Posted on December 28, 2023

Young U.S. Muslims Are Rising Up Against Israel in Unlikely Places

Tim Craig and Clara Ence Morse, Washington Post, December 25, 2023

As she watched the conflict in Israel and Gaza unfold this fall, 17-year-old Asmmaa Zaitar finally had enough. She decided to organize a protest in support of the Palestinian cause in a very unlikely place — a courthouse in Huntsville, Ala.

Initially, Zaitar, a second-generation Palestinian American, was terrified that no one would show up. Zaitar knew it was a conservative town better known for divisive debates over Confederate monuments than for protests against a war overseas.

But as the rally began, dozens of fellow Muslims, including women wearing headscarves, trickled into the town square in late October carrying signs decrying Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip. Local media showed up, and Zaitar knew she had succeeded in connecting her city — and its growing Muslim population — to a conflict halfway around the globe.

“People now know there is a Palestinian voice in this city,” said Zaitar, a student at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. “Everyone has a voice and can say whatever feels right and fight back using our voice.”

Across the nation, from the Deep South to Appalachia and relatively rural communities in the Midwest, protests in support of the plight of Palestinians are springing up, showcasing the continued spread of the U.S. Muslim population into the country’s heartland. Children of refugees from Muslim nations organized many of the demonstrations, evidence of a political awakening among a new generation of young Americans who are helping to shape U.S. public opinion in support of a cease-fire in the Middle East.

In the process, the antiwar rallies in places such as Huntsville, Oxford, Miss., and Boone, N.C., are creating a sense of community among Muslims who only recently would not have dreamed they could pull off such gatherings. Now, they vow to continue their activism to influence the public debate while showcasing the emerging political power of American Muslims.

“Just because we live here in the U.S. doesn’t mean we are isolated or separated,” said Hammad Chaudhry, 24, a second-generation Pakistani American who helped organize several pro-Palestinian demonstrations at Appalachian State University in Boone. “We live in a globalized world where the tiniest thing somewhere can have a massive impact somewhere else.”

The burst of activism — which Muslim scholars said would have been unthinkable just a decade or so ago — is rooted in the broad spread of Muslim families throughout the United States.

From the first major waves of migrants to the United States in the 1970s through the 1990s, Muslims tended to cluster in just a handful of states, including New York, California and Michigan.

Like many immigrant groups, over time some moved elsewhere in search of jobs and opportunities. More recently, many new refugees from Muslim-majority nations have settled directly into states in the South or Midwest in hopes of finding more affordable housing.

A 2017 analysis from Pew Research Center estimated that 3.45 million Americans are Muslim, three-quarters of whom are immigrants or the children of immigrants. Overall, the nation’s Muslim population is far younger than the overall U.S. population, with Pew finding 35 percent of Muslims were 18 to 29 that year, compared to 21 percent of the overall population.

Using data on religious institutions gathered by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, a Washington Post analysis found that 234 U.S. counties have seen an increase in the number of Muslim congregations since 2000, representing around 7 percent of counties nationwide. In 217 counties, mosque membership doubled between 2000 and 2020. And across the nation, the number of mosques has more than doubled since 2000, according to the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a research firm that studies Muslim communities.

Some of the most noticeable growth has taken place in smaller areas that are now seeing more young Muslims speak up about the plight of Palestinians. Huntsville, for example, now has four Muslim congregations with 3,935 members, compared to two congregations with 1,218 members in 2000.

Youssef Chouhoud, an assistant professor at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., said young Muslims are now “coming of age” and speaking out about Middle East politics in ways that prior generations of American Muslims were unable to.

Chouhoud, 40, an Egyptian American, said initial waves of Muslim immigrants were focused on securing jobs and settling into U.S. culture. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in particular, Chouhoud said, younger Muslim Americans felt an urgency to “fit in” and become “ambassadors for their faith” by going about their lives in nonconfrontational ways.

“It was a period where many Muslims were thinking we just need to get our house in order, and kind of make sure we grounded ourselves first and foremost because there was search for what it means to be an American Muslim,” said Chouhoud. “Now, the folks that are in college and high school, they are very comfortable in their own skin, and they are much more willing to raise their voice and protest with regards to any number of issues.”


As they step up their organizing, young Muslims have faced Islamophobia and hate-filled heckling.

In Huntsville, vehicles circled the protesters and called the demonstrators “rapists,” Zaitar recalled. Salma Treish, 21, who helped organize the protest at Appalachian State, recalls that some people drove by “yelling degrading things.”

Demonstrators in both cities, however, said their own experiences with Islamophobia have been rare.

“I know this can be considered a more conservative area, but in my personal experience, dealing with people more conservative than I am, they have mostly been willing to listen to what I have to say,” said Treish, a second-generation Palestinian American. “And that is the beauty of all of it, the beauty of having all of these conversations has been pretty great.”