Editor’s Note: Khaled A. Beydoun is a law professor at the Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. He is the author of many books, including “American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear.” You can follow him at his socials at @khaledbeydoun. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
In between the prevailing custom of doom-scrolling and delivering bad news, Abed looked up with a stare that said everything. I knew that look well.
Like him, I’m an Arab, Muslim and American — an amalgam of identities that conjures up “pariah” in the world we live in. But now, it means something different. At this moment, when the horror of mass death unfolds in Gaza and on screens we hold in our palms, our identity spells absurdity.
We see ourselves in the people of Gaza. The accosted people there share our names, our faith, our culture and our customs. We have friends in that 140-square-mileA open-air prison turned into hell on earth, including journalists who were sheltering at the Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital at the time of the deadly blast on Wednesday.
But what we continue to see on our screens is still half a world away. On the other side of our terrestrial reality and this virtual insanity.
Until this past week.
“A Palestinian boy was killed in Illinois,” shared Abed. This sequence of foreign-to-domestic murder was a familiar one. Being American, like 6-year-old Wadea Al-Fayoume was, does not protect us from the stigma of being Palestinian or Arab, Muslim and from the “Middle East.” Rather, these latter identities keep the security blanket of Americanness away from us, rendering us foreign and, during times of crisis, “terrorists.”
Wadea was stabbed 26 times last Saturday with a military-style knife by his family’s landlord, a 71-year-old man who’s been charged with murder and hate crimes, among other crimes. The attacker also stabbed Wadea’s mother more than a dozen times. She lived. But what does that word even mean anymore?
What does it mean for a mother who escaped war for the safety of an American suburb? What does it mean for Abed and I: an executive director of a civil rights organization and a law professor, standing at the crosshairs of American power and an Arab identity conflated with terrorism? What does “living” mean for millions of Arabs and Muslimswho call the United States home, burdened with the impossible task of proving their allegiance, over and over again, in response to bellowing demands that bury our humanity?
It feels like we are living on borrowed time, like we were extended a contingent citizenship that can be stripped at any time, on account of events that unfold in America or on the other side of the world.
Calling it “Islamophobia” would be a severe understatement. This existential ballad of being Arab or Muslim in America is far more onerous, far more absurd. It feels like an existence that has no exit. A play where our daily routine is waking up to the news of war, the stark images and videos of slain children, rolling timelines of shattered villages and the roaring demands “to condemn Hamas.” While this plot sounds a lot like novels from Jean Paul Sartre or Albert Camus, this is not fiction.