The Mideast and Abroad
- Published on Thursday, 27 September 2012 07:59
In Part 1, we met the UC-Irvine MSU, whose political outspokenness is inspired by their faith. In Part II, we see how participating in the group gives its young members confidence and awareness of their unity with Muslims around the world. In Part III, we find that their activism helps them deal with negative perceptions of Muslim Americans.
It was half way between a "busy MSU day." The group already held a teach-in to raise awareness of the repression of activists in Syria, and it still had another protest about Syria coming up, along with a presentation on Shariah to end the day. Having been refreshed by mid-day prayer, Aminah Galal, the group's vice president, picked up lunch and headed to the Da'wah table, also known as the "Ask a Muslim" booth.
Da'wah, part of the MSU's mission, means spreading awareness of Islam and includes anything from preaching to correcting misconceptions. By teaching others about Islam, MSU members also gain confidence living out their faith in public. The MSU's activities help shape how its members understand where they come from and where they are headed—relating both their parents and their peers.
As Galal picked at her fish sandwich at the Da'wah table, Erum Siddiqui stood in the walkway, politely offering the flyers for Islam Awareness Month to passers-by. "It's kind of sad how many times I've gotten rejected," she said.
Sara Halabi, sitting next to Galal, doesn't accept rejection. To help Siddiqui distribute flyers, Halabi raised her voice, which travels far despite her small stature.
"Please come take a flyer! We've made one just for you!" Halabi yelled. "Erum, aren't the flyers beautiful?" A blond and red streak ran through Halabi's long black ponytail. Green and red bracelets signaling her solidarity with the Syrian people stood out against her black shirt and pants.
"I really don't know you right now," Galal joked dryly.
Halabi was quiet as a freshman—"didn't like to talk too much, didn't look outside the box," she says. Like many of her peers, she joined the MSU because she wanted a place to pray. But then she attended the Irvine 11 protest.
“I was nervous. I remember looking up to every person who actually stood up and said something,” say Halabi, now a student activist. “I really felt that as a student you can do something, you can make a difference. Seeing that and learning from it pushed me towards becoming more active on campus."
Peer influence is strong during college, says Morley Winograd, author of Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America. Millennials of all faiths and none believe in their ability to change the world, and spending time with others who protest and pray will reaffirm this belief. According to Winograd, the MSU's cohesion also marks its members as part of the Millennial Generation. "The right decision is always the one that everyone can agree upon—not what the experts say, but what is the group’s wisdom."
The wisdom that living out their faith involves political activism is more characteristic of their generation than it is of the Muslim American community as a whole. "There's definitely a generational divide when it comes to this," Lekovic says.
Since the Irvine 11 case, some members' parents have counseled them to avoid the MSU. “[My father's] perspective is that they’re just a bunch of irrational kids trying to create havoc,” says Anum Iqbal, a pre-med student who is passionate about political issues but avoids protests, in part out of respect for her father.
Parents often emigrated from countries where political protest wasn't allowed, Peek says. They came to the United States for educational and economic opportunities, and after 9/11, most retreated from society, fearing backlash. Many immigrant parents worry that their children will become suspect if involved in active Muslim student associations. “The Irvine 11 case provides evidence or potential proof that not only might they be monitored, but they could be arrested,” Peek says.
The Irvine 11 case affected all student activists, says Halabi. The threat of arrest was in the back of her fellow organizers' minds when they decided how to respond to another round of budget cuts to the University of California system in Fall 2011. Whereas 1,000 people protested the same issue when she was a freshman, only 400 students participated this time, she points out.
Still, about 50 of the 400 were Muslim. The MSU can be counted on at protests because its activism is rooted in faith, Halabi says. "Fear has never been one of the things that stop [MSU members] from doing something that they feel is right."
Their faith community, however, also points young Muslim activists to issues that many of their peers might not be aware of in the bubble of college life. As Halabi, Galal and Siddiqui chatted at the Da'wah table, a young man wearing a black and white Syrian scarf approached. He had seen the MSU's ply-board display describing the violence Bashar al-Assad had reigned down on Syrian civilians. "I'm Syrian," he said softly.
"I'm Syrian too," Halabi responded enthusiastically. The two switched to Arabic. The young man, Habib Arnous, had recently moved to the United States to study English. They were chatting over the Syria display when Halabi suddenly turned back to her friends. "Dude, he's from the same village as me!" she said. "That means we must be related!"
Arnous' family lives safely in Saudi Arabia, but Halabi's extended family—aunts, uncles, cousins and her grandmother—are still in Syria. "Everybody in Syria is in danger," Halabi says. Members of her family have been arrested and beaten up, and their phone calls are monitored (she asked to use a pseudonym to protect their identities).
Family connections make international issues personal for the young Americans. The vast majority of MSU members are American-born children of immigrants. Two-thirds of American Muslims are immigrants, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center demographic study.
A number of the Irvine 11 protesters were willing to risk arrest because they have family in Palestine. Many have visited and seen the impact of Israeli policies.
Initially, Palestine was just an Arab issue. The Iranian revolution, however, taught Muslims that "only an Islamic identity, creating solidarity with other Muslim nations, can provide the necessary resource to fight for Muslim causes," Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad explains in Becoming American? The Forging of Arab and Muslim Identity in Pluralist America. Since then, Palestine has become important to American Muslims of all backgrounds, including within the MSU.
Recently, though, this pan-Muslim consciousness has turned its attention toward countries undergoing turbulent democratic reforms. As they have for Palestine, MSU members of all nationalities have taken up the violence in Syria as a matter of justice.
Ammar Kahf, a leader in the local Syrian community, approached Halabi to ask for help forcing UC-Irvine to oust Syrian Consul-General Hazem Chehabi from the board of trustees for the school's foundation. When Halabi presented the problem to the MSU, it was eager to lend its support, she says. "Honestly I couldn't do anything without MSU because they've been the people that have been behind me the most."Submitted by Megan Sweas Read Part I and Part III