Gaza shakes American Arab and Muslim youth

A Gaza solidarity demonstration in San Francisco, US, 10 January 2009. (Sharat Lin)

The most recent assault on Gaza has been an awakening for American Arab and Muslim youth. The attacks came at the most festive holiday season of the year. Instead of celebrating, many 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 violations 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. They have not forgotten Israel’s unjustified attack on Lebanon only two years ago. Many youth have profound attachments to the lands that their parents or great-grandparents came from, and where many still have family.

“We were very young when [the 11 September 2001 attacks] 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.

The Arab and Muslim communities were largely quiet the first few years after the 11 September 2001 attacks. Some 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 family roots are.

Today Arab and Muslim youth in the US are increasingly visible as they stand up against injustice. A 22-year-old University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) student, Yasmine Alkhatib’s family migrated from Iraq when she was five. She organized Palestinian events to mark the 60th anniversary of the Nakba, the dispossession of the Palestinian homeland in 1947-48, 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 United 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, is Palestinian. Her mother is from Cuba. Speaking in Spanish at an immigrant rights 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 a 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 by the mainstream media on the Iraq war and Israel-Palestine has lead to new, innovative ways of information gathering for the youth. Their sources of information are alternative media like Democracy Now!, YouTube or blogs, as well as social networking applications like instant messaging and Facebook.

“We are web savvy and like to search for other perspectives online,” said Khodaai. 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 [Facebook] status,” said Al-Helew.

In California’s Bay Area, some of these students joined hands with African Americans to protest against the shooting of Oscar Grant, an unarmed black youth, by a police 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 2008 San Francisco State University graduate. “Racism witnessed against Arabs throughout the recent election campaign is still fresh in my mind,” she added.

Arab and Muslim youth have become 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 US has given them new hope. Arab and Muslim student groups mobilized youth to register and vote. “After seeing the election results of 2004, we wanted to make sure Republicans do not win this time,” said Asghar. “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 US foreign policy. People are tired of these wars and can see what they have done to our economy,” added Asghar.

Yasmin Qureshi is a Bay Area, California 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 youth to organize protests in San Jose against the Gaza attacks.

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