Youth Leaders Face Backlash for Standing Up for Palestinian Rights |

Youth Leaders Face Backlash for Standing Up for Palestinian Rights

By all measures, the situation in Palestine gets bleaker by the minute. As of this writing, the death toll has reached 39,100, more than 8,000 are still missing under the concrete rubble, 77,143 people have been injured, more than half of the population have been displaced from their homes, and more than 1 million Palestinians face catastrophic food shortages.1 Calls for a complete ceasefire and a halt to the genocide are now heralded from corporate boardrooms, from local city council meetings to halls of Congress, from the streets where passionate protests disrupt business as usual, and from billboards overlooking cities throughout the world. But the biggest uptick in recent protest activity in the U.S. and the significant increase in the volume of demands has come from students and youth activists.

Generational Shift in Vocal Opposition

 In community centers and mosques throughout the U.S. and Canada, Muslim youth are leveraging social media, organizing protests, and engaging in direct action to challenge injustice. “Youth are driving a generational shift in how the Muslim community engages in U.S. politics. This tension was clearly seen during Ramadan where activists demanded accountability not just from elected officials but from their own leaders as well.”2

While established “old guard” Muslim leaders who immigrated to this country may have been previously focused on establishing relationships with local and national legislators, youth leaders are less hopeful and less patient with mere photo opps. They are drawing inspiration from historical civil rights struggles and anti-apartheid movements and demanding action using confrontational tactics and disrupting the usual order of business. They are spearheading calls for divestment initiatives and cessation of the use of U.S. taxpayer dollars to fuel the carnage.

Youth Leaders Drive Protests Nationwide

Students, academics, and community groups engage in a wide range of activities to raise awareness about issues relating to Israel and Palestine, including educational and cultural programming; BDS campaigns (boycott, divest, sanctions); peaceful protests against pro-Israel speakers; erecting mock checkpoints, evictions, and apartheid walls; and raising funds for a wide variety of support efforts.

A wave of high-profile protests on university and college campuses have made recent front-page headlines:

  • On December 11, 2023, 41 students from the Brown Divest Coalition who occupied  University Hall were arrested by local police and university safety officers. Brown University is located in Providence, Rhode Island. Students from many other universities – the University of Chicago, Indiana University, Mount Holyoke College, Yale, and Harvard –  initiated solidarity strikes in support of the student efforts.3
  • Students at Vanderbilt University began protesting on March 26, 2024, after an amendment to the Vanderbilt Student Government Constitution - which would prevent student government funds from going to certain businesses that support Israel - was removed by administration officials from a student ballot. Protests led to the expulsion of three students, one suspension, and 22 disciplinary probations.4
  • On April 8, 2024,  a group of 20 students at Pomona College, a private liberal arts college in Claremont, California, were suspended after staging a protest at the office of University President Gabrielle Starr. The Pomona Divest from Apartheid coalition had mounted a protest in support of the Palestinian cause since early October, but tensions increased when the administration attempted to remove a 32-foot “apartheid wall.”5
  • On April 15, 2024, the University of Southern California faced intense backlash after Provost Andrew Guzman canceled Valedictorian Asna Tabassum’s commencement speech scheduled for May 10. Citing concerns about security risks, Guzman, in a missive to the USC community defended the unprecedented action because of the “alarming tenor” of reactions to her selection and the “intensity of feelings” surrounding the situation in Gaza.6 The Council for American Islamic Relations has since taken up the mantle to have the speech reinstated.7
  • The most recent and highest-profile case took place at Columbia University. On April 19, 2024, President Nemat Shafik called on the New York Police Department to arrest 108 students protesting at an encampment in the center of the Manhattan campus. Many of those students were also suspended, including Isra Hirsi, a student at Barnard College and daughter of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. The spotlight intensified international support and campus tensions, resulting in a suspension of in-person classes. As of this writing, the encampment continued and solidarity encampments have also sprung up across the country.8 9

These students have been vilified in the mainstream press and labeled as anti-semites and terrorists by conservative politicians and the Zionist opposition. More of the same lopsided sympathy for Jewish students was echoed by President Joe Biden who took to the podium recently in recognition of the Passover holiday.

Pro-Palestinian protestors have also been joined by thousands of professors, staff, and alumni at the very institutions who took action against the student protestors, calling the actions against the students “overly punitive” and condemning the characterization of the protests as a threat to campus safety. They have also garnered the support of millions of Palestinian advocates from all walks of life and faith traditions across the world.

Uptick in Anti-Muslim Hate

According to the latest findings by the Council of American Islamic Relations, there has been a record increase in the number of anti-Muslim incidents reported nationwide. In its 2024 Civil Rights Report: Fatal: The Resurgence of Anti-Muslim Hate, “CAIR received 8,061 complaints nationwide in 2023, marking the highest number of complaints CAIR has ever recorded in its 30-year history. The primary force behind this wave of heightened Islamophobia was the escalation of violence in Israel and Palestine in October 2023.”10

Behind these numbers are human tragedy, and individual and collective trauma.

  • In October, a six-year-old Palestinian-American boy named Wadea Al-Fayoume was stabbed and murdered by his family’s landlord in Chicago. According to his mother, who was also attacked, the landlord yelled “you Muslims must die!” before attempting to choke and stab her. 
  • A Muslim and Palestinian woman was reportedly threatened by a man while riding the D.C. Metro in October. The woman had been riding the Metro on her way to a demonstration for Palestinian rights when a man reportedly asked her, “How’d you like to lose your life?” On video, the man is then heard asking the woman, “How’d you like to have your head beheaded?” According to the victim and witnesses, the man also reportedly possessed a firearm, which he slightly removed from his pocket. 
  • In December in Warner Robins, Georgia, a teacher threatened to beat and behead a seventh-grade Muslim student. After the student asked about the teacher’s Israeli flag, the teacher was overheard, in part, threatening to “slit [the student’s] god***n throat” and “cut her head off” by several students and witnesses.

Various tactics have been used by institutions - employers, public and private schools, universities and colleges - to squash vocal opposition to Israeli disregard for human life and suffering. An extensive report published by Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights called The Palestine Exception to Free Speech: A Movement Under Attack in the U.S. documented the widespread and growing suppression of Palestinian human rights advocacy in the United States.11 While the report was initially published in September 2015, the details related to how Israeli advocacy groups have intensified their efforts to stifle advocacy for Palestine ring even truer today. Part of that includes strategic actions taken against pro-Palestine advocates in nine broad categories including:

  • False and Inflammatory Accusations of Antisemitism and Support for Terrorism
  • Official Denunciation
  • Bureaucratic Barriers
  • Cancellations and Alterations of Academic and Cultural Events
  • Administrative Sanctions
  • Threats to Academic Freedom
  • Lawsuits and Legal Threats
  • Legislation
  • Criminal Investigations and Prosecutions

With mainstream media in the Wester biased heavily in support of Israel’s “right to defend itself” and a barrage of skewed coverage and innuendo, these tactics are escalating and becoming entrenched in domestic and foreign policy and local responses to protests and demonstrations.

A Call for Collective Protections

It behooves Muslim leaders to coalesce to support pro-Palestinian causes and our youth activists at the local and national levels.

Sound Vision is working to organize a national effort to increase support and resources on high school and university campuses and to support organizations who are rallying to aid those who have been harassed, doxxed, received disciplinary actions, or been suspended or expelled for their passionate advocacy. Stay tuned for more details.

Resources Available to Assist Youth Activists

There are a number of organizations stepping up to the plate to offer support and assistance. Share these resources with young folks in your family and friend circles and in your masjid community. And also consider supporting these efforts with a financial contribution so they can continue to effectively support efforts to address injustice worldwide. (These are offered in alphabetical order rather than be preference.)

American Muslims for Palestine

Student Activism for Palestine is The Pride of Our Movement | AMP

Council of American Islamic Relations 

CAIR Know Your Rights as a Student

COMMUNITY ALERT: CAIR Issues Guidance for Students Speaking Out Against Islamophobia and for Palestinian Rights

ANTI-PREJUDICE TOOLS: CAIR's Guide for Students Speaking Out Against Islamophobia and for Palestinian Rights

Muslim Campus Life

Sign the Pledge to Counter Islamophobia

Statement on Islamophobia & Anti-Muslim Racism from Muslim Campus Life

Muslim Legal Fund of America

Muslim Student Association  

Report Islamophobia — MSA National

Campus Islamophobia Tracker (partnered with Musilm Campus Life)

Responding to Hate: Our Statement on Islamophobia & Anti-Muslim Racism -

National Lawyers Guild

Know Your Rights: Campus Protest

Palestine Legal

Form to Report Hate Incidents

Students for Justice in Palestine

U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights

US Palestinian Community Network (chapters in Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Chicago, Youngstown, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Madison, Houston, Detroit / Dearborn, New York, and Washington DC)

There is much evidence that Palestine will need us to raise our voices in protest and advocate for their physical, emotional, and spiritual health and well-being for the foreseeable future. Even in the best of circumstances, the infrastructure of the country has been decimated. Muslim youth advocates in the U.S. and Canada also need our attention, support, and protection as the pro-Israel forces unleash a barrage of attacks on their efforts to give voice to the needs and stand up for the cause of justice, security, and peace.

May Allah SWT watch over and protect our brothers and sisters in Palestine; provide relief and resources to address the physical and emotional trauma of the ongoing atrocities; comfort, cure, and bring patience to those who are suffering from loss and injuries; end the occupation of their land and bring just leadership to the region; and take those responsible for the injustices and carnage to full account in this life and the Hereafter. Ameen.

End Notes

1 Israel-Gaza war in maps and charts: Live tracker

2 Debate over political response to Gaza genocide marks pivotal moment for Muslim Americans – Mondoweiss

3 Forty-one students arrested, booked within University Hall following second sit-in demanding divestment, ceasefire - The Brown Daily Herald

4 Three students expelled following Student Accountability hearings, faculty criticize university response - The Vanderbilt Hustler

5 Students suspended for storming Pomona president’s office

6 Backlash as USC cancels valedictorian’s speech over support for Palestine | US universities | The Guardian

7 Tell USC To Reinstate Muslim Valedictorian's Speech, Reject Anti-Palestinian and Anti-Muslim Hate

8 What Is Really Going On at Columbia University?

9 NYPD arrests over 100 at pro-Palestinian protest at Columbia University

10 2024 Civil Rights Report: Fatal: The Resurgence of Anti-Muslim Hate

11 The Palestine Exception

Zahirah Lynn Eppard is the managing editor of the Muslim Home parenting newsletter project. As Sound Vision’s Director of Education, she has also spearheaded the production of more than 500 online classes serving children ages 3-12 in the Adam’s World and Colors of Islam Clubs. Eppard has also worked in the field of education as a teacher, homeschooler, and Islamic school principal, as a marriage and crisis intervention counselor, and as a lobbyist and social justice activist. She lives with her husband, children, and grandchildren in Maryland.

Add new comment