Before there was the running around the school trying to figure out what the second fire alarm was for, before she spent hours trying to find out if her friend was okay, before America’s youth activism on gun safety reform became a national movement, things were ordinary for 18-year-old Sara Imam, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas (MSD) High School.
She was volunteering with an organization that supports development initiatives for children in underprivileged communities, had recently qualified for an entrepreneurship contest, and was beginning to hear back from colleges when Nikolas Cruz allegedly killed 17 and injured many more in a Feb. 14 mass shooting at Imam’s high school. Now added to that list is her activism with her classmates, who have been rallying for gun control reform.
“I’ve never been the most vocal of people when it comes to my opinions or what I believe in,” Imam said. “But this is something that has definitely affected me, and... it’s definitely different, it’s a lot more drastic than my activism before.”
Imam — who said she took to Twitter on the day of the shooting to try to locate her friend, Carmen Schentrup, who was killed in the shooting — eventually started using the platform to rally for gun reform. On March 24, she represented the March For Our Lives movement in Toronto, where she delivered a speech at a rally.
She was attacked on Twitter for her views like many of her classmates, she said, but some of the attacks targeted at her were different. Some were Islamophobic or anti-immigrant, she noted. Several tweets told her to “go back to your country,” Imam added, and connected violence with Islam.
“I actually took my last name off of Twitter because my last name is Imam and due to my last name, due to the very clearly Muslim relation, I received backlash from many people,” Imam said. She has since re-added her last name.
Imam’s activism comes at a time when Islamophobia has heightened in the country. According to a 2018 report by the nonprofit South Asian Americans Leading Together conducted by a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, instances of reported hate violence and “xenophobic political rhetoric” between Nov. 9, 2016 and Nov. 7, 2017, increased 45 percent compared to the prior year, with more than 8 in 10 motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment.
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While research about Islamophobia against women in the U.S. is not publicly available, a 2013 report by the University of Birmingham found that 58 percent of reported anti-Muslim hate incidents in the U.K. happened to women.
But despite the criticism, Imam wants to use her opportunity to speak up.
I’m Muslim and I have a voice and I’m going to use it in an issue that matters.
“We get a lot of backlash but the best thing we can do is bounce back from it and use it as an even bigger platform to say, ‘I’m Muslim, and I have a voice, and I’m going to use it in an issue that matters,’” she said.
“It doesn’t matter what background we are, or where we come from, or what we believe in as long as we’re fighting for the same cause and together we become one entity,” she added.
Imam’s support for gun control laws is representative of the greater American Muslim community. A February survey by the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) found that more than 90 percent of Muslim households support stricter background checks, and 70 percent support stricter gun laws in the U.S.
“It’s good to know that American Muslims stand with the rest of the country in supporting universal background checks in gun safety reforms,” Robert McCaw, director of government affairs at CAIR, said.
But some feel that American Muslims can have a bigger voice on this issue.
“I still don’t see enough conversation — and action — around gun reform from influencers within the American Muslim community, and that’s an issue,” Laila Alawa, founder of The Tempest, a global media company for diverse millennial women with a focus on Muslim women’s narratives, said. “We exist in an increasingly divided world, and it is antithetical to our roots as a community-first, grassroots-based, peaceful faith that gun reform is not a more potent and amplified issue.”
In addition to gun control, Imam also promotes ALS research funds set up in Schentrup's name. Her friend had wanted to become a medical researcher and find a cure for the disease, Imam said.
Not long before the shooting began, Schentrup had said, “Oh my god Sara why are you so depressing?” when talking about a poem Imam had written for their literature class, Imam recalled. It was “one of the last things” her friend ever told her.
“So in my activism, in the movement, I’ve taken upon me to do exactly the opposite and to be as positive as possible,” Imam said.
It is with that positivity that she wants to fight the Islamophobic comments on Twitter.
“For every one rude person there’s a hundred other kind ones,” Imam said. “And I think that’s an important thing to remember as we move along in this fight, we get a lot of hatred, we get a lot of battles, we get a lot of fights, but it’s important to stay positive.”
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CORRECTION (April 12, 2018, 5:06 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the last name of a survivor of a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Her name is Sara Imam, not Iman.