switch to, oh, God, you know, is it safe for me to go to the grocery store wearing my head scarf? Is it safe for me to send my daughter to school wearing her head scarf?

You know, I had to sit and have a conversation with my husband over, you now, what do we do as Americans and Muslims to protect ourselves and mourn for our country at the same time? And people - I don't think that they think when they look at us that necessarily that we're Americans sometimes, and we are. Even though we're brown and we wear head scarf and we're Muslims, we're still Americans. We still are upset and we mourn for our country when stuff like this happens.

HEADLEE: Megan, where did you grow up?

MEGAN: I grew up here in America. My husband...

HEADLEE: Yeah. I meant where in - I meant where in the U.S.

MEGAN: Pensacola, Florida. This is a small town.

HEADLEE: So you're still at home. Yeah. And, Khaled, where did you grow up?

BEYDOUN: I grew up in Detroit, Michigan, which, you know, is the most concentrated Arab-American and Muslim American community in the country.

HEADLEE: Right, in Dearborn. But let me ask, first to you, Megan. It sounds as though there's almost a secondary level of anguish when something like this happens. Not only do you have the same sort of feelings every other American has, of grief and of anxiety, but then there's this tertiary feeling of fear.

MEGAN: And it even - it goes far beyond that even for me because my brother - I had a brother that I lost because of Afghanistan. And I have another brother that, you know - thank God - just came home from Afghanistan. So I have family in the U.S. Military that's, you know, Airborne Rangers. And I now have to worry not only we were attacked, what happened now, is my brother going to go back to war again, you know? So not only that but I have all these other fears on top of it, and people don't realize that.

HEADLEE: How will you explain to your daughter? Do you give her any instructions on how to be safe in the community?

MEGAN: Oh, yeah, definitely. I mean, you know, I have to teach her like - just like when we're outside of the country. You have to be aware of your surroundings. What's going on? What are people saying? Are people looking at you? You know, you have to be aware of what other people are doing because you never know who, what, when, where, how something could happen. And I hate to live like that in my own country, and I really try not to instill necessarily fear in her but more just vigilance.

HEADLEE: That's Megan in Pensacola, Florida. Thank you so much, Megan. Khaled...

MEGAN: Thank you.

HEADLEE: ...let me bring this back to you. This discussion - how common is this discussion among Arab-American families on how to remain safe in your own community when something like this happens?

BEYDOUN: You know, it's a very common kind of occurrence, especially during times of crisis like this. You know, what I try to do with the article, and I didn't really aim to write an article immediately after this, you know, this had commenced in Boston. But what I really wanted to do and I'm not trying to, you know, vie to claim to be the mouthpiece or the representative for Muslim Arab-Americans at large, but what I really try to do was illustrate and bring to the fore, bring to the mainstream discussion the fact that, you know, Arab and Muslim-Americans do have these feelings, and it's not a rational kind of thought. It's an immediate kind of autonomic reaction you have.

We've been socialized and conditioned in this country to be on the defensive when crises like this take place. This is, you know, these emotions of these communities hasn't really been addressed, I think, in the public forum, which is why I wrote the article. Definitely, issues of safety, you know, arise during moments of crisis like this, but even during moments of, quote, unquote, "stability," during, obviously, the post-9/11 era, you know, during, you know, sweep of Islamophobia we still see in New York City, we still see in Detroit, we see in concentrated communities across the country. But what happens during moments of crisis is that Islamophobia and that animosity towards Arab-Americans is amplified considerably.

HEADLEE: On the line with us now from Las Vegas, Nevada, is Omar. Omar, the conversation that you're having about this?

OMAR: Yes. I'm - actually I sent about 20 text messages to all my friends, saying I just felt the perpetrator is not a Muslim-American or is not a Muslim because everybody is going to come back and point this or most people will come back and point their fingers at Islam. And I said, you know, whether it's a white man or it's a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim, we all have these people who are willing to commit this awful, awful acts, but we should not be pointing the fingers at one religion or one group or one just category. It's just one, crazy person that could've done that, and that could be a Muslim, could be a Christian, could be a Jew.

And most people sympathize. Most people have said, you know what, we agree. But others said, you know, some teachings in Islam that might cause some Muslim do these awful acts, which I disagree with. Being a Muslim, I grew up just like the other caller. We grew up here to love this country, to do whatever we can to help this country, and we're heartbroken when we heard the news. But at the same time, we couldn't help but have that sense of fear that somebody's going to come back and point their fingers at Muslims or if the perpetrator end up being a Muslim-American, it would've say Islam taught this as a resentment or hatred toward America is taught in the Islamic religion, which is not true.

HEADLEE: That's Omar calling from Las Vegas. Thank you so much. Also on the line with us is Jag(ph). I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly, from Louisville, Kentucky. Jag, are you an Arab or Muslim-American?

JAG: No. My sympathy is with my Muslim and Arab brothers and sisters. I was born in India. I'm a Hindu. But, like, I was telling the guy who screened the call, back when Oklahoma bombing happened, I was cast out on the street just walking outside a church. And that was in Louisville. I was walking down the street with an Irish guy and a group of white guys wanted to jump me. So when this last bombing happened, I was, like, oh, here we go again, you know? Like, I was telling the guy who screened the call, you know, people like me do hope that, hey, I hope it's not a brown-skinned guy who did whatever, this heinous act. So, you know, so I could live my life in peace.

HEADLEE: That's Jag. Thank you so much for your call, from Louisville, Kentucky. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. We're speaking with Khaled Beydoun, critical race studies fellow at the UCLA School of Law and he wrote an article called "Boston explosions: Please don't be Arabs or Muslims." That was in Al Jazeera's website and he joins us from a studio at UCLA.

Khaled, we just had - we have this report from ABC News just within the past hour saying a teenage boy that was supposedly being investigated, being connected to the Boston marathon bombing went in to the police. He's 17 years old. He saw pictures of himself tagged, circled in red on different people's websites online went to the police and said, I'm not the bomber. How has things like this, since 9/11, especially complicated your relationship do you think with the police, with law enforcement?

BEYDOUN: Yeah. I read a same report. And unfortunately, you know, this was a 17-year-old track runner, you know, high school track athlete who attended the marathon obviously because he had an affinity for the sport. You know, it creates a lot of, you know, mistrust, I think. It creates a lot of - obviously, severs relationships with policing. You know, that's clear to see with this incident and incidents beforehand. If I could raise one point raised by the caller before, Jag, I believe, his name was.

Yeah, I think that, you know, what's really unfortunate about this whole, you know, terrorist caricature stereotype in mind is that it's very amorphous and it's very problematic. I mean, we see how Indian-Americans, many of them Hindu or Sikh, especially, have been the primary victims post-9/11, even African-Americans who may look, you know, brown or look Arab or Muslim, whatever, you know, that they may mean, you know, sometimes face allow the profiling and discrimination from individuals who fit them with a specific caricature.

And it really complicates - what's complicating most - I'll be frank with you is that, you know, I'm very American. I'm very proud of being American and this country has done great things for me. You know, coming from a single-parent household, working-class (unintelligible) now teaching at one of the finest law schools in the country. But I'm sick of having to always prove and overcompensate for my Americanness. You know, for me, it's a moot point that I'm proud of being an American.

And it's during times like this where, you know, apologetics come into play and there's always this continual process where Arab and Muslim-Americans have to show that we're not connected with, you know, suspected or terrorist activity. And I think that this student, you know, who's probably a second or third generation American living in Boston who runs track and loves the sport, you know, has to go through that. It's really unfortunate. It's going to really color and stain his perspective moving forward.

HEADLEE: Well, let's get a perspective here from someone in Boston. Sarah's(ph) on the line with us. Sarah, the conversation there in Boston among Arab and Muslim-Americans?

SARAH: No. There's not so much. It's just I'm move a bit in fear of just more people in school cracking jokes about, oh, you're a terrorist and that. What I'm worried about is that when you see something on TV and there's a shooting in a school or there's a shooting at a movie theater, right away, we go, we analyze that person - excuse me - and we say, oh, that person had a mental disorder and that person was sick and they had this and they had that and this was their childhood.

But right when see a bomb, we automatically think terrorist attack. This was something done by a Muslim and this is what Islam is all about. And that's what I'm scared about, is that people will see something and they think the other way about the religion.

HEADLEE: Thank you so much. That's Sarah calling from Boston. And let me try to get this phone call from Mary in Tampa, Florida. Mary, the conversation for you?

MARY: Yeah. Hi. Well, my point is exactly like the - you're person they're saying (unintelligible), I guess. The guilt associated also with being an Arab-American and trying to keep your identity within everything that's happening around you. How do you keep your - raise your children here to be proud of who they are and at the same time show them that as soon as something happens, you have to be just worried sick that, you know, somebody's if you or it's going to turn to be some deranged person claiming that like, defending their religion or whatever, and doing the stuff instead of just being a mentally - I don't know what person. And then, you know, you just - always in fear. How do you teach your kids to stand up for who they are and at the same time keep that level of, you know, fear because of what's going on?

HEADLEE: And caution.

MARY: The American - you're American, you know, they're supposed to have the same rights. But you cannot have the moment of, like, being afraid, you know, pointing fingers and whatever because of what's going on. And like somebody's branding them.

HEADLEE: Yeah. Thank you so much. That's Mary calling from Tampa, Florida. And I want to say thank you to Khaled Beydoun, critical race studies fellow at UCLA School of Law. His piece, "Boston explosions: Please don't be Arabs or Muslims," was published on Al Jazeera's website, Tuesday. You can find a link to that story at our website. Khaled joins us from a studio at UCLA. Thank you so much, Khaled.

BEYDOUN: Thank you for having me.

HEADLEE: Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY with a look at Utah's paleontological treasures and Neal Conan will be back on Monday. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.