YLI Reflections: Combating Islamophobia with Rupa Palanki

My high school history teacher, quoting Mark Twain, often said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” For centuries in the United States, minority groups, ranging from Eastern European immigrants to Japanese Americans, have faced discrimination from more established populations due to a sense of “otherness” that they are invariably perceived to disseminate. This has resulted in dark chapters of history in a nation that prides itself as “the home of the free and the brave.” The recent rise in hatred against Muslims is just another iteration of the same story.

With the 9/11 attacks happening only three years after I was born, life, as I know it, has included a constant undercurrent of backlash in the United States against Muslims. At present, the current administration continues to relentlessly engage in anti-Muslim rhetoric and news headlines continue to blame Islam for select acts of violence perpetuating false, negative perceptions of the Muslim community. At school and in my city, I have personally witnessed how lack of a nuanced understanding breeds bigotry and discrimination. Many people in my hometown in Alabama have never left the state or interacted with Muslims before, and their bias towards Muslims stems from stereotypes that have been perpetrated over generations. And often at college, I am the first South Asian American that my peers have conversed with for an extended period of time, leading them to ask questions about my culture, religion, and language or mistakenly identifying me as Muslim instead of Hindu.

Because of this personal exposure to islamophobia, I developed a desire to better understand the phenomenon and to equip myself to combat it within my community. This, in part, was what motivated me to apply for SAALT’s Young Leaders’ Institute last summer. During the training in Washington D.C., I developed the organizational and leadership tools necessary to carry out effective change. Speakers like Noor Mir and Deepa Iyer shared fascinating insights on different aspects of islamophobia that reinforced the importance of understanding it in the context of institutionalized racism like anti-blackness and colonialism, as well as provided meaningful insights on the resilience and solidarity necessary to work in the social justice field. I appreciated the opportunity to meet activists and student leaders from other colleges and the opportunity to discuss the specificity of our experiences as South Asian Americans. I had never really had the opportunity to explore my identity as a South Asian American so extensively before.

This propelled me to begin to shape my own project that I carried out over the course of the academic year to work against biases within my college community. This spring, I worked in conjunction with other South Asia Society members at the University of Pennsylvania to plan a Symposium for Awareness of South Asian Issues (SASAI), a week-long intercollegiate conference to create awareness for social justice issues and to encourage activism in its many facets. The week’s events included a keynote address from 2014 Miss America Nina Davuluri, a fundraiser for a nonprofit organization fighting malnutrition in South Asia, and a series of discussions covering social issues like islamophobia. With a mix of both fun cultural programming and deep political conversations, SASAI encouraged participation not only from a diverse range of South Asians but throughout the minority community at Penn. By the end of the week, we found it inspiring to see that our efforts to make our campus a more inclusive space for all were rewarded.

Photos from the awareness symposium Rupa helped organize in the University of Pennsylvania.

As the incredibly passionate, intelligent, and socially conscious individuals that made up my Young Leaders’ Institute cohort carry out their projects over the course of this year, I hope to see visible change within the communities that they target, just as I hope that my actions have spurred. However, our work cannot be done alone. As President Obama notably wrote in his final message to the American people as Commander in Chief, “America is not the project of any one person. The single most powerful word in our democracy is the word ‘We.’ ‘We the People.’ ‘We shall overcome.’” Together, we must push forward the fight against islamophobia, for this is not a matter of one culture or religion or language or social class; it is a struggle for achieving equality for all people.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT). South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) is a national, nonpartisan, non-profit organization that fights for racial justice and advocates for the civil rights of all South Asians in the United States. Our ultimate vision is dignity and full inclusion for all.