an american muslim teen on seeking hope in the face of despair

“We must love America enough to change it” – Bronx-born Hebh Jamal, 17, explains why resistance isn’t futile.

by Hebh Jamal
10 March 2017, 2:50pm

Hebh Jamal made her political debut on the cover of the New York Times; since then the Bronx High School student's activism has remained impressively high profile, whether staging a strike following Trump's inauguration, being interviewed by the Observer and Broadly or talking on a panel with Angela Davis. An advocate for education since she was 15-years-old, Jamal has become increasingly active as she attempts to execute her vision for a more conscious, harmonious, educated society - regardless what executive orders Trump's government try to pass.

In celebration of IWD, we asked this formidable female to tell us about her type of activism, and what she intends to do to challenge political Islamophobia.

"Oppression has always manifested itself in three ways: lack of safety, vulnerability, and intimidation through a set power structure. In America, the demonisation of Muslim Americans has been perpetuated by the media, Hollywood, and government policy. What I was in fact perplexed by was this new rhetoric that is seemingly founded on oblivion surrounding the current situation of America: that Muslims are newly under attack by public officials. The reality is that we have been under attack during both Democratic and Republican presidencies. The only difference now is that this presidency aims to demonise all marginalised groups at the same time.

The twin pillars of this country are white supremacy and capitalism. The underpinnings that have been the root of our issues since its foundation. I felt it was necessary to begin to speak upon my experience as a Muslim by starting off by saying that the struggles that we face as a nation is more connected than we'd often like to think.

My name is Hebh Jamal. I am a 17-year-old senior in high school, and I am a Palestinian Muslim American.

On December 15th, 2015, I was on the front cover of the New York Times. A picture of myself with Donald Trump's piercing through my living room television. Although the national debate around Islam's role in the world has been around since 9/11, the tension intensified with the rise of Trump. Weeks earlier, the Paris attacks took place, and a few weeks before that, the San Bernardino shootings. Every time CNN broadcasted updates of these tragic events, I secretly prayed that the names of the attackers weren't Arab, or have Islamic-sounding names, to no avail. Once details about their ethnicity surfaced, I knew the debate was not going anywhere.

On Wednesday, November 9th, as I boarded the train on my way to school, New York City's dreary weather and utter silence accurately represented our collective sadness at the looming thought of a Trump presidency. Because of the hijab I wore around my head, I was terrified of meeting an empowered Trump supporter. I feared for my African American friends, my immigrant friends, my Muslim family, my LGBTQ+ friends, my disabled brother. I feared for the future of America. I walked into school forcing back the tears. It felt in that moment that America had declared its hatred for me.

Islamophobia is something every Muslim has faced at some point in their lives. The generalisation is intended. We are put on a spectrum: either we are "moderate Muslims" or the "good ones," or we are "radical Muslims." The terms are an attempt - a successful one - to create terminology in order to associate the acts of a few to the billions of Muslims worldwide. It is easier to deny the humanity of a whole group than it is to give them dimensions and to see them as humans. I began this piece with a statement about white supremacy. I do so because there is an underpinning of hatred that this country was founded on. The idea is to maintain a homogenous society that rejects all groups that does not fit the top of the societal power structures. In our case: a white male.

Yet, in order to challenge this status quo, we must love America enough to change it. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, he speaks on the conditions of the oppressed and the oppressors: "The great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well." Freire inspires me on many levels. In order for us to truly find peace, we must fight for it. While my first inclination upon reading Trump's plans for his first 100 days in office was toward hopelessness, I quickly realised that, when my rights are under attack, the only thing I can do is resist. Walking into school the day after the election was almost a collective day of mourning. I walked into countless classes where students expressed fear for themselves and their loved ones, and I stood waiting for our teachers to tell us everything will be okay. But the reassurance never came. My identity as a Muslim American was under attack in a country I identified as home.

The response I tried to take was one of hope. It is the tale of two cities. It is the best of times and it is the worst of times. It is the worst of the times because throughout a time period of continuous devastation of the earth and its inhabitants, yet it is the best of times because grass roots organisers want to halt that devastation.

So what do we do? As activists the main concern is the steps we take to initiate that change. The most important thing I ever did in my life was to ask a question. I work with the organisation, IntegrateNYC4Me with the intention of combating school segregation. The reason I entered this work was due to an observation I had when visiting an integrated school in the city. The inclusiveness and diversity felt abnormal to me as I realised that my predominately white school did not share this. I simply asked - why? After reading about the conditions of public education, I realised that NYC has the most segregated school system in the country. Fast forward a few months after that observation, I help run one of the only student-run organisations in the city. The students involved took very similar approaches. Analyse. Ask. Answer. Act. IntegrateNYC4Me has been successful in mobilising students to transform the conversation as we finally have a seat at the table in this issue that affects us dramatically.

The steps may vary depending on circumstance, but if there were no curiosity, or challenge of the status quo, activism would be non-existent.

Last week, I had the absolute pleasure and honor of sharing the stage with Angela Davis at Columbia's Beyond the Bars conference. The pivotal moment of my life accompanied major questions I had about the world. Most prominently is how much we are invested in the current system. Angela Davis's unmatched resilience forced me to rethink how I think about the world.

As a young person, I have less to risk than adult advocates in my life. I can be radical and demand the things I believe are best for my generation without compromise. We need to stop thinking about technicalities, and start thinking about what kind of world would we like. It is only when we answer that question honestly can we have sustainable change."


Text Hebh Jamal

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