In December, Linda Sarsour delivered a keynote address to a crowd of hundreds at the Council on American Islamic Relations San Francisco Bay’s (CAIR-SFBA) annual banquet. The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs generously described Sarsour’s address at the banquet as “protecting civil liberties, empowering American Muslims and building coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding” in the face of an alleged “increase in racism and hate crimes against Muslims in the past year.”
In truth, Sarsour’s speech perpetuated the damaging stereotype of a monolithic Muslim community whose every member is at odds with the United States. “You have no choice but to be political, be engaged and be a part of the resistance to defend our rights to be Muslims in the United States of America. Dissent is the highest form of patriotism in a country like the United States,” she said.
Sarsour is a self-styled feminist and Palestinian-American activist. But, despite what she would have you believe about her, Sarsour is not simply a constructive critic of American society who works with her fellow Muslims — out of altruistic, patriotic impulses — to improve it. Instead, Sarsour uses her right to freedom of speech and religion to advocate the restriction of those very rights for others — through the application of Sharia law and the dismissal of Muslim women who have been victimized by other Muslims.
Publicly, Sarsour leaves little ambiguity about her views towards women with whom she disagrees; in 2011, she expressed open desire to “take away the vaginas” of two female anti-Islamism activists: Brigitte Gabriel and Ayaan Hirsi Ali — herself already a victim of FGM in Somalia.
Despite her position as a co-organizer for the Women’s March on Washington and her status as a feminist icon, Sarsour was recently exposed for silencing Asmi Fathelbab, a Muslim woman who worked for Sarsour at the Arab American Association of NY (AAANY). Last month, Fathelbab revealed that Sarsour refused to consider Fathelbab’s accounts of sexual assault at the hands of a Muslim man, and even threatened Fathelbab with permanent unemployment in the Arab and Muslim community.
Instead of using her platform to stand up for oppressed women and victims of sexual harassment, Sarsour creates division between American Muslims and other American communities. In a speech for the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), she notoriously exhorted her followers to wage a form of “jihad” through activism against “those who oppress our communities … here in these United States of America where you have fascists and white supremacists and Islamophobes reigning in the White House.” In the same speech, Sarsour reminded her audience, “Our number one and top priority is to protect and defend our community, it is not to assimilate and please any other people and authority. … Our top priority and even higher than all those other priorities is to please Allah and only Allah.”
As much as she encourages Muslims to show “dissent” against discrimination in the United States, she seems perfectly content to belittle anyone who disagrees with her — and to perpetuate discrimination in the process. In May 2017, a Dartmouth student confronted Sarsour about her anti-feminist tweet against Gabriel and Hirsi Ali. Sarsour responded by attacking the student for his race, saying, “I have a young white man in the back who is not impacted by any of the issues that I mentioned.”
In spite of all this, Sarsour is still regarded as a champion for women’s rights by much of the public and the media — just as many rushed to defend her use of her endorsement of a kind of activist ‘jihad’ in her ISNA speech.
The December event at which Sarsour spoke offers the starkest example of her fig-leaf feminism. The Washington Report described the event as a meeting of “powerful women,” and fleetingly noted that Sarsour shared the stage with an imam named Siraj Wahhaj. The reporter failed to note, however, Wahhaj’s long history of extremism. In particular, Wahhaj incites hatred against the very women for whom Sarsour claims to advocate: “The prophet cursed the feminine man and the masculine woman. … The so-called feminist movement, many of them are headed by lesbians. … So, brothers and sisters, what I’m saying, brothers, we want our women back to their natural place. What’s their natural place? Feminine. Allah made them feminine.” Despite this, Sarsour has described Wahhaj as her “mentor.”
In the fight to defend civil liberties, build coalitions, empower American Muslims, and promote the rights of women, Linda Sarsour should be one of the last people called on to speak, not the first.
Ahnaf Kalam is a writer for Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.