New Reviews

The 9/11 Generation: Youth, Rights, and Solidarity in the War on Terror

The 9/11 Generation: Youth, Rights, and Solidarity in the War on Terror. Sunaina Marr Maira. New York: New York UP, 2016. 320 pages. £23.99 (paperback).

In this important study, Sunaina Marr Maira traces new forms of solidarity forged in the active political work of young Muslims and Arab Americans whose coming-of-age coincides with the time when the question of political mobilization is particularly acute and loaded. With its rigorous attention to renewed debates about neoliberal democracy, multiculturalism, globalization, American imperialism and rights-based activism, The 9/11 Generation compels us to look more closely at how South Asian, Arab, and Afghan American youth targeted by the US state in the name of protecting Western nations against terror engage in post-9/11 political struggles. It is concerned with how these young people navigate social spaces that are divided along the lines of race, ethnicity, class, religion, or gender and mobilize against nationalist or imperialist discourses that are embedded in American public culture and politics. The book makes several insightful points about the challenges that Muslim and Middle Eastern American youth face as a result of state-induced fear, suspicion, and surveillance, and the accompanying decline in social justice and inclusive politics, as well as the kinds of responses and resistances to such attitudes and policies that are possible under post-9/11 conditions. These arguments are developed in the excellent Introduction and then illustrated across the volume’s six chapters through an ethnographic case study of interracial and interfaith youth activism in Silicon Valley and the Fremont/Hayward area of northern California.

Despite the attempts of the young people who were interviewed to enact and co-produce the mythology of Silicon Valley as a place characterized by multicultural tolerance and a positive vision of difference, a seemingly convivial oasis shielded from the backlash suffered by Muslim and Arab Americans after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the much celebrated liberal inclusiveness of this oasis is shown to have “coexisted with forms of racism that, in some cases, revealed the twisted logic of racial scapegoating and imperial militarism” (51). For Maira, underlying the presumed exceptionalism of the South Bay bubble is the dominant liberal narrative of the greater Bay Area’s multicultural openness and model minority success that obscures the ways in which racial and class divides persist in northern California for the 9/11 generation. The tensions and contradictions between the liberalism of official race politics and the stubborn persistence of traditional divisions in the Bay Area are the central focus of Chapter One, which sees them as inflecting the possibilities of youth activism. The chapter’s critical intervention in the idea of 9/11 as a catalyst for the politicization of a younger generation of South Asian and Arab Muslims in defence of a new, more public Muslim American identity is supplemented by careful consideration of how the line drawn by the state between moderate and radical Muslim Americans demarcates the boundaries of acceptable political involvement for these communities.

As the following three chapters attest, the different strands in the claiming of public identity by youth from Muslim and Middle Eastern American communities in the post-9/11 moment incorporate the growing mobilization of a universalist Islam as the basis for social justice activism and the intensified engagement with issues of national sovereignty and self-determinacy. These two major strands of protest politics converge, Maira demonstrates, on the terrain of neoliberal citizenship and rights. The entry of young Muslim Americans into the civil rights movement is discussed in Chapter Two, while the possibilities of human rights discourse producing an active, transnational solidarity centred on Palestine and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border are the focus of Chapters Three and Four respectively. Together, these chapters show that new forms of cross-racial and interfaith activism embraced by youth growing up in Silicon Valley and the Fremont/Hayward area since the events of 9/11 collude with the nationwide push towards particular bases of affiliation, such as liberal, multicultural inclusion, and often fail to link the US-led war on terror and its attendant policies to the ongoing neo-imperial hegemony of the United States.

Chapters Five and Six are fine analyses of the ways in which ideals of sexual equality, nationalism, secularism and democracy linked to Western liberal modernity are employed as key tropes in the post-9/11 culture wars, revealing attempts to construct and perform new Muslim and Middle Eastern youth identities to be contained by these tropes. Chapter Five seeks to chronicle what it means for Muslim and Arab American youth to come of age in a surveillance state, and how they grapple with the policing, disciplining and racial profiling of their political mobilizations and alliances by both internalizing and resisting what Maira addresses here as the “superpanopticon.” As she indicates in Chapter Six, liberal democracy in a post-9/11 world has all too often served to justify imperial intervention, but the critiques offered by these young people “did spill over into radical challenges to imperialism and white supremacy” as they have struggled, both in public and in quiet ways, to work their way through a politics “arrested by the available discourse of rights and inclusion” and to find an alternative political discourse (251, 253). Maira’s final plea is for post-9/11 solidarity to be based on such “deeper politics of resistance to the structure of the imperial state and neoliberal capitalism,” which would produce a form of political engagement that is creative, dynamic and enduring (259).

With its useful material and legitimate insights, The 9/11 Generation is a book to pause over. It is a thought-provoking and complex exploration of the often inherently contradictory ideologies that shaped the political subjectivities and solidarities of the new generation of young activists that emerged following the attacks of 9/11. Certainly, the volume deserves more careful copy editing than it received. But this omission aside, the challenges inherent in the post-9/11 moment “in which anti-imperial politics has been arrested and the vocabulary of the left . . . in so many cases deformed and defanged by the right” are well represented here (255). While the complicated position of South Asian, Arab, and Afghan American youth growing up in the post-9/11 era in the United States and elsewhere clearly requires further consideration, the book as a whole provides an invaluable and timely introduction to questions that should engage anyone interested in the impact of the global war on terror on Muslim and Arab American youth.

Blanka Grzegorczyk
University of Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin University, United Kingdom