Common Reading Controversy at Brooklyn College

Ashley Thorne

In June NAS published a survey of books colleges assigned this year as “common reading.” One book that didn’t make our list is the one Brooklyn College recently announced, How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America, by Moustafa Bayoumi.

The assignment of this particular book at a school where more than a quarter of the students are Jewish is remarkable. Controversy arose when several concerned academics individually challenged the College’s decision.

Bayoumi teaches “postcolonial literature” in the English department at Brooklyn College. He went to Columbia University for graduate school, where he studied under and became close friends with Edward Said, the Palestinian-American literary theorist who was famous in his hostility toward the West and toward Israel. Said “taught a whole generation of English professors to search for racism in writers (like Jane Austen) who did not think as the professors do” (Edward Alexander, NAS Forum, October 2, 2003).

Bayoumi embraced Said’s resentment of Israel and the West. His most recent book, Midnight on the Mavi Marmara (subtitle: The Attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and How It Changed the Course of the Israel/Palestine Conflict), is a collection of essays on the May 2010 Gaza flotilla raid. Professor Jonathan Helfand, professor of Judaic Studies at Brooklyn College, described the anthology in an email as “at best biased, at worst vile propaganda.” 

The book that all new Brooklyn College students should have read by now—classes started yesterday—tells the stories of seven young Arab Brooklynites who faced discrimination after September 11. Such discrimination, Bayoumi writes, includes profiling, detentions, denial of due process, and unwarranted wiretapping.

The title question, “How does it feel to be a problem?” is a quote from W.E.B. Dubois’s book Souls of Black Folk (1903). Bayoumi’s theme is that Arabs and Muslims are “the new blacks.” Edward Alexander, Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Washington, wrote in a letter to President Gould that the author is trying “to enable young Arab Americans to latch on to the mournful coattails of the black experience.”

Bayoumi’s seven narratives read sometimes like journalism (“Rasha wouldn’t tell me if any physical abuse befell her eldest brother or father...”) and sometimes like fiction:

“911. What’s your emergency?”

“There’s a white couple on a city bus, I think she has a bomb in her purse. It’s a B63 bus, going up Fifth Avenue. The license plate is...”

She wanted to call. She really did, just to make a point, to make them feel the same way—singled out, powerless, discriminated against, a source of irrational fear. But she didn’t call.

As a whole, the book paints a sympathetic picture of the difficulties young Arab and Muslim people living in America may encounter. It employs emotionally charged stories to engage the reader’s compassion (for Muslims) and outrage (at American prejudice). Even when teenage Rasha has an ugly outburst when she spots her jail keeper post-prison at a Chili’s in Times Square (“you are a f—ing a—hole, and you will always be a f—ing a—hole”), the reader is invited to empathize with her. She and her family have just spent three months in prison for no apparent reason.

The book’s afterword is perhaps its most problematic part. As Werner Cohn, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of British Columbia, wrote to the Brooklyn College president:

I have now had a look at the book in question. While much of it is interesting and informative, the "afterword" is a harshly-worded polemic against US foreign policy and against Israel. To believe the author, the problems of Brooklyn Arabs arise from U.S. imperialism. 

Before reading the book, Cohn had written a previous letter expressing his concern. The Dean, Donna Wilson, responded to him, “Rest assured that Brooklyn College values tolerance, diversity, and respect for differing points of view in all that we do.” Cohn wrote on his blog, “Naturally I was happy to learn of Dean Wilson's commitment to tolerance, to diversity, and, most of all, to respect for differing points of view,” and after reading the book, he was even more convinced that students needed another perspective:

If this is required reading for all of your students, it needs to be balanced by other points of view.  Any other course of action will amount to indoctrination and subversion of education.

Indeed, in the afterword, the author links discrimination against Arabs in America to “U.S. foreign policy interests in the Middle East.” Bayoumi quotes Hannah Arendt on the “’boomerang effects’ of imperialism”: when a country is “colonizing” another country, it tends to turn inward and assert power over the people who came from the colonized country. Bayoumi encapsulates American policy in the Middle East as follows:

For several long decades and through a series of security pacts, arms sales, military engagements, covert actions, and overt wars, the United States has followed a course that supported one dictatorial regime after another, sought control of the natural resources of the region, attempted to forge client states amenable to U.S. interests, and, with the cooperation of native elites, engaged in a policy of neorealist stability at the expense of the aspirations of the vast majority of people who live in the region. The core issue remains the rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination.

Abigail Rosenthal, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Brooklyn College, also wrote to President Gould to express her objection. The problem is not the “common reading” concept, she explained, but the message sent to students when they see that the College has endorsed this particular author and his point of view. “It smacks of indoctrination,” Rosenthal wrote.

Why was How Does It Feel to be a Problem? chosen as Brooklyn College’s common reading in the first place? Dean Wilson said the College typically selects “memoirs (a genre familiar to students) set in New York City, often reflecting an immigrant experience, and written by authors who are available to visit campus.” She and those in the English Department who chose the book thought the stories of young Arab Brooklynites “may be familiar to our students, their neighbors, or the students with whom they will study and work at Brooklyn College.” Freshman students are required to respond to the reading by writing about their own experiences.

Perhaps this is a multicultural effort by the college to show sensitivity to Arab and Muslim people. The book fits squarely in the most popular category of common books on NAS’s list: “Multiculturalism/Immigration/Racism.” And Dean Wilson describes the “Meet the Author” event as “a lively discussion about diversity and inclusiveness in Brooklyn and at the College.” But if the concern is for sensitivity and inclusiveness, what about  those students who identify with the United States or support the state of Israel?  How does it feel to them to be a problem?

We agree with those who find the assignment of this polemical book as common reading troubling. While much of How Does It Feel to be a Problem? seems a straightforward telling of stories, its central purpose is clear. It aims to establish Arab and Muslim Americans as victims and indict American society for making them so.  By assigning this book as the sole one to be read by incoming undergraduates, most of whom will have little of the knowledge needed to evaluate its claims, Brooklyn College opens itself to the charge that it is using what should be an important education experience for ideological goals – a charge which the evidence of our study indicates could be made against a great many other colleges and universities as well.

A common reading program should be an occasion to assign books whose intrinsic worth and lasting importance almost every educated person would affirm. The NAS is currently compiling a list of recommended books for college common reading programs. Look for it and an updated edition of the 2010 Beach Books database in September. 

We hope Brooklyn College will take a cue from our list and improve its selection next year. 

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