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Amid US Terrorism Fears, Signs Appear of a Rift Between Young Muslim and Black Women

In the wake of the San Bernardino and Paris terrorist attacks, some Muslim women in the US have found themselves wondering whether their fellow activists continue to support them.

by Nimmi Gowrinathan
Dec 30 2015, 5:05pm

A woman passes tents set up by student protesters at the University of Missouri in November. (Photo by Jeff Roberson/AP)

The day after 14 people were murdered in San Bernardino by a radicalized husband and wife, Shazi, a Muslim college student in Texas whose parents migrated to the United States from Pakistan, woke up shaking.

"Now the US won't just profile young Muslim men," she later told a friend. "They'll profile women as well."

Less than a week later, a sixth-grade girl in hijab was beaten by a schoolmate who called her a member of the Islamic State. Then Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a "ban on Muslims entering the United States."

Related: The Year of Black Lives Matter: A Movement With Mixed Success

Young Muslim women like Shazi have been some of the most active participants in recent campus protests demanding racial justice in the US. At places like the University of Missouri and Yale University this year, the core group of angry youth was made up of women and people of color who feel, as one activist put it, "uncherished." On the frontlines in their campus quads, megaphones poised, every shade of women of color joined hands under the banner of Black Lives Matter.

However, in the aftermath of the attacks in San Bernardino and Paris, fault lines of fear began to appear under that banner, most clearly between young Muslim and black women. Earlier this month, Sihem, a Muslim and an active organizer for Black Lives Matter, found herself in a Michigan university classroom discussion about Syrian refugees. She was enraged that many of her classmates were in favor of hindering or preventing asylum seekers from entering the US — and she was shocked that among those classmates were several black women whom she viewed as allies.

'We saw violence against the black community as something we should all fight against. We expected the black women activists would feel the same in the fight against Islamophobia, but I'm not sure yet that they do.'

"We need better protection from people who use terrorist tactics," one female black activist sitting beside Sihem said of the Syrian refugees. Was an activist against police brutality in the black community arguing for increased policing of the Muslim community? Sihem wondered.

As a Muslim student activist named Zuleha recently told me, "We saw the violence against the black community as something we should all fight against, that our parents should understand, something that affects all of us…. We expected the black women activists would feel the same in the fight against Islamophobia, but I'm not sure yet that they do."

As suspicion on one side and disappointment on the other threatens the ties between these two groups of women, one problem may be that, for this generation, solidarity was created only through sit-ins and social media. Though both powerful platforms for imagery and statements of resistance, they can't replace the deeper work required to build strong ties and identify a common enemy.

Analysts continually point to a growing "youth culture" for radicalization as they seek to explain why young Muslim women join and engage in violence with groups like the Islamic State. If young, disaffected Muslim women are, in fact, increasingly moving toward extremism, then the disengagement of young women from nonviolent activism and their confusion over which direction their anger should be facing is particularly worrying.

Related: Aung San Suu Kyi and the Violent Politics of Peace

However, among women like Sihem and Shazi who shy away from what they term "slacktivism" — the lazy activism fostered on social media — there are important conversations happening to locate the deeper points of intersection between young black women and young Muslim women. Amid these early signs of possible fracturing, the women having these conversations must work through their fear and suspicion to see that they are fighting against an image of themselves that they did not create, and one that leaves them vulnerable to a violent state.

By doing so, they will find their way past connections that are only skin-deep and find strength in political ties that bind them. After all, they are all at risk of surveillance and police brutality — whether they cover their heads with a hijab or a hoodie.

Nimmi Gowrinathan is a visiting professor at the Colin Powell School at City College New York. Follow her on Twitter: @nimmideviarchy

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