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Threats against Palestinian, Muslim and Jewish people has spiked since the war began


As the war between Hamas and Israel continues, the diaspora is feeling the pain of discrimination. Advocacy groups here in the U.S. report a spike in threats of harassment and violence against Palestinian, Muslim and Jewish people since the war began. For many Muslims, memories of a post-9/11 America have resurfaced. Well, we wanted to talk about this with Moustafa Bayoumi. He's written a book called "How Does It Feel To Be A Problem? Being Young And Arab In America." When we spoke today, I asked what he remembers about those days and weeks following 9/11.

MOUSTAFA BAYOUMI: What it really was like, that era, was walking around with your stomach in knots and afraid to be able to mourn the same way that everybody else was mourning, because you had no idea if you also had a target on your back. So it was this complicated stew of emotions.

KELLY: And do you remember specifically what made you feel that? Was there an incident, something someone said or did?

BAYOUMI: Well, you know, the data will indicate that the hate crimes went up about 1,700% in the six months following 9/11. And even without that data, if you were around Arab American communities, I mean, everybody had a story or knew of somebody that had a story. And some of it was extremely violent. People were actually volunteering to walk women with hijabs from their homes to the supermarket. So it was a very, very tense moment back then.

KELLY: And, I mean, I remember - I am not Muslim, but I remember things that weren't explicitly violent in any way, but you could see people being treated differently. You know, you would check in at the airport, and a woman in hijab was getting steered to a different line than I was as a white American.

BAYOUMI: Yes, indeed. I mean, we started calling it TWA - traveling while Arab.

KELLY: I want to ask about what role the media may be playing here, and I know that Illinois State Rep Abdelnasser Rashid has blamed the media in the wake of that for its representation of the conflict in the Middle East for inspiring hate crimes. Do you agree? Does he have a point?

BAYOUMI: Well, I think over the long course of representations of Palestinians, of Arabs, of Muslims, we've often seen that they get portrayed as second-class citizens. And, you know, we're also missing a sense of, say, context. The media should also be asking questions of what happened prior to October 7. These conflicts didn't begin just, you know, a few weeks ago. So there's a way in which it's always reacting instead of asking questions in the media when it comes to Arabs and Muslims, and that puts us as a secondary position. There's a very well-known TED Talk by Chimamanda Adichie, and she says that it's really dangerous when your story becomes the second story. And in a lot of ways, Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims, in the eyes of the media, we are always just the second story. We don't count as much. And not only is that a danger to how the media is run, but it actually is danger to us because it dehumanizes us.

KELLY: What is the role of politicians, of our our elected leaders in all of this? To start at the top, President Biden has denounced anti-Semitism. He has also denounced anti-Muslim sentiment since this war in the Middle East began. And yet you'll have seen he's coming under criticism from all sides for not doing enough, for not speaking forcefully enough, and in particular, for not defending, in the view of some, for not condemning Islamophobia in the same way as he has anti-Semitism.

BAYOUMI: Right. I mean, I think it is very important that our leaders set the tone, but that should not only be reserved for domestic politics. And so unless President Biden is willing to actually ask for a cease-fire, I feel like what he's really saying is that Palestinian civilians are going to get killed in this war, and he's OK with that, because that's what we've seen over the last three weeks. So, you know, that puts us here also at risk because we are also Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims in this country. And if he's saying it's OK to kill Palestinian civilians over there, then, you know, he may not be saying it explicitly, but the message is that it's OK to harm us over here.

KELLY: So how are you thinking about - how should we all be thinking about the line between free speech and hate speech when we live in a democracy, the United States, where defending the right of others to say things we may disagree with, we may find outrageous is constitutionally protected?

BAYOUMI: And I agree with that 100%. In fact, I think that the answer to challenges to free speech is always more free speech. But unfortunately, what we're seeing is people being intimidated in their speech and curtailed from saying things. We should be able to talk to each other and engage, even in difficult conversations. And when those conversations get difficult, we need more conversation, not less conversation.

KELLY: Moustafa Bayoumi. He is the author of "How Does It Feel To Be A Problem? Being Young And Arab In America." He's also a professor of English at Brooklyn College, City University. Thank you.

BAYOUMI: Thank you very much, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.