The assault on Gaza has been an awakening for the American Arab and Muslim youth. The attacks came at the most festive holiday season of the year. Instead of celebrating, young American Arab and Muslim teenagers and kids spent their time protesting on the streets as they watched disturbing and devastating images streaming into their living rooms and onto their computers.
This is a new generation of youth: a generation that grew up witnessing gross violation of US civil liberties, under the shadow of the Patriot Act. They grew up watching Iraq and Afghanistan being destroyed by US military weapons; they saw citizens of countries of their ancestors tortured and humiliated. Neither have they forgotten Israel’s unjustified attack on Lebanon only two years ago.
During the election campaign many discussions on mailing lists centered on why Muslims have no voice in the campaign. Some analysts concluded it was because Muslims are not part of the ‘American story’.
What is an ‘American story’? Can Americans from immigrant backgrounds really dissociate themselves from their countries of origin when their tax dollars are being used for military weapons to kill civilians in those countries?
The youth we see today protesting on the streets and organizing events on campus is an ‘American story’. They are part of the story of wars waged in their countries of origin. These kids are writing essays in schools on their perspective on Gaza, Palestine and the protests they are participating in.
“We were very young when 911 happened. We grew up under Bush’s presidency and witnessed our community being marginalized. We were often questioned about our religion and culture. This brought many of us closer and we started organizing awareness events on campus,” said Billal Asghar, a senior Global Studies and Health Science major at San Jose State University.
Most Arabs and Muslims lived in fear in the first few years after 911, exactly the way Mr. Bush wanted them to. They stayed away from political activism and limited their social activities to the mosque. A conscious decision was made to focus on Islam and Muslim issues within the US and stay away from speaking up against the atrocities being committed in countries where their roots are.
Today they are defiant and determined to stand up for injustice. 22 year old University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) student, Yasmine Alkhatib’s family migrated from Iraq when she was 5. She organized Palestinian events to mark the 60th anniversary of Nakba last year. “Growing up in America, which preaches virtue and justice, I always felt that I could express my views and opinions about the way the world works” she said. “When we see war crimes being committed by Israel on women and children or our rights being vandalized in the Unites States, we feel incensed and consider it our duty to fight against it,” she continued.
Karimah Al-helew, a student leader at San Jose State University and one of the organizers of the protests in San Jose has traveled to the West Bank four times. “I know what it means to live under an illegal occupation. I can see that my tax dollars are going to support the poverty that has suffocated my family there,” she said. Her father, who passed away a year ago, was a Palestinian. Her mother is from Cuba. Speaking in Spanish at an immigrant rally in San Jose last month she said, “I am not speaking as a Palestinian or Cuban or American, I am speaking as a human being; you only have to be human to understand what is just.”
Raunaq Khodaai, who was born in India and is Mathematics major at Mission College Santa Clara said that a class on Modern History of Europe a year ago motivated her to become politically active. “As I started reading more I felt that the Palestinians have been suffering for the longest time post World War II,” she said.
The unbalanced reporting on the Iraq war and Israel-Palestine issue by the mainstream media has lead to new, innovative ways of information gathering for the youth. Their source of information is alternate media like Democracy Now, YouTube or blogs; social networking through instant messaging, Facebook and other such applications.
“We are web savvy and like to search for other perspectives online,” said Raunaq. At a time when Israel banned the media from entering Gaza, these channels of communication were used effectively to broadcast the personal horror stories and images coming out of Gaza. “Facebook became a news stand when the war broke out. The quickest way to get the word out for a rally would be to simply change your status,” said Karimah.
Some of these students joined hands with the African Americans to protest against the shooting of Oscar Grant by BART officer in Oakland. “The struggle for justice and equal rights in occupied Palestine is no different from what the African Americans struggled for in this country,” said Laila Khatib, a San Francisco State University graduate. “Racism witnessed against Arabs throughout the recent election campaign is still fresh in my mind,” she added.
The Arab and Muslim youth has been getting more and more organized during the past couple of years. They realize that to become part of the ‘American story’ it is important to participate in the local community and be involved in the political process. Their struggles for civil liberties and justice are their ‘American story’.
Their participation in electing the first African American president of the U.S.A has given them new hope. “There is new excitement about bringing change bottom-up. The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine have invoked a lot of passion and energy as well as dismay at U.S foreign policy. People are tired of these wars and can see what they have done to our economy,” said Billal.
The youth recognizes the power of grass root community organization to bring about change. We can see the energy and determination in them. They will continue to join hands with other student communities and push the president for restoration of civil liberties and bring about change in foreign policy.
Yasmin is a Bay Area activist involved in South Asian and Palestinian issues. She is a member of The Free Gaza Movement, South Bay Mobilization and Friends of South Asia. She was one of the organizers of the Mumbai peace vigil in San Francisco and worked closely with the youth to organize protests against the Gaza attacks.
She, along with Sunaina Maira conducted a workshop at the 13th Annual Asian American Issues Conference at Stanford on January 24, 2009, re-questioning definitions and perceptions of ‘terrorists’, ‘terror’ and ‘security’ in the aftermath of the attacks on Mumbai and more recently in Gaza and tribal areas of Pakistan. She is a professional web program manager in the IT industry.