A Palestinian American activist, fearless in the face of hate

Ausma Zehanat Khan

THE WASHINGTON POST – Sitting in a cafe reading Linda Sarsour’s memoir, We Are Not Here to Be Bystanders, I was afraid to expose the book’s cover, which shows the author in a hijab. As a Muslim woman living in the United States (US), I am well-acquainted with the different ways American Muslims minimise themselves in public. And for that reason I am all the more heartened by Sarsour’s fearlessness. She has campaigned against the surveillance of Muslim communities after the 9/11 attacks and has directly confronted hate groups that besiege her. In her book, she makes little of the hate she experiences, but each chapter carries its echoes.

By turns trenchant, painful and amusing, Sarsour’s memoir is packed with hard-learned lessons from the front lines of the social-justice struggle. It’s a book that speaks to our times, tackling issues of racial injustice, economic inequality, criminal justice reform, the surveilling of Muslim communities and the shortcomings of white feminism. Its strength lies in its discussion of intersectional activism as an answer to the rise of the illiberal far right, with well-documented examples of how intersectionality has served to bring about real change.

Sarsour begins by briefly recounting her background as a Palestinian American born in Brooklyn and raised in the multicultural neighbourhood of Sunset Park, all the while remaining firmly grounded in her personal history and heritage. Her consciousness of Palestinians as a dispossessed, colonised people whose human rights are continuously under assault is key to her rise as an activist and to the hate she has endured. She began her career by joining the Arab American Association of New York, where she immediately immersed herself in responding to the different needs of her community, among them: Finding a safe harbour for survivors of domestic abuse, assisting those who lack the language skills to access needed resources, and stepping up when New York’s Muslim registry went into effect and Muslim men began disappearing from their homes in the post-9/11 era.

Sarsour was targetted by the xenophobic far right for being an outspoken advocate of Palestinian human rights and for daring unapologetically to occupy a platform as a Muslim woman. The numerous examples of hate she and her loved ones bore are disturbing and fatiguing. They range widely, from a child crying at a classmate’s cruelty, suspect packages arriving in the mail and unknown callers harassing her on the phone to much more comprehensive acts of silencing and hate, such as her private information being posted online and death threats. In an offense against free speech, Islamophobes attempted to shut down Sarsour’s 2017 commencement address at the City University of New York.

Her memoir speaks out against the normalising of hate while laying out the real-life consequences of rhetoric such as US President Donald Trump’s remark that there were “very fine people on both sides” of a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017. Sarsour condemns the killing of black people such as Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. She notes that Brown was close in age to her own son, and she could scarcely imagine Brown’s fate befalling him. “This was the problem with our country, I realised then,” she wrote. “We failed to grieve for other people’s children as if they were our own. We failed to see that injustices visited upon ‘the other’ had also been visited on us, which was why as a nation we were so splintered. We had dehumanised certain segments of our society to such a degree that we could not feel each other’s pain.”

Sarsour’s Palestinian American background intuitively shapes her belief that a sense of belonging can be multilayered and nuanced – that there can be more to a person’s humanity than the issue of nationality or borders. To that end, Sarsour stands strongly on the side of the undocumented.

Sarsour was an organiser and a board member of the Women’s March until she stepped down in 2019, along with Bob Bland and Tamika Mallory, over tensions with others on the board. The three had been accused of anti-Semitism, charges they denied. Sarsour believes that the allegations were intended to delegitimise her as she gained prominence as one of the march’s organisers. She defends her record by pointing to her supporters, “elected officials, celebrities, authors, Jewish leaders, movement allies, faith leaders, organisations like the ACLU, and hundreds of thousands of regular Americans all had my back.” As Sarsour recounts, even Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted the hashtag #IMarchWithLinda.

Recalling similar controversies, such as the attempt to shut down her commencement address, Sarsour documents several Jewish and civil rights organisations coming to her defense, including Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, the Centre for Constitutional Rights, and Jewish Voice for Peace.

In addressing the frictions, Sarsour puts the matter in the context of tensions over how to demonstrate genuine intersectional feminism by addressing the needs of marginalised women. “White feminists had viewed their liberation only through a white lens, and as far as Black and brown women were concerned, that myopia had persisted to the present day,” she writes. “While looking at issues through a racial justice framework was natural for the women of colour in our group, it was brand new to many of the white women.” Making the concerns of marginalised women a priority was considered divisive by some of Sarsour’s white colleagues. As she explains in the book, focusing on “the experiences of marginalised women was not about upsetting white women; it was about helping them to recognise how they were consciously or unconsciously aiding and abetting the very patriarchy they claimed to be fighting against.”

The causes Sarsour has championed have taken a toll on her personal life but not on her determination. We Are Not Here to Be Bystanders is a tribute to the tenacity and fearlessness needed to stand against injustice.