When Khaled Beydoun set foot on UCLA School of Law’s campus as a first-year law student, he could never have imagined how quickly the world would change around him.
Two weeks into law school, the 9/11 terror attacks happened, and Beydoun, who is Arab American and Muslim, felt that his community became collateral damage in the aftermath.
“Suddenly, I found myself far from home, far from family and loved ones, and alone in a city where I had few friends,” he said. “In that moment, learning the law was far more than an intellectual journey or a professional education but a mandate to make sense of a world turned on its head — a world where my faith and my community were targets of a global war on terror.”
UCLA Law’s Critical Race Studies program became his haven.
“Being at UCLA Law, and studying critical race theory, was the ideal place to be — and two decades later, the very reason I am where I am today,” he said.
After graduating from UCLA Law in 2004, Beydoun went on to earn a master’s degree in law from the University of Toronto and master of education degree in technology, innovation and education from Harvard University. Currently, he is an associate professor of law at Wayne State University in Detroit, where he is also associate director of civil rights and social justice at the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights.
We spoke with Beydoun about his background, his time at UCLA Law and his advice to law students from underrepresented and historically excluded backgrounds.
Tell us a bit about your heritage. Where is your family from originally? What does your Arab American heritage mean to you?
My father, who passed away, is from Lebanon. My mother is from Cairo, Egypt, and I am very proudly Lebanese, Egyptian and American. I was born in Egypt but spent two years growing up in the thick of the Lebanese civil war, at a time when the nation fractured across religious, sectarian and regional lines. My Arab heritage and Muslim identity are very important to me and, in fact, became even more important as the war on terror intensified and expanded.
I come from a single-parent, working-class immigrant household. We came to this country as refugees when I was a toddler, and I feel very fortunate to not only be where I am today but also alive to tell the story of those slain by unjust wars, occupying forces, proxy wars and wars on terror.
Having been raised in Detroit, which is home to a thriving Arab and Muslim population, hard times taught me to fight harder and be even more proud when the stares grow stronger and the scrutiny becomes more intense. Being Arab American is important, but being an Arab Detroiter means everything to me.
While at UCLA Law, you specialized in critical race studies and later joined the school as a CRS law teaching fellow. What drew you to this program, and how did it impact your development as a scholar?
The Critical Race Studies program changed my life. In fact, choosing to attend UCLA Law and specializing in CRS stands as the best academic decision I have made in life, despite having scholarships from Ivy League schools and law schools close to home.
In short, I would not be the law professor or author I am today if I didn’t attend UCLA Law. Studying critical race theory as a law student enabled me to fill the scholarly voids about the racialization of Muslims during the embryonic stages of the war on terror, where I was learning — in real time — from critical race studies pioneers. That education was unparalleled, and unprecedented in fact, making UCLA Law the ideal and only place to become what I am today. Many years later, after working with [UCLA Law professor] Kimberlé Crenshaw to defend affirmative action in Michigan, she pushed me to consider a career in legal teaching, which pulled me back to UCLA Law to serve as a teaching fellow. It was surreal to teach law at the very place where I learned it and to chart a new professional course as a scholar whose work could impact the discourse on race, religion and Islamophobia.
Your first book, “American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear,” received critical acclaim when it came out in 2019. What was your inspiration for writing this book and what do you hope readers take away from it?
Many of my intellectual heroes, such as Edward Said, James Baldwin and Fatima Mernissi, wrote powerfully for lay audiences. They were always mindful of translating complex works into accessible ideas and producing digestible texts that could inspire indigent and working-class readers — readers that, sadly, cannot access the elitist spaces we occupy, or pay the prohibitive tuition costs of American law schools.
“American Islamophobia” was motivated by the aim to distill and retell my academic work in words that could reach my mother and brother, segments of my community and many more alien to the ivory towers and isolated from the elite halls of American academe. While Islamophobia was swelling and spreading brazenly with the rise of Trump, it was high time for me to write a book that spoke to the masses. Or, at least, attempted to speak to them in ways that few others have before.
Your third book has recently published, and you have another coming down the pike. Tell us about them.
My new book, “The New Crusades: Islamophobia and the Global War on Muslims,” examines Islamophobia as a global phenomenon. After four years of countless interviews, global tours and talks, writing and rewriting, this book came out last month (at the beginning of Ramadan). It consolidates the many passages of anti-Muslim campaigns around the world, from China to India, France to Myanmar, and places beyond and in between, where the American war on terror exported and advanced the counter-terror laws and the lexicon that conflates Islam with terrorism and stigmatizes Muslim identity.
As an avid lover of sports, I just signed a book deal to write about football (soccer) and, namely, the sport’s intersection with global politics, race and racism. After attending the World Cup in Qatar, I want to step away from my primary area of specialization and immerse myself in examining the complexity of identity and politics beneath the beautiful game, which follows much of the sports writing I’ve done for the likes of ESPN and CNN.
What advice do you have for aspiring lawyers and legal scholars from underrepresented and historically excluded backgrounds?
The best advice I received when I was at UCLA Law was from a former professor turned colleague, who shared with me, “Khaled, you have to work doubly or triply as hard” as the aspiring lawyer or law professor that comes from privilege. Those words are forever etched in my mind, and since hearing them for the first time nearly 11 years ago, they serve as a command — a dictate — to push my potential to its limits. The hard truth is that the world isn’t fair or equal, and for those of us who come from the economic margins, households without academic mentors, first-generation graduates forced to blaze our own trails — and mess up along the way — the only way we can make up that space between us and those blessed with the privilege of having a head start is through hard work. And just as importantly, the vitality of surrounding yourself with friends and classmates traveling down that unfamiliar road with you, because there’s strength and direction in numbers.