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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Arwa Mahdawi

Will the ‘cancel culture’ crowd speak up about the silencing of Asna Tabassum? Don’t hold your breath

portrait of tabassum standing in outdoor university hallway
‘On Monday, USC abruptly cancelled Asna Tabassum’s speech.’ Photograph: Courtesy Asna Tabassum

If you want to get ahead in life then I have some advice: keep your mouth shut about Palestine. Or, if you must say something, then make sure it is nuanced like – I’m just paraphrasing a former Mossad agent here – no Palestinian over the age of four is an innocent civilian and they all deserve to be starved to death. Certainly make sure you don’t use controversial words like “genocide” or “occupation”, even if those are accurate descriptions according to international law and UN human rights experts. Best to avoid considering Palestinians as humans altogether, rather think of them as Israel’s defense minister does – “human animals” – if you want to avoid unpleasantness.

Asna Tabassum, a first-generation south Asian American Muslim from near Los Angeles, is the latest person to learn this lesson the hard way. Tabassum, who is graduating from the University of Southern California (USC) with a major in biomedical engineering and a minor in resistance to genocide, was recently named her class valedictorian and due to give a speech at her May graduation. Giving a valedictorian address, in which a student reflects on shared experiences and imparts wisdom about the future, is a major honour. It would have been a high point in Tabassum’s academic life.

Then on Monday, USC abruptly cancelled her speech. Instead of being recognized for her academic achievements, Tabassum found herself in the middle of a controversy which brings together some of the most emotive issues of the moment: the war on college campuses, the anti-Palestinian assaults on free speech, and the one-sided nature of “cancel culture”.

USC, I should note, didn’t specifically mention Palestine or Israel when they took the unprecedented decision to cancel Tabassum’s speech. Instead Andrew Guzman, provost and senior vice-president for academic affairs, cited safety concerns.

“[O]ver the past several days, discussion relating to the selection of our valedictorian has taken on an alarming tenor,” Guzman explained. “The intensity of feelings … has escalated to the point of creating substantial risks relating to security and disruption at commencement. We cannot ignore the fact that similar risks have led to harassment and even violence at other campuses.”

It’s not clear whether Guzman was talking about Tabassum’s safety or the safety of other students. USC declined my request to clarify their official statement. But here’s a somewhat more straightforward description of what appears to have happened: campus pro-Israel groups trawled through Tabassum’s social media history in order to find posts that were sympathetic to Palestine and then proceeded to smear her with bad-faith accusations of antisemitism. Instead of standing up for a student that USC had recognized as exemplary, the university caved into pressure to silence her. The Council on American-Islamic Relations has called the decision to cancel the speech “cowardly” and the reasoning around safety concerns “disingenuous”.

What exactly did Tabassum say on social media? The issue appears to be a link on her Instagram page – which the student says she posted five years ago – to a slideshow written by someone else urging people “to learn about what’s happening in Palestine”. Part of this document – which, again, is not written by Tabassum –describes Zionism as “a racist settler-colonial ideology that advocates for a Jewish ethnostate built on Palestinian land”. Another part of the presentation argues that the only way towards justice is the abolition of the state of Israel and the creation of one Palestinian state where “both Arabs and Jews can live together without an ideology that specifically advocates for the ethnic cleansing of one of them”.

It’s perfectly valid to debate, and take offence, at the substance of the content Tabassum linked to. But cancelling her speech under the vague pretext of “safety” is disingenuous. Let’s be very clear: if Tabassum were pro-Israel and her Instagram linked to any of the very many genocidal things that the Israeli government had said about Palestinians, there is little chance her speech would have been cancelled. Jared Kushner, let’s not forget, was just at Harvard advocating for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. (Kushner said that he thought Israel should move civilians out of Gaza into the desert while it “cleans up” the strip. He added that the Palestinians should absolutely not have their own state and mused that waterfront property in Gaza could be very valuable.)

As Tabassum has noted, if this was about her safety, USC could have just hired security guards. Rather, she said in a statement, cancelling her speech seems to be about silencing her voice lest she – who, again, is a student minoring in the resistance to genocide program USC offers – say anything about the continuing genocide in Gaza.

“I am not surprised by those who attempt to propagate hatred,” Tabassum said in the statement. “I am surprised that my own university – my home for four years – has abandoned me.”

I am not surprised. While Palestine has always been a fraught issue, the suppression of pro-Palestinian voices has gone into overdrive after the Hamas attack on 7 October. Speak up about the genocide in Gaza, and you are likely to lose a job, an opportunity, or find yourself smeared as an extremist. In November, the artist Ai Weiwei, who had a show in London cancelled after tweeting about the war in Gaza, wryly noted that censorship in the west was “sometimes even worse” than what he faced growing up in Mao Zedong’s China. “Today I see so many people by giving their basic opinions, they get fired, they get censored,” he told Sky News. “This has become very common.”

People who support the attacks on Gaza seem free to say the most depraved and racist things possible about Arabs, Muslims, and Palestinians without facing any consequences whatsoever. The comedian Sarah Silverman, for example, shared (and later deleted) an online post arguing that it was OK to cut off water to the entire population of Gaza, which is very much a war crime. Her career has faced no consequences. A long list of American politicians have openly called for Palestinians to be slaughtered without seeing any real pushback to their speech. The British TV presenter Rachel Riley recently falsely blamed Palestinians for the stabbing attack in Sydney and has faced no career consequences at all.

The proliferation of dehumanizing language about Muslims and Palestinians has had violent consequences: there has been a rise in anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hate crimes across the US, including reported offenses on college campuses. There has also been a rise in antisemitism: a very real problem that shouldn’t be minimized or tolerated. What also shouldn’t be tolerated are the dangerous attempts by pro-Israel extremists to label any remotely pro-Palestinian speech, or any criticism of Israel’s actions, as automatically antisemitic.

Conflating the actions of the Israeli state with the Jewish people is dangerous and wrong, and yet this is precisely what many pro-Israel voices are doing in an attempt to suppress any support of Palestine. And this strategy is working. In the current climate, a US politician can call for Gaza to be “nuked” without being censured. Dare to do so much as wear a keffiyeh (a traditional Palestinian scarf) on a college campus, however, and pro-Israel voices will go on primetime television and accuse you of being a Nazi. Jonathan Greenblatt, the executive director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), recently told Morning Joe (and faced no pushback from the hosts) that wearing a keffiyeh was the same as wearing a swastika.

Even those who don’t give a damn about Palestinians should care about the suppression of free speech and the attempts to eradicate any mention of the P-word on college campuses. Certainly you’d think conservatives would care: the right are constantly going on about censorship in universities and campus safety. It’s a nonstop talking point on Fox News. Funnily enough, however, these free speech warriors don’t seem particularly concerned about censorship when it comes to Palestine.

What’s left out of these nonstop discussions of campus safety is this: there isn’t a single safe campus left in Gaza. Israel, with the unconditional aid of the US, has destroyed almost every kindergarten, school, and university in Gaza. It has killed at least 100 Palestinian academics. It has decimated every cultural institution. There are over 13,000 dead children in Gaza who will never have the opportunity of an education. You should not be able to talk about campus safety without mentioning the fact that, thanks to US-backed Israeli air strikes, every campus in Gaza is now a graveyard.

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