As an Arab American living in Brooklyn, Moustafa Bayoumi, an English professor at Brooklyn College, is no stranger to intolerance.
Bayoumi, was the keynote lecturer during NMU’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Week celebrations. He spoke at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 18 in the Whitman commons.
During his lecture, he compared the lessons taught in the Civil Rights Movement to the racial problems of today
“It’s no exaggeration to say that prior to the civil rights victories of the 1950s and 60s, the United States basically practiced apartheid. In that separation came the ability to ignore the plight of the downtrodden,” Bayoumi said.
His book, “How Does it Feel to be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America,” follows the lives of several Arab Americans living in a post 9/11 New York City.
“Being an American Muslim or Arab means that you live a life where your very existence is considered a political act,” Bayoumi said.
Several stories are shared, including that of a young Muslim girl who’s family is detained after being suspected of terrorism and a Marine who is deployed shortly after the attacks.
In a country where negative attitudes towards Muslims frequently poll over 40 percent, Muslim Americans need to “lift the veil” and learn to accept other cultures, Bayoumi said.
“To judge someone else by our preconceptions is to dehumanize. True empathy may be the most important political emotion that we can have,” Bayoumi said.
NMU Professor Mohey Mowafy and Assistant Professor Leslie Larkin introduced Bayoumi at the event. After hearing buzz from the book, Bayoumi seemed to be a perfect fit to spotlight a week of Martin Luther King Day celebrations, Larkin said.
“King talked about many issues that continue to be relevant today,” Larkin said. “Many groups continue to experience discrimination. Muslims today are very visibly discriminated against,” she said.
The goal of this event and others, Larkin said, is to get students involved in actively learning to accept other people and their cultures.
“It’s great that we spend a whole week celebrating the holiday. Martin Luther King’s lessons are as important as much now as ever,” she said.
As an Arab American, hearing the stories in Bayoumi’s book was an inspiration, said Tj Aiyash, a resident adviser in Payne hall.
“It’s enlightening to know that someone took the time to write down the stories of people that were oppressed after the attacks,” Aiyash said.
Aiyash, who is of Palestinian descent, was born in Chicago. Though some Arab Americans do experience intolerance, conditions are friendly in the Upper Peninsula, he said.
“Things couldn’t be better. Everyone here just treats me like any other normal person,” Aiyash said.
Bayoumi’s book has also made it easier to connect with his friends and give them a better description of his own culture, Aiyash said.
Bayoumi, who’s parents are from Egypt, was born in Switzerland and raised in Canada. He recently became an American citizen, and has published articles in The New York Times and The Guardian, among other publications.
The lessons taught by Martin Luther King Jr. are still very relevant in today’s culture, he said.
“Dr. King taught us that our Human Rights are the same as anyone else’s … he taught us to believe in the power of the word to change the world,” he said. “These are lessons that not only continue to inspire, but demand to be realized.”