Student Movements and the Potential for Social Change in the USA
Claremont Main Road Masjid
Friday 4th May 2018/17th Sha`ban 1439
I have just returned from a four-month teaching stint in the United States of America. Shortly after I arrived in the US, President Donald Trump completed his first year in office on 20 January 2018. The first three months of his second year in office turned out to be even more tumultuous and chaotic than the first year. Some people believe that Trump may not complete his four-year presidential term, which ends in 2020, but in politics one would be foolhardy to predict. While the appalling spectacle of the Trump presidency plays out in full glare of the world’s media, a most inspiring development is taking place at the same time, i.e. the emergence of an articulate and unrelenting high school student protest movement.
In this khutbah, I would like to applaud the courageous and vigilant young people of America who have stood up for tighter gun control measures during the past few months. These brave high school students are forging creative alliances with the #BlackLivesMatter and other social justice campaigns struggling to free American society from violence, institutional racism, and economic greed.
It might be useful to begin by briefly apprising ourselves with the events in early February that triggered this inspirational movement (For a useful insight into the genesis, goals and key youth figures in the Parkland student moment see; “#NeverAgain: A New Generation Draws the Line” by David Hogg and Lauren Hogg. Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2018).
On February 14 2018, a mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killed 17 people and maimed 17 other students making it one of the world’s deadliest school massacres. This tragic shooting sparked the formation of the National School Walkout student movement that vociferously took up the struggle to hold elected officials accountable for safer schools and to promote solutions to gun violence.
On 14 March 2018, exactly one month after the deadly Parkland shooting, students along with Women’s March Youth Empowerment organized an #Enough!NationalSchoolWalkout. The walkout had students, parents, and teachers leave schools for seventeen minutes (one minute for each person who died during the shooting) starting at 10:00am in their respective time zones. Hundreds of thousands of American high school students streamed out of their classrooms to honour the victims of the Parkland shooting and to raise awareness about school safety and the impact of gun violence. One of their key demands was that the US Congress pass legislation to keep schools, streets, homes, and places of worship safe from gun violence.
But this was only the beginning of a new wave of student activism against gun violence. Survivors of the school shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida organized two more protest action events. On 24 March 2018, the nationwide “March for our Lives” took place to increase the pressure on the US Congress and to unite the country under the objective of stricter gun control policies. The successful “March for our Lives” attracted close to two million protestors and was one of the largest organized marches in the US. While the gun control movement before the “March for Our Lives” was criticised for being led by mostly white upper-middle-class kids from Parkland, the events on the day of the March for our Lives broke through that criticism and united all Americans.
The march presented a range of new voices by echoing some the concerns of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The march included and gave voice to Black students, Latino students, and a host of minorities from cities and suburbs. Among them was eleven-year-old Naomi Wadler, whose soul-searching speech at the March was the most watched, the most downloaded, and the most talked about speech of the day. She tenderly exposed the limitations of the new high school protest movement in the US, with the following words:
I am here today to acknowledge and represent the African-American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper, whose stories don’t lead on the evening news. I represent the African-American women who are victims of gun violence, who are simply statistics instead of vibrant, beautiful girls full of potential. I’m here to say, ‘Never again’ for those girls, too. I am here to say that everyone should value those girls, too. (The Guardian, ‘Never again’: How 11-year old Naomi Wadler became a rallying voice of black protest by Lois Beckett, March 31, 2018. See: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/mar/31/naomi-wadler-the-11-year-old-helping-lead-a-protest-movement).
On 20 April 2018, the National Walk Out movement planned yet another walkout to commemorate the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre, an intricately planned school shooting that took fifteen lives including the perpetrators of that gun-related massacre. More than two thousand six hundred walkouts took place across the US with at least one in each state. The student led protest action called attention to the broken promise of “never again” because after Columbine, the mass shootings at schools and public places, not only continued, but also increased.
I would like to conclude my reflections on the high school National Walk Out protest movement in America, which is providing us with a renewed sense of hope for the struggle towards a more caring and just society, by briefly addressing two criticisms it has faced.
The first critiqued levelled at the movement is one firmly located in the gun lobbyists camp. They have argued that the high school protestors are too immature and inexperienced to be taken seriously. Even admirers doubt whether they will be able to lead a national movement for radical social change in America. Such patronizing views are not unique to American society. All societies are afflicted with the same infirmity. In South Africa we were exposed to it during the 1976 student uprisings and again during the #FeesMustFall student movement.
Here, it might be instructive to note that this condescending malady also afflicted the first generation of Muslims. When the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) appointed a young seventeen-year-old by the name of Usama ibn Zayd to lead a major expedition to Syria, which included some of the most illustrious companions, such as Abubakr and `Umar, many raised their objections due to Usama ibn Zayd’s age. The Prophet (pbuh) rebuked them and Usama’s mission was successful. Still not convinced by the prophetic foresight and wisdom of youth empowerment, and stubbornly persisting in their patronizing attitudes, immediately after the Prophet’s passing, some of the companions tried to persuade the newly appointed Caliph Abubakr to replace the young Usama ibn Zayd as leader of the army with `Umar ibn al-Khattab. Abubakr, however, did not relent to their pressure, since he understood the Prophet’s foresight, wisdom, and confidence in the promise of youth leadership (see Sayyid Qutb, In the Shade of the Qur’an, commentary on Surah `Abasa, chapter 80, verses 1-16).
The second criticism faced by the fledgling American high school protest movement is far more challenging and accurate. Credible social justice activists have exposed the duplicity of the mainstream media in the US. They have raised the pertinent question as to why the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which started in 2013, and was protesting unjust police shootings of black youth, was not provided the same media coverage as that of the Parklands high school student movement. The #BLM movement also began with young women in their 20’s and 30’s, but only exploded into national view in 2014 after police killed 18-year-old Michael Brown. Many of the protesters who filled the streets of Ferguson, were students, and like the students of Parkland, they were protesting gun violence — perpetrated by the police. This police use of gun violence often involved unarmed black suspects, in shootings captured on video.
The Parkland high school student movement is not responsible for this media duplicity and institutional racism in the US. Yet, the youth movement ought to confront these injustices head on, otherwise their struggle will end up bringing about mere cosmetic change. These Parkland students need to engage in a process of radical self-reflexivity, where they are constantly trying to live up to their ideals and embody the type of positive change that they are advocating. It is therefore encouraging to note, that the Parkland student movement is alert to this challenge and are working on forging tentative links with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. I am impressed by how well the Parkland students have already managed to manipulate the system and create conversations around gun policy that have slipped through the cracks of public discourse for decades. They will, however, have to do much more to confront institutional racism and other forms of structural and cultural violence, which pervades American society if they are to be successful in transforming society.
In conclusion, I have proposed in some of my previous khutbahs and writing, that student and youth led movements for social change is not alien, strange or incompatible with Islam but is in fact celebrated by the Glorious Qur’an (See: Al-Mizan, 2014, Volume 3 Number 4, newsletter of the Claremont Main Road Masjid). In Surah al-Kahf, Chapter 18, verses 13 & 14, Allah, the Sublime, edifies us by not only apprising us of the legendary story of the Companions of the Cave (Ashab al-Kahf), but more significantly revealing their identity, namely that they were youth.
نَحْنُ نَقُصُّ عَلَيْكَ نَبَأَهُمْ بِالْحَقِّ
إِنَّهُمْ فِتْيَةٌ آَمَنُوا بِرَبِّهِمْ وَزِدْنَاهُمْ هُدًى
وَرَبَطْنَا عَلَى قُلُوبِهِمْ
إِذْ قَامُوا فَقَالُوا رَبُّنَا رَبُّ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ
لَنْ نَدْعُوَ مِنْ دُونِهِ إِلَهًا لَقَدْ قُلْنَا إِذًا شَطَطًا
We shall narrate to you their story:
Behold they were youth who believed in their Lord:
And so we deepened their consciousness of the Right Way.
And We strengthened their hearts so that they stood up and proclaimed:
“Our Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth.
We shall invoke no god beside Him,
for (if we do so) we shall have uttered a blasphemy. (Q18:13-14)
It is my considered view that through these verses the Qur’an is exhorting its readers to be attentive to the fact that young people are more likely to challenge the status quo and become the drivers and levers for social change.
Surah al-Kahf’s unequivocal message acknowledges youth led social movements for change within our communities. The Prophet Muhammad’s example in appointing a young seventeen-year-old, Usama ibn Zayd as a leader over the elders such as Abubakr and `Umar are eminent examples from our tradition. If these messages remain unheeded then we squander our greatest potential for social progress. Ultimately, in the above verses the Glorious Qur’an as well as the Prophet’s example is advising us that our hope for social progress and our future lies in the youth.
The student led National Walk Out movement for stricter gun control in the US is awesome and deeply inspiring. Their success lies not only in the sustainability of their movement, but more importantly in their creativity to link their struggle to other social justice struggles in the US. Perhaps the Parkland High School shootings in February 2018 and the inspiring high school protest movement that it gave birth to was a tipping point. I, therefore, remain hopeful that the Presidency of Donald Trump is a wake-up call for America and the world. On the one hand, the Trump presidency prods and nudges us out of complacency. Trump starkly represents the structural and cultural violence of American and global society. Therefore, on the other hand, it forces American society and the world community to confront injustices around the world by unleashing a robust global grassroots social justice movement that holds great promise for the fashioning of a more caring and just world.
When I departed the US two days ago on May 2, tens of thousands of teachers in the conservative States of Arizona and Texas were engaged in a wave of strikes to demand a living wage. This is adding yet another critical layer to the growing social justice movement currently being activated by the Trump presidency.
We pray and make du’a that God, the Lord of Compassionate Justice, guides the National Walk Out and #BlackLivesMatter student movements, allows student movements to flourish across America, and enables them to reach their goal of achieving a safer environment and ultimately a more just and caring American society.