In Sydney, Australia on Dec. 15, a man dressed as a Muslim cleric took a number of people hostage in a busy café. Australian police were able to kill the gunman and thereafter freed the hostages. Two hostages died in the incident.

In the aftermath of this crisis, Muslims in Australia feared they would be subject to hate crimes, as is common in the aftermath of such events. Australian Rachel Jacobs was sitting on a public train when she noticed a Muslim woman begin to remove her hijab, the Muslim headscarf, as a result of this fear. Jacobs ran up to this Muslim woman at the train station and told her to put the hijab back on, and reassured her by saying “I’ll walk with you.” The Muslim woman began to cry and hugged Rachel in appreciation. Jacobs wrote about the incident on Twitter, which resulted in the hashtag #illridewithyou. Australians tweeted the hashtag with offers to ride the train with Muslims to offer them a sense of safety. The tweet trended worldwide, because people were touched by these acts of kindness and responses by the Australians.

Although this is not the only form of activism necessary to create change, the first battle is always awareness. Social media is bridging the gap between what major news sources write and the general public opinion.

Some people may think that activism through social media is not true activism, but positive responses to Twitter activism prompted major mainstream news sources to cover it as a legitimate form of activism. In this way, news sources turned away from arguments from people that view the Islamic doctrine as inherently violent and turned toward talking about the problems of anti-Muslim backlash, recognizing Islamophobia as a problem. They encouraged peace and solidarity with these Muslims, and went a step further by encouraging people to take action by offering help to Australian Muslims.

As a Muslim woman who wears hijab, I am grateful for people like Rachel Jacobs. My hijab is a symbol of a choice that I made and a reflection of my beliefs. In all honesty, it is my favorite part of my religion and it pains me to see that someone could fear so much for their own life that they feel forced to take it off. Some may assume that every person who wears hijab is forced to by someone else, making it difficult for me to explain that, as an American-born Muslim, I freely choose to wear my hijab. While I fear the possibility of hate crimes during times such as these, I also feel that people are becoming more and more aware of the difference between Muslims and extremists.

Social media activism played a role in spreading both awareness and support for the protests in Ferguson and against police brutality. Protesters live-tweeted with hashtags like #PrayforFerguson and #BlackLivesMatter. Again, the prevalence of social media made it so major news sources could not ignore Ferguson and its ties to racism. Instead of treating Ferguson as an isolated case in which only one town was affected, it became recognized as part of a greater national problem. Whether or not this would have happened without social media can only be speculated, but it did make the news travel much faster through average people witnessing the protests.

In addition to this, it attracted awareness and support from celebrities and athletes like Detroit Lions running back Reggie Bush and many others from the NFL, as well NBA players such as LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, who all wrote “I Can’t Breathe” on their shirts during pregame warm-ups. This was originally a hashtag on Twitter as a tribute to Eric Garner’s words as he was tackled by police officers. These athletes’ actions brought a new group of people into the conversation.

As a Muslim, the hashtag #illridewithyou warmed my heart. It gave me hope that maybe more people see Islam the way I see it, or maybe the world is slowly starting to realize the difference between Islam and people who use the name of Islam for their own agendas. I cannot speak on behalf of African Americans who have been subjected to racism, but my hope is that the awareness spread via social media about police brutality made them feel that someone is speaking out for them.

Social media activism can be a catalyst for change and the beginnings of much larger movements, as anyone with Internet access can write their opinion and share it with a large audience. This gives people who may have been previously overlooked the power to speak their mind, particularly young people. This can cause an overwhelming sense of community and solidarity, giving people a sense that there are others that agree with their viewpoint as well. Social media allows a post to travel from one end of the world to another, in a matter of seconds, connecting the globe and allowing solidarity to be spread.

Rabab Jafri can be reached at rfjafri@umich.edu.

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