In New York City this week, an institution is being accused of using Islam to subvert American culture—but this time, it's on the other side of the East River. The controversy over Brooklyn College's Common Reader program doesn't hold a candle to the Ground Zero mosque debacle—thankfully, Sarah Palin has yet to tweet on the subject—but it's gotten more than a few people riled up in the past few days. The most riled might be Bruce Kesler: the conservative blogger and Brooklyn College alum wrote the college out of his will when they assigned Moustafa Bayoumi's "How Does It Feel To Be A Problem? Being Young and Arab in America" to all incoming freshmen.
Bayoumi, a Brooklyn College professor, examines the lives of seven Arab-Americans, six Muslims and one Christian, living in Brooklyn after 9/11. The college chose the book because "it contributes to the discussion of a subject that is pertinent to Brooklyn today—i.e., the stories of Brooklyn's many immigrant communities who come from diverse areas and cultures of the world." Detractors, with Kesler at the helm, say it is an attempt to indoctrinate young, impressionable students with what must inherently be an anti-Israel, anti-American treatise. The Common Reader program resembles many taking place in orientations across the country right now: freshmen read a single book and discuss it, hopefully reaching the same intellectual space of debate and critical thought as classes begin. With any luck, students who disagree with what Bayoumi has written will be taught—and, perhaps, encouraged—to form a cohesive argument against it.
Kesler has every right to pull his future donations; it's his money, and he can give it to whomever he'd like for any reason at all. But the arguments he and his supporters are wielding are dangerous ones. He cites the dubious "Campus Watch" group, which has been accused of threatening and harassing Middle Eastern scholars to further a hard-line pro-Israel agenda. Then there's the National Association of Scholars, a conservative group that's already leading an attack on college reading lists across the country. They were quick to support Kesler (confusingly, they put Bayoumi's area of academic focus, postcolonial literature, in quotation marks—and, full disclosure, that was my area of academic focus as well): "[the book] aims to establish Arab and Muslim Americans as victims and indict American society for making them so." It all fits perfectly with the growing sentiment that Muslims—led by President Obama, of course—are working to destroy America, but it's cloaked in the guise of a real academic debate. It's a shame that Moustafa Bayoumi's book, a thoughtful and highly regarded portrait of the group living with this growing antagonism, has to be at the heart of it.