Linda Sarsour is one of the most prominent Muslim-American activists in the country. She stood alongside Bernie Sanders during his campaign and served as the executive director of the Arab American Association in New York, and as both a Palestinian-American and hijab-wearing Muslim, her role as a national co-chair of the Women’s March (the largest inaugural protest in Washington) is history-making. At a time when the United States government is seeking to ban and surveil Muslims, an uptick in hate crimes is slaughtering brown bodies across the country, and harassment is woven into the fabric of their American life, her voice as a non-violent activist is not just necessary—it is a pathway out of a very dark place.
“I will not respect an administration that won an election on the backs of Muslims, and black people, and undocumented people, and Mexicans, and people with disabilities, and on the backs of women,” she said in a rousing speech at the Women’s March. “Many of our communities, including my community, the Muslim community, has been suffering in silence under the Bush Administration and under the Obama administration. The very things that you are outraged by during the election season—the Muslim registry program, the banning of the Muslims, the dehumanization of the community that I come from—that has been our reality for the past 15 years. Sisters and brothers, if you have come here today as your first time at a march, I welcome you.” (Sarsour spoke at Jezebel’s Inauguration Panel days ahead of the march).
It is unsurprising that right-wing extremists and conservatives have sought to delegitimize an outspoken, hijab-wearing woman who remains sharply critical of policies that oppress Palestinians. They have lambasted Sarsour for using the word “jihad,” which means “struggle,” in a speech originally given to the Islamic Society of North America, a Muslim group which would understand the context. In 2012, when she tweeted, “Nothing is creepier than Zionism,” some branded her an anti-Semite. In May, alt-right conservatives like former Breitbart editor and notorious internet troll Milo Yiannopouolus protested Sarsour’s graduation speech at the CUNY School of Public Health, calling her a “Sharia-loving, terrorist-embracing, Jew-hating, ticking time bomb.” Conservative commentator Pamela Geller, whose offensive, hateful anti-Islam ads ran in the New York City subway system, called Sarsour “a pro-terror, vicious anti-Semite.” An op-ed in the New York Post dubbed her “NYC’s Queen of Hate.”
But in recent months, more mainstream publications like The Daily Beast, the New York Times op-ed page, NYTLive, and others have adopted similar criticisms about Sarsour that we saw first from right-wing extremists, offering up one-sided arguments that portray her as anti-Semitic due to her pointed critiques of Zionism; her support for boycott, divestments, and sanctions against Israel; and her experience as a marginalized Palestinian-American and Muslim woman. And certainly, some of Sarsour’s speech and tweets, especially, can be controversial and even vulgar: In a since-deleted tweet from 2011, she attacked anti-Islam activists Brigitte Gabriel and Ayaan Hirsi Ali—the latter a victim of female genital mutilation and refugee who has characterized Islam as “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death”—by saying, “I wish I could take their vaginas away.” But it’s also true that Sarsour has been repeatedly targeted for her identity as a prominent Palestinian-American Muslim. Most recently, she caught flak for tweeting that CNN’s Jake Tapper has “joined the ranks of the alt-right to target me online” after he described Black Liberation Activist Assata Shakur as a “cop-killer.” Though the tweet was widely interpreted as calling Tapper an alt-right extremist, Sarsour could simply have been pointing out how mainstream outlets are beginning to pick up on the same dog-whistle terms of the far right.
Right-wingers and conservatives have long dismissed Assata Shakur as a “cop-killer,” but feminists of color and black activists like Cornel West and Angela Davis have maintained her innocence and consider her a symbol of black liberation and feminism. Shakur, who was honored as a “revolutionary” in a tweet by the Women’s March, was arrested for the fatal shooting of a New Jersey state trooper in 1973. She has maintained her innocence—claiming that she had her hands up during a shoot-out that left the officer and two other BLA members in the car dead—in a trial which lacked material evidence linking her to the murder. Activists maintain that her trial and subsequent treatment was racist (she was the first woman in New Jersey to be confined in a men’s prison). In 2013, long after she escaped prison in 1979 and was granted political asylum in Cuba, the FBI placed the now-65-year-old woman on its “Most Wanted” list (Shakur was the first woman to make that list).
To reduce Shakur to a cop-killer is to ignore the remaining questions around her trial, and those doing so often dismiss the racial tension framing her arrest in the first place. But Sarsour’s comment to and about Tapper, especially, lit up conservative outlets before making its way into left circles. A sensationalist piece in the Daily Beast by Emily Shire compared Sarsour to Donald Trump, writing, “Sarsour, like Trump, cheaply and falsely defames those who raise legitimate concerns or report non-favorable information about her.” In a recent Times op-ed accusing three of the four Women’s March co-chairs—those who are women of color—as “embracing hate,” the New York Times’s Bari Weiss picked that moment to round up Sarsour’s aforementioned statements and present her as an extremist who harbors “alarming ideas.” (As Mondoweiss points out, Weiss “has a long history of attacking Palestinians and their friends” and also unfairly characterized progressive Muslim-American firebrand Rep. Keith Ellison as “a man with a long history of defending and working with anti-Semites.”)
Similarly, another Times op-ed written by Shire criticizing the Women’s March for alienating Zionists found the March’s inclusion of Palestinian activist Rasmea Odeh troubling. Shire described Odeh as a “convicted terrorist” and a criminal, but what her piece failed to mention about Odeh is that Israeli police obtained her confession to a deadly bombing in West Jerusalem by threatening to force her father to rape her—and then tortured and raped her after her confession anyway. Odeh attempted to recant her confession in military court a month later, but it was ignored, and upon her release from prison she spoke against her mistreatment at the United Nations. Odeh became a lawyer and immigrant rights activist and relocated to America, but her political activism and the label as a terrorist followed her; in 2013 she was arrested for a low-level felony for failing to offer the details on her previous run-ins with the law on her naturalization forms and now faces deportation. Anti-Sarsour liberals have grabbed onto an argument presented by a conservative legal scholar that dismisses Odeh’s allegations of sexual assault and torture—a claim that runs counter to a feminist understanding of rape culture and the criminal justice system.
The alleged treatment of Odeh and Shakur by law enforcement and their castigations by white writers in the mainstream media as terrorists and cop-killers illustrate the examples of the very complex systems of oppression Sarsour is fighting. Dismissing and over-simplifying their experiences overlooks the mistreatment of women of color and services prevailing racist assumptions about complicated figures and movements of oppressed women. “There is no country in this world that is immune to violating human rights,” Sarsour told The Nation in response to Shire’s piece. “You can’t be a feminist in the United States and stand up for the rights of the American woman and then say that you don’t want to stand up for the rights of Palestinian women in Palestine.”
Women of color have always been at the forefront of social progress in this country, yet historically, they have been marginalized from the very movements they championed. This is what we’re seeing happen to Sarsour when mainstream outlets cherry-pick arguments that ultimately legitimize lies spread by the Islamophobic right. It is a false equivalency, and disingenuous, to equate a woman like Sarsour—who preaches non-violent protest against a legitimate form of oppression—with right-wing extremists or racist xenophobes. Sarsour helped raise over $150,000 for Jewish cemeteries vandalized by anti-Semitic slurs months ago (in May, after Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind alleged fraud, Gothamist reported that the money was on its way to the cemeteries; right-wing blogs have continued to accuse Sarsour of swindling the money). For the Women’s March, she worked with mainstream Jewish groups like the National Council of Jewish Women to ensure that the messaging of the march would not alienate Israelis and Jews. She’s been working with leftist Jewish groups critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians for years. Her critics in the mainstream, like conservatives, seem to conflate Sarsour’s anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, shutting down a vital dialogue on Zionism and Israel’s continued and unlawful occupation of Palestinian territories.
Progressive Sarsour critics who have identified as Zionists—who assert Jews have a right to their own state—have failed to acknowledge that even the Jewish community is divided on what it means to be a Zionist today, and what that means, or should mean, for the Palestinians in the region. Mairav Zonszein summarized the issue in a Haaretz op-ed when she responded to Shire’s Times op-ed:
Shire gives the impression that she hasn’t sat down to consider how Palestinian women’s rights, in Israel and in the occupied territories, are systematically affected by Israel’s very raison d’etre. (The fact that they are also trampled within Palestinian society does not absolve Israel of responsibility). Instead she insists on Israel’s “right to exist as a Jewish state.” But if you don’t define what that should mean for Palestinians, you are evading the core issue. So far, it has de facto meant Israel has had the right to exist as a system of supremacy of one group over another.
I also support the right of Jews to self-determination. But as a Jewish ethno-nationalist state, Israel cannot uphold equal rights. That is a fact. So the question then, is, can a Jewish state exist that doesn’t systematically violate basic human rights?
Sarsour’s activism adds to a much-needed national debate about Zionism and Israeli-Palestinian relations in America, and smearing her effectively silences that conversation and continues to enable the marginalization of Palestinians. In a statement defending Sarsour and her right to speak at CUNY despite the protests, the Jewish Voice for Peace condemned the attacks against Sarsour, writing, “The hateful rhetoric that has long targeted Ms. Sarsour has skyrocketed since her role as a co-organizer of the Women’s March. The unfounded claim that Ms. Sarsour is ‘anti-semitic’ is rooted in racism, Islamophobia, and a conflation between real anti-semitism and criticism of the state of Israel.” (Shire did support Sarsour’s right to speak at CUNY, noting that she supports her right to free speech in the Washington Post). Elsewhere, Rabbi Sharon Brous of Los Angeles IKAR’s Jewish community told Haaretz that she doesn’t agree with Sarsour on all of her positions regarding Israel and Palestine, but she saw the attacks against her as “a deliberate smear campaign from the far right to delegitimize the march itself.”
Of course, neither Sarsour, nor any of the other Women’s March co-founders, is immune to criticism (and Weiss raises a few valid points in her op-ed, particularly around Carmen Perez and Tamika Mallory’s association with Louis Farrakhan, a black activist who has been labeled by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-Semitic and homophobic extremist; neither Perez nor Mallory have responded to our request for comment on the affiliation or Weiss’s piece). But progressives should understand who these criticisms serve, especially when they originate from Islamophobic arguments—and understand that, as a Palestinian-American Muslim woman, Sarsour’s very identity and existence is considered controversial in a country that continues to support policies that discriminate against one of the most oppressed people in the world.
“I know there are consequences to being fully who I am and that holding on to my lineage as a Palestinian & my unshakeable support for Palestinian liberation and my deep commitment to my religious faith can cost me a lot,” Sarsour wrote in response to Weiss’s op-ed in a Facebook post. “I am part of a new generation that has carried on the legacy of activists before us - intentionally misunderstood, vilified, demonized and it didn’t stop them then and won’t stop us now. We are on the right side of history, only time will tell.”
“This is the story of what it means to challenge the status quo, stand in your power as a woman of color, hold so many misunderstood identities and still lead people of all backgrounds to a more just and equitable society that embraces all of us and opens space for disagreements but does not compromise on respect and dignity.”
Feminists of color have always been smeared by racist attacks that prevent them from usurping power or influence. And with the Trump Administration, which is suing colleges on behalf of whites, blocking refugees from entry, and casting undocumented immigrants as rapists and criminals and gang members, the latent racism of America is naked and exposed once again. The terror of people of color, and women of color especially, is not theoretical—these policies are killing their families and deporting their loved ones; women like Sarsour and those in her community are under attack and now, more than ever, and we must give them the space and room to speak and disagree and make mistakes and address criticism and learn and teach. For if we do not, the most powerful voices will remain those of the right-wing extremists currently in power. And that will be worse for all of us.