Linda Sarsour: The Muslim woman fighting for all Americans

Linda Sarsour: The Muslim woman fighting for all Americans
Society: The Palestinian Brooklynite is in a daily battle for the civil rights of all around her, writes Daoud Kuttab.
5 min read
14 March, 2017
Sarsour also appeared at the Mara Hoffman show during New York Fashion Week 2017 [Getty]

Linda Sarsour is a proud Muslim American woman on a daily mission to remind people of the plight of Palestinians. But when asked her top priority, Sarsour didn't mince her words: "My top priority is the civil liberties of Muslim Americans, and people of colour," she told The New Arab.

Born in Brooklyn in 1980 to Palestinian immigrants from the West Bank town of Al Bireh, Sarsour - a mother of three- started her political career as a volunteer with the Arab American Association of New York in Bay Ridge after 9/11 and in time became its executive director. 

Her fight for civil liberties put her face to face with problems of discrimination, profiling and racism.

"For fifteen years we have been fighting for the political rights of Muslims and Arab Americans in a very hostile environment, where law enforcement officials were part of the problem."

While listing the problems during the past decade and a half, Sarsour is quick to notice how much worse the situation has become in the past few months.

"As bad as things were during the George W Bush and Barack Obama administrations, things have gotten 1000 times worse now under Trump."

Trump's inflammatory rhetoric and his most recent Muslim ban have emboldened law enforcement agents, airport security and passport control officials and others to act with impunity towards Muslims and others, she says.

When we checked out the source of these attacks, they were almost all white supremacists who are supporters of Trump

Sarsour also pointed out the sharp rise in hate crime and vandalism against Mosques in the US, noting that five mosques had been torched in recent weeks.

The victory of Donald Trump gave Sarsour an opportunity to move from the local political scene in New York to the national stage. On January 21, the day following Trump's inauguration, Sarsour was one of four national directors to organise America's largest ever women's demonstration. 

Sarsour has recently resigned from the Arab American Association to dedicate her efforts to national politics in the United States.

The attacks against religious sites and graveyards have not been restricted to Muslim areas of veneration. When a Jewish graveyard in St Louis was attacked, Sarsour knew she had to do something about it.

"When I heard about what happened in Missouri I decided that we needed to act and I initiated a drive to raise money to help rebuild the destroyed Jewish cemetery. Within three hours we raised $20,000. Within days the number had topped $100,000."

Sarsour was arrested while protesting outside Trump Tower
on International Women's Day, March 8, 2017 [Getty]

Even though she has been a defender of the constitutional rights of all Americans, Sarsour's leap to national fame came with some nasty baggage.

Shortly after her national appearance in Washington DC in January, she became the target of vicious attacks.

"When we checked out the source of these attacks, they were almost all white supremacists who are supporters of Trump," Sarsour said.

The attacks, though were not without a reaction.

Scores of people and organisations jumped to Sarsour's defence including prominent politicians and a number of Jewish American individuals and groups.

"I was overwhelmed and grateful for the many who came to support me after my appearance at the Washington march," she says. 

Sarsour singled out former Democratic party nominee Bernie Sanders who she supported during last year's elections for his principled stand. "I got support for some people who I don't agree with politically. Everyone knows that I am pro-Palestine, pro-BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions], but at the same time I am pro-humanity and my support for Jewish Americans comes from the fact that I don't see the Jewish community as monolithic.

Special coverage: More than 150 features,
blogs, news stories and more from inside
the real fight for women's rights
in the Middle East

"Many Jews agree with me in the need to end the occupation and for me, being anti-Zionist doesn't mean that I am anti-Jewish."

Sarsour is aware of the gravity of the task ahead of her: "I have to realise that I have a big responsibility to live up to the role that I am in."

The heightened attention has also forced Sarsour to be much more careful. When going to unknown locations she has had to ask for or hire her own security protection. In Brooklyn, Sarsour has put up cameras as part of a comprehensive security plan to protect her from those who might easily take the rhetoric against her to a different level.

It doesn't compromise my belief to support people of the LGBT community

Part of Sarsour's political maturity has also been reflected in a much wider appreciation of the need to build bridges and alliances. She understands the importance, now more than ever, of working with African Americans, Latinos and other groups who face similar discrimination.

Sarsour, who comes from a conservative Muslim background and wears the hijab, has no problem in expressing public support for the rights of members of the LGBT community.

"It doesn't compromise my belief to support people of the LGBT community." Instead of turning against Muslims after an attack on a gay bar, the LGBT community stood up against hate and revenge and publicly called on their members to show respect to their Muslim neighbours, Sarsour notes.

The victory of Donald Trump and the national opposition to his policies has been a godsend to people like Sarsour. She calls his election a victory in disguise, and believes that he has energised people who have previously never been interested in politics.

"We have a big challenge now as we start planning for 2018 to regain one or both houses of Congress by ensuring that many of these first-time individuals to become involved stay with us - and vote in the mid-term elections, to put the brakes on the Trump administration's assault on our civil liberties."

Linda Sarsour was speaking to Daoud Kuttab, an award-winning Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. 

Follow him on Twitter: @daoudkuttab