A Million Strong: Social media and American and European youth in the post 9/11 world

Social Media and American and European Youth in the Post 9/11 World

Some called it a new awakening that was long overdue. Others have deemed it a sign of things yet to come. For many young Muslims, the Arab Spring was inevitable. Amir Yehia, an Iraqi journalist, warned me in January 2011 that a domino effect was going to take place after Tunisia had launched the first revolt in the region. “The signs are there,” he said. “You just have to pay attention.” He was right. It was just a matter of time until the rest of the world was going to bear witness to the next chapter of human ingenuity that would unfold.

Under one banner, they sounded, “What do we want? FREEDOM! When do we want it? NOW!” The message is clear: What once was will no longer be. One by one, the Arab Spring is toppling the fortified walls of oppression. The chants resonate like that of any demonstration, with one exception – it is taking place online across virtual communities around the globe. “We support the cause. We want democracy, not hypocrisy,” said Hanan Alasfar, an active campaigner for the Syria First Coalition in New York. Like so many others, Alasfar is motivated to campaign against the acts of violence used toward protesters in her home country of Syria. Compelled by stories told by relatives and friends abroad, Alasfar feels that it is her duty to stand up for them and fight for their rights. She is not alone. This duty is one that is strongly felt by others who share a connection with those seeking freedom.

If there is one element of the Arab Spring that draws inspiration, it is not that it is simply fueled by a shared faith or one enemy. It is driven by a common goal: change. It is instilling change for today and paving a path that initiates a series of changes that will impact tomorrow. At the 10th anniversary of 9/11, we should ask ourselves just how much we as global citizens have changed and why continued change is needed to bridge some of our great cultural divides.


In my travels around the U.S. and the U.K., I’ve seen Muslim youths active in their aim to achieve change. Such change is evident in the increase in participation for online and direct action. Beyond the boundaries of the Middle East and North Africa, waves of local protests have also triggered within various American and British communities a direct response to the Arab Spring. In the U.S. and the U.K., it is not surprising to find a wide range of activism tied to the movement, as there are large Muslim communities in both countries, particularly in the sprawling metropolitan areas of Detroit, New York and London. “All of a sudden, the person on the streets had a voice – not only a voice, but actually had quite significant influence and power to bring about the kind of change that he or she wants,” said Anas Altikriti, CEO of The Cordoba Foundation. He added: “And, it’s absolutely magnificent to see that those who led those non-political movements were the youngsters – the young.”

Indeed, in the fight for power and justice it was the young people of the Arab Spring who spoke. Through social media, their messages were communicated to the world. As a leveraging and communications tool, social media fundamentally empower users. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman argued that everyone is considered equal with Web 2.0. Users have the ability to influence their communities and participate in a global arena regardless of their political and economic background. Since 2001, blogging activity, social cyber activism and citizen journalism have been on the rise. People are actively fact checking the news, reporting the news and seeking out alternative sources for information. No longer are they sitting idly by, waiting for the next story to break. They are searching for stories and are sometimes becoming part of a story as they immerse themselves in a cause.

During an anti-Assad/pro-Syria protest in New York City, I met Mervet Khalil, a local member for the Syria First Coalition who migrated to the U.S. from Syria. She represents a growing number of Muslims who are actively involved in the Arab Spring. In one breath, she explained, “This fight is for our rights … our basic human rights.” At that instant, others around us chimed in and said human rights extended to freedom of speech and the freedom to live without fear of oppression. Like so many others affected by the events of 9/11 and the Arab Spring, Khalil found solace in social media. She has been able to stand up for her beliefs without fear, communicate with family members abroad and participate in a grassroots effort in her new country to speak out against the violence that plagues his birthplace.

In both the U.S. and the U.K., as in many parts of the globe, social activism via social media is a fairly new concept. Ten years ago, social media was unknown to most general members of society. Content creation and the sharing of data through social platforms were not widely used due to lack of availability and affordability of resources. Technological and social evolution has since enabled people to progress in their use of technology to shape their societies.

In recent years, activists realized social media’s golden opportunities. Individuals could capture unfolding events at demonstrations with their mobile phones, upload video feed and send it out via World Wide Web. People celebrated the discovery of a voice and an outlet that is receptive to that voice. Social media could remove barriers and borders between countries and bring them whole. Activism grew from local grassroots efforts to global action. Banded together arm in arm, and smart phone to smart phone, youths today in many areas of the world are working as collective units to engage in a revolution driven by the hope for a more just system, equal opportunity and an improved quality of life. For many, the Arab Spring is not just a passing season; it is a historic moment that shapes who we are, who we aspire to be and what type of world we want to live in.


In the 10 years since the tragedy of 9/11, Muslims have borne witness to many changes in our global society. Immediately after the attacks, many areas of the U.S. and the U.K. were suspended in suspicion. It was not immediate xenophobia or Islamophobia, but rather the feeling of unease toward a weakened sense of security that created a wedge between members of the community. Muslims had a right to be cautious during the years after the tragedy, as there was a heightened level of fear among Westerners. Such fear was fed by the lack of knowledge and understanding of Islam, and of its cultural and historical beauty. With each passing year in the 9/11 aftermath, there has been a surge of growth in community programs that have helped unveil and educate people on the diverse cultures that celebrate Islam. Channels of discourse have also opened between nations and civic groups, granting opportunities for the development of healthy relationships. The media has expanded its coverage of the Middle East beyond that of war and conflict. There is now more indepth coverage of culture, religion, history, politics and geography than ever before. With the growth of social media as one of the most popular channels of communication, especially for activism and civic involvement, there exists a wealth of possibilities for bringing people from across the globe to share knowledge and exchange perspectives on issues that matter to them.

Indeed, the world has changed since 9/11. Muslims who once felt compelled to keep silent are now motivated to participate in the public sphere. They are encouraged to voice their opinions and share in the many discussions that are taking place in their community centers, schools and online forums. There is clearly a renewed sense of optimism, especially among the youth. With opportunities for dialogue and cultural exchange, some feel the future is full of hope. “We have a real chance now to make a difference. I did not feel this way ten years ago, but now it seems that people have really opened up and are willing to learn about me as I am willing to learn about them,” said Mohanned Farouk, an engineering student from the University of Missouri.

Social media may not have been the sole platform to give rise to the Arab Spring. Social media might have only played a minor part in the movement. Yet, in the 10 years that transpired since Sept. 11, 2001, we as a global community celebrate in the achievement of creating the open exchange of ideas. As we reflect on the 10-year anniversary, let us recognize the long journey we have taken to reach this point of collaboration and discussion across borders. At a time where fear easily destroys, it is the peaceful collection of diverse voices that restores. §

Dr. Maria Garcia is an assistant professor at the American University in Dubai. She has worked for the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and EADS. Garcia has a background in international journalism, international public relations, and conflict-crisis management.

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