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The Shadow of ‘Genocide’: Indian American USC Student in National Spotlight After Her Valedictorian Speech is Cancelled

The Shadow of ‘Genocide’: Indian American USC Student in National Spotlight After Her Valedictorian Speech is Cancelled

  • Asna Tabassum, the hijab-wearing biomedical engineering major, with a minor in resistance to genocide, slams her ‘home of four years” for abandoning her.

University of Southern California (USC) student Asna Tabassum has gained national spotlight after valedictorian speech at next month’s graduation was cancelled. While the authorities claimed their decision was prompted by fear of violence, her supporters allege it was to stifle her views on the “genocide” in Gaza. Since the news broke this week, the young Indian American student has been interviewed by several news outlets including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and CNN. Overnight, she has not only become a symbol of American angst triggered by Israel’s war against Gaza, but also an exposé  of hypocrisy around free-speech on American campuses. 

In an online campus-wide letter sent on April 15, USC Provost Andrew Guzman cited security concerns for the decision to cancel Tabassum’s speech. “Over the past several days, discussion relating to the selection of our valedictorian has taken on an alarming tenor.,” he said. “The intensity of feelings, fueled by both social media and the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, has grown to include many voices outside of USC and has escalated to the point of creating substantial risks relating to security and disruption at commencement.”

In her interview with Abby Phillips of CNN on April 16,  however, Tabassum appeared calm and composed, as she put forth her views on the university’s decision and her commitment to human rights and equal treatment. She believes that her choice for minor — resistance to genocide — had led to her opponents being mistaken about her views and her studies. The program, an official minor at USC, requires students to enroll in five courses from a list that includes several on the Holocaust as well as on the Armenian and other genocides. 

USC notes that resistance to genocide is “an interdisciplinary minor” that “draws upon USC faculty in 11 academic units researching the causes, results and representations of attempted genocide as well as resistance to genocidal mass violence.”

The backlash against Tabassum began when pro-Israel groups attacked her because of a link on her Instagram profile to an “antisemitic” website. However, as the LA Times noted, Tabassum did not create the website — “Free Palestine Carrd.” According to the publication, “the website features a photo of a woman raising a Palestinian flag above plumes of smoke during a 2018 protest near the Israel-Gaza border.” 

There’s also a series of links explaining “how to learn about what’s happening in Palestine,” the LA Times said. “The links include statements that Zionism is a ‘racist settler-colonialist ideology’ and that founders of Zionism thought ‘Palestinians needed to be ethnically cleansed from their homes.’” The website also includes “proposals for two-state and one-state solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Tabassum’s Instagram account is now set to private, while her LinkedIn profile doesn’t exist. 

Speaking to CNN Tabassum said she doesn’t think that her minor or the link on her Instagram, “should actually be looked in the confines or in the vacuum of the events after October 7th.” Noting that this is something she has “always stood for,” she added that “this is something that USC has taught me to stand for in terms of human rights.”

She also gave a shoutout to her parents for being selected valedictorian. Describing it as “an honor of a lifetime,” she said it is an “evidence of  of their tireless work, love, support and the values and the characteristics that they’ve instilled in me for 21 years.” She was named valedictorian of her high school in May 2020 but “due to the pandemic, she never got to deliver a speech,” she told CNN.

A statement issued by Tabassum to Council on American–Islamic Relations (CAIR), where she slams the university for its decision, also reveals more about her. She starts by saying she was “both shocked by this decision and profoundly disappointed that the university is succumbing to a campaign of hate meant to silence her voice. However, she is “not surprised by those who attempt to propagate hatred,” but she is “surprised that my own university—my home for four years—has abandoned me.”

She says she “isn’t aware of any specific threats against her or the university,” because her “request for the details underlying the university’s threat assessment has been denied.” Additionally, USC is not providing “any increased safety to be able to speak at commencement,” she said. These have raised “serious doubts about whether USC’s decision to revoke my invitation to speak is made solely on the basis of safety,” she wondered. 

The New York Times noted that graduation speeches could be the next point of contention for the free-speech debate, which has overwhelmed many universities since the Israel-Hamas war began. University officials have had to handle vociferous debates over pro-Palestinian student protests, which many Jewish students and alumni say often veer into antisemitism. Protesters say that the pushback is an attempt to censor their political beliefs.”

Hijab-wearing Tabassum told LA Times that she feels singled out by critics for her race and faith. “I’m not ignorant of who I am or what I believe in and the time we are in or the place we are in,” she said. “I am not ignorant of the context or environment, at the end of the day.” She said she is interested in going to graduate school but, for now, is focused on her final exams the first week of May. She declined to say whether she will still attend the graduation ceremony.

Her “passion for service stems from the experience of my grandparents, who were unable to access lifesaving medical technology because they had been displaced by communal violence,” she told LA Times. “I am a biomedical engineer who learned the meaning of health equity through developing low- cost and accessible jaundice for babies whose darker skin color conceals the visual yellowing of their complexion.”

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As a student of history who chose to minor in resistance to genocide, she has  “learned that ordinary people are capable of unspeakable acts of violence when they are taught hate fueled by fear,” she said in the statement. “And due to widespread fear, I was hoping to use my commencement speech to inspire my classmates with a message of hope. By canceling my speech, USC is only caving to fear and rewarding hatred.”

Tabassum credited USC for inspiring to “think outside the box” — a “mindset she cultivated there. It was this “very quality that contributed to my selection as USC Valedictorian,” she continued. In that capacity, she she “implored” her classmates “to think outside the box, to work towards a world where cries for equality and human dignity are not manipulated to be expressions of hatred. I challenge us to respond to ideological discomfort with dialogue and learning, not bigotry and censorship. And I urge us to see past our deepest fears and recognize the need to support justice for all people, including the Palestinian people.” 

CAIR also condemned the decision to cancel the speech as “cowardly” and demanded that U.S.C. reverse it. “The dishonest and defamatory attacks on Asna are nothing more than thinly-veiled manifestations of Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism, which have been weaponized against college students across the country who speak up for human rights—and for Palestinian humanity,” read a statement by CAIR-LA executive director Hussam Ayloush. 

Meanwhile, several American Jewish publications, including Forward, have reported that the USC Shoah Foundation, “is downplaying its educational offerings” after Tabassum “touted her ties to the center.” In her statement she wrote that the minor in resistance to genocide is “anchored by the Shoah Foundation.”

However, the foundation has denied being involved in her minor. “Despite suggestions to the contrary, our Institute is not an academic unit within the university and we do not play a formal role in the degree path of any student,” a representative for the USC Shoah Foundation told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in a statement on April 16. “Recent claims of association with the USC Shoah Foundation are inaccurate and have led to confusion about our role, values, and mission.”

The foundation says its “core purpose is to give opportunity to survivors and witnesses to the Shoah —the genocide of the Jews — to tell their own stories in their own words in audio-visual interviews, preserve their testimonies, and make them accessible for research, education, and outreach for the betterment of humankind in perpetuity.”

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