Analysis of Sunaina Maira's "The 9/11 Generation:
Youth, Rights, and Solidarity in the War on Terror"
Gunindu Abeysekera - September 11, 2021
In her book, The 9/11 Generation: Youth, Rights, and Solidarity in the War on Terror, Sunaina Maira uses ethnographic research to explore the various methods Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Muslim American youth engage in domestic and transnational politics post-9/11. Maira places these various activisms into conversation with each other in order to address which particular forms of political engagement were most preferred and “effective.” By doing so, Maira uses these nuances to create cross-racial links that foster understandings of intersectional solidarity where institutionally monitored and marginalized youth activism convene more broadly. Throughout her book, she makes ambivalent the seemingly categorical use of “9/11 generation” as a critique of the forced politicization of Muslim, Middle Eastern, and South Asian youth, but she also suggests the label underscores how the events of September 11, 2001 have objectively made their upbringings distinctively vulnerable in the United States. Furthermore, though she notes that “9/11 generation” can refer to youth across racial categories, Maira emphasizes that Muslim, Middle Eastern, and South Asian youth are the specific subjects that have been turned into the objects of the imperial state’s consequent and ongoing “War on Terror.” Maira makes this distinction in her introduction stating, “The War on Terror is a technology of nation making that produces youth as subjects that must be preserved and protected, as well as monitored, contained, repressed, or removed, if necessary through violence” (Maira 7). Her statement not only establishes the theme of her book, but also provocatively exposes the hypocrisies of the neoliberal state and its imperial projects.
To facilitate her research process and complicate this discourse, Maira offers two essential and overarching interventions. The first explores whether the framework of rights-based youth activism counterproductively feeds into the United States’ imperialist projects that use rights-based concepts to legitimize their occupation of the Middle East and the Americas. She asks, “Do civil rights coalitions and human rights campaigns opposing the War on Terror and the assault of civil liberties constitute an alternative or arrested politics?” (13). Maira’s second interrogation ponders similarly at the United States’ appropriation of activism but specifically in regards to cross-racial coalitions that have been absorbed by the imperial state to boast neoliberal multiculturalism. She asks, “Is it possible for cross-racial solidarity to become anti-imperial when the liberal, multicultural state seems to have so successfully co-opted movements challenging the state through a framework of political recognition and cultural and legal inclusion?” (13).
The first intervention culminates in Maira’s final chapter, “Democracy and Its Others.” The presumptive U.S. imperial logic asserts that rights-based movements for human, civil, women’s, and LGBTQIA+ rights can only manifest in a capitalist democratic society. To best articulate this hypocrisy, Maira points to the media attention and reaction to the Arab uprisings of 2011-2012, stating, “Forced to play catch-up with these popular Arab uprisings for democracy, the Obama regime had to confront the contradiction between the official U.S. rhetoric in the global War on Terror of promoting democracy… to create a ‘new Middle East’...” (234). Maira problematizes this notion of a “new Middle East”' and the phrase “Arab Spring” because they imply a recent surge in activism for human rights in the region, assuming “a new seasonal ‘awakening’ of a population not generally engaged in democratic revolt, erasing the long history of Arab struggles against colonialism, capitalism, and oppression” (235). This resonates with 9/11 generation youth advocacy, not only due to the transnational scope of the activism, but also because her text works as a reminder that Islamophobia is not a result of just 9/11, but rather, a symptom of years of U.S. and European intervention in the Middle East and North Africa during the 20th century. Maira’s fourth chapter, “More Delicate than a Flower, yet Harder than a Rock: Human Rights and Humanitarianism in Af-Pak,” offers a dynamic survey of Afghan youth and Afghan American refugee activism that grapples with the divisive US imperial logic of liberation against the Taliban. While Afghan youth sought to mobilize against the US imperial projects in the Middle East, they were met with counter rhetoric suggesting the occupation of Afghanistan is a humanitarian mission to rescue Afghan women. Furthermore, this straw man argument suggested that these youth activists did not care for the liberation of women from their native countries, making these leaders more vulnerable to hate and harassment in the United States. Consequently, when Afghan youth activists pointed to the United States’ role in the formation of the Taliban, American imperialists sought to invisibilize their efforts by claiming that the US protected Afghanistan from the Soviet Union during the cold war, making the war narrative about the preservation of capitalism over communism. Maira states “The point is not simply that the traumatic history of the Afghan refugee community is untold in the US, but that the biopolitics of sovereignty means that Afghans will always remain invisible as racialized subjects of colonialism, neocolonialism, and imperialism” (170-171).
Sunaina Maira’s second intervention is best engaged in her second chapter, “The New Civil Rights Movement: Cross-Racial Alliances and Interfaith Activism.” She presents a critique of the new post-9/11 civil rights movement stating that it “emerges from a genealogy of U.S.civil rights, based on race and citizenship, and articulates with a framework of national inclusion that draws on U.S. multiculturalism and the formation of a Muslim American politics that is legible in neoliberal democracy” (77). Maira explains that the underlying narrative and motive of civil rights activism is “fundamentally driven by an appeal to the nation-state as the arbiter of rights,” which is why Malcolm X and the Black power movement were critical of the civil rights movement in the 1960s (82). Maira also adds that this reliance on civil rights activism in and for the post-9/11 era counterproductively perpetuates a rift within Muslim, Middle Eastern, and South Asian communities as well because it creates a binary standard of “model behavior” for “Muslim-looking” people (83). Reflecting this chapter to Mahmood Mamdani’s article, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: A Political Perspective on Culture and Terrorism, which was published only a year after 9/11, we can further see how imperial projects labor to otherize Middle Eastern and Muslim activists. Mamdani unpacks the “good Muslim-bad Muslim” trope, which can be used with any systematically oppressed group of peoples, revealing how the implications of this rhetoric suggest that what makes the Muslim “good” or “bad” is their appeal to whiteness and white comfort. In activist spaces, “Muslim-looking” neoliberal activists use this binary as a tool to distance themselves from orientalist characterizations of a terrorist. Furthermore, Sunanina Maira shares how non-Muslim Middle Eastern and South Asian organizers made it a priority to educate their peers to not emphasize their “non-Muslim-ness” when faced with Islamaphobic discrimination. In doing otherwise, non-Muslim individuals would counterproductively suggest that discrimnation against them would be valid if they were Muslim. Ultimately, this divisive form of self-advocacy exacerbates the post-9/11 anti-“Muslim-looking” rhetoric and contributes directly to the colonial rule of “divide and conquer.”
I also compare Sunaina Maira’s 9/11 Generation to another of her own pieces from 2004, Youth Culture, Citizenship and Globalization: South Asian Muslim Youth in the United States after September 11th. I chose this article of hers because it was released more than a decade prior to 9/11 Generation, and her endeavors are the same though the methodologies differ. In this essay, Maira also uses an ethnographic approach, but instead of exploring how “Muslim-looking” youth resist citizenship from the imperial state, she examines how they actually navigate their ambiguous post-9/11 positioning to establish different forms of citizenship. Her study of South Asian-American high schoolers evokes an interesting dialogue of diaspora and citizenship because the subjects explain how they grapple with the scapegoating of Muslims and being further “othered” in a country they have only known with performance of their native cultures. The last of four forms of citizenships she focuses on is “dissenting citizenship,” which I choose to focus on for its closer relevance to 9/11 Generation. In her section on dissenting citizenship, Maira provides a short statement regarding one of her ethnographic subjects stating, “Aliyah… chose to write the words “INDIA + MUSLIM” on her bag after 9/11” (Maira 226). This short anecdote exemplifies that though this may be a small gesture, activism against the United State’s imperial projects and post-9/11 anti-”Muslim-looking” rhetoric takes on a multitude of forms. Sunaina Maira’s ethnographic works reveal this and the existence of various ways of resistance, alone, radically challenge the binaries that white supremacy imposes on people of color around the world.