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Meet USC Valedictorian Asna Tabassum: School Cancels Commencement Speech by Pro-Palestinian Student

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Amid widespread repression of pro-Palestinian voices on campuses across the United States, we speak to University of Southern California valedictorian Asna Tabassum, whose commencement speech has been canceled for what the university claimed were “safety” reasons after Tabassum became the subject of an online anti-Palestinian hate campaign led by pro-Israel groups. “When I had asked for details regarding the security concerns,” says Tabassum of learning about the cancellation, “I was offered no information and was told it was not appropriate for me to know.” Tabassum, a first-generation South Asian American Muslim graduating with a major in biomedical engineering and a minor in resistance to genocide, says the unprecedented cancellation of her speech has been “heartbreaking.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Today we’ll look at the repression of pro-Palestinian voices on campuses across the United States. In a moment we’ll look at Wednesday’s congressional hearings where the president of Columbia University was grilled for hours about accusations of antisemitism on campus. But we begin with the University of Southern California, which continues to be rocked by controversy after canceling the commencement speech of its valedictorian for what it claimed were “safety” reasons after she became the subject of an online anti-Palestinian hate campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now! co-host Juan González and I interviewed Asna Tabassum, who is a first-generation South Asian American Muslim on Wednesday. I began by welcoming her to Democracy Now!

ASNA TABASSUM: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, why don’t you give us the chronology of what happened? I mean, to be the valedictorian of this elite university, the University of Southern California, is such an enormous achievement. Can you talk about when you learned you’d become the valedictorian and when you learned you would be giving the speech at graduation? And what happened next?

ASNA TABASSUM: Absolutely. So, part of the selection process of becoming valedictorian is the willingness to give a speech during commencement. And so, when I got the call, I believe in the second week of March or so, it was during Ramadan, and I was incredibly happy to receive the honor and incredibly grateful. And that was the moment I also knew that I would have the chance and the opportunity to address my peers during commencement.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And when did you hear that the university had changed its mind? And who contacted you?

ASNA TABASSUM: Of course. So, I was contacted by the administration on Monday, actually, this past Monday, shortly before the statement was released, that I would unfortunately no longer be allowed to give the commencement address for the class of 2024.

AMY GOODMAN: How typical is that, Asna? Does the valedictorian always give the speech?

ASNA TABASSUM: Yes, as far as I know, in history of USC. And in fact, I asked the provost this himself, you know: Has this ever happened to a USC valedictorian? And in fact, I think we both agreed that, to the best of our knowledge, it has never happened before.

AMY GOODMAN: And what exactly did he say when he explained to you it was for safety reasons? Did he talk about — talk to you about what the threats are?

ASNA TABASSUM: So, that’s exactly the question here, is that I received no details as to what the security threats or what the security concerns were. You know, I heard that there were hundreds and thousands of emails sent to the university, but I was given no clue as to what the contents of these emails were, as well as, for example, the university had said that there were other security concerns in relation to having a big event such as commencement. But, you know, even details there were unclear. And so, when I had asked for details regarding the security concerns — for example, were they security concerns about me or my classmates? — I was offered no information and was told it was not appropriate for me to know.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, were you aware that pro-Israel student groups were targeting you on on social media, that a group called We Are Tov posted a photo of you on its Instagram account and claimed that you were, quote, “openly” — that you “openly promote antisemitic writings”?

ASNA TABASSUM: It’s honestly heartbreaking, yes. Once I was shortly — once I was announced on social media, through USC student media, it only took a few hours before such posts began circulating. And it launched a very generalized and, honestly, very hateful and disappointing campaign to remove me as valedictorian, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to the issue that wasn’t raised by the provost, but in your Instagram bio, you link to a pro-Palestine landing page that reads, in part, “learn about what’s happening in palestine, and how to help.” Some students took to social media to express their opposition to it due to the language on the landing page. The website states, quote, “zionism is a racist settler-colonial ideology that advocates for a jewish ethnostate built on palestinian land.” The website also states, quote, “one palestinian state would mean palestinian liberation, and the complete abolishment of the state of israel,” end-quote. Can you talk about that and talk about when you linked to that page, and your feelings about this?

ASNA TABASSUM: Sure. So, there are a few points that I’d like to clarify. The first is that a university and students have the responsibility to engage in productive and meaningful discussion. And we’re allowed to learn from one another’s ideas and express those ideas so that we can all grow. And I think that that’s the beauty of an academic institution.

But another factor that I’d like to bring up is that there are other form — there are other pieces of information in that link. You know, there are paragraphs and information relating to the two-state solution, as well, as well as the one-state. The sentence right after the one you just quoted talks about coexistence between Arabs and Jews. You know, there’s a lot of factors here. And my goal in putting the link in my bio is simply to inform my fellow peers in the small ways that I can. But, ultimately, what I want people to take away is for people to inform themselves, come to their own conclusions, and then advocate for what they believe in.

And so, in no way am I advocating for hate. I am only advocating for human equality and for the sanctity of human life when I say that Palestinians, as well as Jews, as well as Muslims and Armenians and anyone else who is invested in this conflict, has the equal right to life and the equal privilege of the fullest extent to life.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you tell us more about yourself? You’re majoring in biomedical engineering and minoring in resistance to genocide. What inspired you to follow these courses of study?

ASNA TABASSUM: This is my favorite question, especially because, you know, as you might know, I’ve been doing a lot of interviews recently, and I wish people more talked about my biomedical engineering major, as well, because I think it’s an important part of who I am and my worldview.

That being said, the way that I see my major and my minor working together, for the very same goal, is that, you know, my minor in resistance to genocide allows me to study the human condition at possibly one of its worst conditions, and then biomedical engineering is my way of learning technically how we can improve the human condition through increasing health accessibility.

And so, the ways that I specifically see this are, for example, when I learn about the Rwandan genocide or the Holocaust or various other forms of genocides and conflicts through my minor, I look at the ways in which healthcare and health are impeded and the ways in which the quality of life are impeded, so that I can build devices and health technologies, using my major and using the education and the information I learn in my major of biomedical engineering, to see how we can develop low-cost and accessible point-of-care devices, so that we can improve the ways in which people experience healthcare when they are at their most in need of healthcare.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about, if you were giving the speech — I mean, this speech would be given in May — right? — at graduation. So isn’t there still a possibility that USC could change their mind? What would your speech be? What would you say to the USC community?

ASNA TABASSUM: So, you know, I actually have not considered and actually started writing my speech. But, of course, this experience is informing me how I want to go about it. But, ultimately, my message is one of hope. I think something that I truly believe in, given my familial background and, you know, the way I was raised, is that education is such a privilege. And using the ways that we have learned how to learn, it’s incumbent upon us to look at the world and see what we see, and then take information and make conclusions so that we can change the world in the ways that we want to. And so, in accordance with my message of hope, I also want to do a message of inspiration, so that our graduates and my peers can feel empowered to take on issues of world concern and see themselves in positions of making change.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve talked about an online hate campaign against you. Can you describe more what you have received?

ASNA TABASSUM: Sure. You know, I’ve received incredibly disappointing comments. And I think it’s an unfortunate part of, you know, expressing who you are and expressing what you believe in. But I do want to call attention to the overwhelming support. And I think that anybody who is watching this unfold is seeing that various communities, from Muslim communities to Jewish communities to South Asian and first-generation American communities, all coming together to see this as something bigger and as something representative of a collective voice. And so, you know, while there is hatred out there, I do want to give my kudos to the people who have been seeing the inspiration and seeing the hope as this unfolds.

AMY GOODMAN: University of Southern California valedictorian Asna Tabassum. She joined us Wednesday on Democracy Now! after USC cancelled her commencement speech for what it claims are “safety” reasons after Asna became the subject of an online hate campaign.

Coming up, Columbia University president is grilled at a congressional hearing about antisemitism on campus, in what critics are calling the silencing of pro-Palestinian voices. We’ll be joined by two Barnard-Columbia professors. One of them signed an open letter from Jewish professors calling the hearings a “new McCarthyism.” We’ll also hear from students who have camped out on Columbia’s lawn. Stay with us.

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