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An Open Letter to Selective Activism

Writer: Hiba Sohail


After years of being one of the select few people on my Instagram that would constantly post about politics, 2020 might just be the year everyone becomes a social justice warrior. After radio silence from my own friends about nuanced topics pertaining to race, gender, and religion, I’m finally seeing petitions and donations going around. I’m thankful for this peaked interest in Muslim countries and politics that mainstream media ignores in the U.S. Except, they’re still selective enough to coddle each individual’s own biases. Reposting threads doesn’t require any thinking on our behalf, it doesn’t require trying to educate ourselves, and it certainly doesn’t require even a semblance of understanding - it needs to be trending and it needs to be aesthetic enough to fit into our personas.

Yemen has been going through a civil war, US & UK imperialism, and a Saudi-led famine and war for the past five years. I have never seen anyone non-Muslim post anything about it - until two weeks ago when it suddenly had enough cute infographics to break it down for them - and even they were simple and did not challenge non-Muslim beliefs about former president Barack Obama or the Islamophobia that led to this crisis’ erasure. Suddenly, there are non-Muslims asking us “why is no one talking about Yemen?” Muslims were. We are. And we will continue to do so when you get tired of it. My question is: do you know the pictures of the starved Yemeni children you’ve been posting are three years old and they are likely dead now? Do you know that Yemen isn’t just a trend? Will you stop thinking about it once the trend fades? Will you remember Yemen as a country with rich culture and vibrant architecture. or will you remember it as the crisis you used to seem woke?

I am always messaged with the same excuses: “I wasn’t educated enough.” “I didn’t care enough about politics until now.” “I didn’t know about it.” You were educated enough to post about “GIRL PWR” quotes and how much you hated Trump. You chose to ignore the Muslims you knew and their pleadings to pay attention. It would have taken two seconds to screenshot their much more complex explanations and share it on your own platform. It would have taken a few minutes to read up on your own. You didn’t because somewhere deep down, you thought we were being biased - you didn’t care because it didn’t affect you.

This selective activism - this tendency to cherry-pick which Muslim (or even broader POC) crises and issues to be activists for - is harmful. We can see right through it. We know you mean well, but at this point it seems extremely performative, to make yourself feel better about your woke-ness. I saw multiple people post about Malala graduating from Oxford, but they have never engaged in learning about how the Taliban came to power (hint: it was America). To only talk about Pakistan when it comes to women’s rights is borderline Islamophobic - you have not even tried to talk about Islam to your fellow Muslim peers, and you certainly have never even tried to learn the post-colonial consequences of the British Raj on South Asia. If you raised your voice for Yemen, do the same for Palestine. But most of you won’t - because you’re too scared to delve into something that would expose your own bias and nationalism. Others won’t because they don’t feel like they have to.

Let me use a more personal experience to highlight this gap in intersectionality. The only time anyone would ever come to talk to me about my short essays on Kashmiri history, politics, and the decades-old conflict, was to confirm their own arguments against Kashmiri autonomy and further propagate their Hindu and Indian nationalism. It was to tell me that India’s claim on Kashmir was more valid, it was to tell me that I should be more careful when talking about the Indian soldiers that do nothing but brutally terrorize my people, it was to mock an entire people’s sufferings by justifying an entire genocide in the name of patriotism. Okay, let’s for a second say Kashmir is India’s and pretend that a land can belong to anyone but its natives. Where were you when Article 370 was revoked? When a communications blockade and lockdown were imposed? When Kashmiris were killed (this year and since 1947) and protestors were thrown into prison? You were quiet. And I know why. Because it didn’t affect you. It didn’t matter to you because nothing was threatening your beliefs and nationalism then. You thought your country “won” and therefore, turned a blind eye to the sufferings of a majority-Muslim region.

Stop asking me to explain our “side.” You are implying that we are being biased because it has been ingrained into us that objectivity and passive-ness is the only way to prove our “arguments.” Objectivity is a white myth; it was created to counter centuries of colonization and to defend imperialism. Do not fall victim to Eurocentric ideals: our emotions, our bodies, our land has been plundered by the same people and you (regardless of ethnicity) benefit from anti-Muslim propaganda when you actively take part in it by asking us to be less biased.

There are no excuses anymore. To truly care about one another and practice empathy, we have to fight injustice everywhere, against anyone - not just the handful of conflicts that bolster your woke-ness meter. I don’t know how to explain to you to care about people. Kindness is necessary and standing in solidarity with Muslims is crucial but because for far too long, we have been buried under white saviors and Islamophobia. But as a word of caution, do not take up our space. Do not pretend to be the experts on Yemen, Kashmir, or other Muslim crises just because you shared one post. Don’t be my white South Asia professor who thought he had enough credibility to teach South Asian narratives as subaltern and to downgrade Muslim struggles and fights as another typical example jihad. At the end of the day, only Muslims live our realities and with our identities. Be our allies but stop pretending to be our spokespersons - you have taken the mic away from us for centuries, you have yanked our seats at the table because you own the table.

So when Muslims say we’re angry about you constantly ignoring us, don’t tell us to open a safe dialogue with you when we see you swipe past our stories, giving a pity like on our posts, and refuse to unlearn anti-Muslim tendencies. And the thing is, it isn’t my job to personally reach out to you to educate you. It isn’t any Muslim’s job to dedicate the time and space needed to grasp these concepts. Read what we’re saying. Click through what we post. The internet is free. Ask for recommendations on what to read, watch, and listen but don’t ask us to teach you everything or tell you why we think our “side” is valid. Unlearn your biases. Don’t come with whataboutery, what-ifs, and propaganda to my inbox. I have no patience for it, especially when I have written out everything about things that matter to me pretty clearly.


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