The Trouble with Linda Sarsour

| by Malhar Mali |

Imagine I believed these things: A conservative religious law is “only misunderstood,” so we shouldn’t worry about the millions living under it in abject oppression due to their homosexuality, lack of faith, and sex because our “loans and credits will become interest free”; we needn’t focus on women in Saudi Arabia not being allowed to drive under archaic male guardianships laws where males control their every action because the women there receive 10 weeks paid maternity leave; women being represented in the parliament of a country is somehow a strike against blatantly evident systemic oppression against the female sex; and the forced covering of women’s bodies is a sign of modesty and religious adherence as opposed to a misogynistic attitude about female autonomy.

If I was a public figure, by all lenses of the current progressive movement, I’d be cast aside as a bigoted, hateful, conservative apologist and shamed non-stop for my views on social media and in the press — without any room for “interpretations” or anyone coming to my defense.

Unless I put on a hijab, it seems.

Enter the glorification of Linda Sarsour, current media darling who’s had everyone from celebrities to magazines to news publications support and write glowing reviews and profiles of her.

Sarsour’s fame and repute blossomed after she took a lead role in organizing the 2017 Women’s March — for which she should be commended — in response to the election of Donald Trump. Along with her popularity has come her fair share of trolls and criticism (#IMarchWithLinda is the tag through which you can sift through the discourse generated by her time spent in the limelight).

While I accept that some pushback against Sarsour has come from genuinely racist points of view that is not why so many are voicing their disappointment. The real contention is that an apologist for hard Islamist ideas has been granted the limelight — and has been celebrated and defended by individuals and organizations who supposedly stand for progressive values.

Sarsour — as early as 2011, to as late as 2015 — has been vocal and open about some troubling views. Amongst them are defenses of Sharia law, obfuscation about the way women are treated in Saudi Arabia, an odd resentment towards Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and a disavowal of the film Honor Diaries (focused on the stories of nine women who suffered from honor violence) because of who funded it.

To be fair, Sarsour has been critical of Saudi Arabia at times. But put on a religious garment, be proud of your identity, and portray yourself as a martyr for civil and women’s rights and all other blemishes on your CV are apparently swept under the rug.

The defense to Sarsour’s positions on Shariah is from the “you don’t understand Shariah” brigade. Sally Kohn of CNN, one of the foremost proponents of this tactic, made the case that Muslims practice Shariah in their own, personal ways and that according to her many progressive Muslims believe in the concept. Be that as it may, what Shariah is to progressive Muslims and what Shariah is across the globe are two distinctly separate realities. Throughout the world the law is used to systematically oppress and hold down women, LGBTQ citizens, and non-believers.

What Sarsour means by Shariah is obviously up for interpretation. Snopes has reached out to her asking her to clarify her views on the matter and address claims of family links to Hamas (to which she’s yet to respond — which of course doesn’t make them true).

So, if Sarsour harbors troubling views at worst, to vexing ones at best, why are so many celebrating her — some in a cult-like adoration?

Naïveté certainly plays a part. To the average media consumer, Sarsour is only a poor Muslim woman facing the wrath of Alt-Right trolls, white-supremacist racists, and bigots for being brave enough to stand up for her identity and religion. They probably aren’t even aware of her dubious leanings and views.

Screen Shot 2017-01-26 at 8.18.37 PM.png
Note: Sarsour seems to have deleted this tweet in the past 24 hours. An archive of it can be found here (Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a human rights activist who was subject to female genital mutilation and is now a strong critic of Islam).

But I worry that not much would change if they found out. To them Sarsour’s troubling ideas would not be important, what’s vital is that she’s from an “oppressed” group and represents it well (Sarsour is always seen in a hijab, which she promotes, and is proud of her religion). Figures from Mark Ruffalo, Susan Sarandon, Naomi Klein, Van Jones, and Bernie Sanders have jumped to support Sarsour, seemingly oblivious to the questionable ideas she floats.

To these people there is only one type of Muslim. In a Neo-Orientalist view the authentic Muslim woman must be unapologetic about her faith, clad in a hijab, and proud to speak out. Men can take a different ticket though — of which Reza Aslan is the perfect example. Rising to fame in a CNN interview where he made the statement that female genital mutilation was not an Islamic problem but an African one, and that countries such as Indonesia are “moderate,” Aslan now has a TV show scheduled with CNN. Never mind that he’s wrong on his position about female genital mutilation or that Indonesia is far from moderate.

This is why so many are becoming disenchanted with the antics of some factions of the Left. Instead of fighting for truth, human rights, and against injustice and stupidity in tangible and effective ways, the side has fixated itself in propping up dubious spokespeople and movements simply based on their sex, religion, race, and identity. Emma-Kate Symons lays out part of this confusion in Women in the World for the NYT:

“Linda Sarsour is a religiously conservative veiled Muslim woman, embracing a fundamentalist worldview requiring women to “modestly” cover themselves, a view which has little to do with female equality and much more of a connection with the ideology of political Islam than feminism. Could we imagine a wig-wearing Orthodox woman emerging from a similar “purity”-focused culture predicated on sexual segregation and covering women, headlining such an event? No, because she is rightly assumed to be intensely conservative, not progressive on issues surrounding women’s roles and their bodies. Bizarrely, however, it is Sarsour, who has taken a high-profile role speaking about ordering pro-life women out of the march, after a bitter dispute over the initial participation of a Texas anti-abortion group. In justifying the decision, the co-organizer invoked the liberal language of choice, despite her association with an illiberal ideology that many Muslim women say is all about men controlling their bodies, and taking away that choice on a range of issues including reproductive health.”

But Sarsour is celebrated blindly because she is proud of her identity, because of who she is (a proud Muslim woman, hear me roar!) and not what she believes. As Symons points out, it would be absurd to see a woman who promotes conservative views at the head of a women’s march (imagine a Nun wielding a cross) — yet that is no more outlandish than the reality we experienced this past weekend.

We live in strange times when a conservative, religious apologist who has, at times, defended Saudi Arabia and promotes laws that would subjugate women and LGBTQ citizens around the globe is celebrated without second thought in the mainstream as some great civil rights leader or fighter for women’s rights, and her legitimate critics are cast as Islamophobes, far-right bigots, and racists for voicing their concerns.

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Malhar Mali writes about secularism, human rights, politics, and culture. He is the Editor at Areo. You can connect with him on Twitter @MalharMali

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14 Comments

  1. Teed Rockwell

    I agree with you that there is something inconsistent about the Left’s willingness to tolerate foibles in conservative Muslims that they wouldn’t tolerate elsewhere. But the way to resolve that inconsistency is to be more tolerant elsewhere. We need to stop using disagreement as sufficient reason for demonization. Jefferson kept slaves, so who cares about the declaration of independence. Muhammad did X once, so all of Islam must be destroyed. Hillary Clinton supports fracking, so she’s no better than Trump. As I’ve learned more about Sarsour, whom I still disagree with in many ways, I have come to see this article as one more example of this kind of thinking. I don’t agree with Sarsour on the points you are discussing here, but these questions are more nuanced than you give them credit for. The fact that many people on the left are willing to take a more nuanced look at Sarsour should be encouraged. If applied elsewhere, this way of thinking might, for example, make it possible to find common cause with Republicans who are starting to be appalled by Trump.

    the flipside of this unnuanced way of of thinking is assuming that if anyone says anything good about X, they must therefore be ignoring or denying all the bad things about X. The fact that Sarsour wants to inform us about admirable characteristics of Saudi Arabia and/or Sharia law does not mean that the she likes everything about either institution. As you admit, she also criticized the bad things about Saudi Arabia, so isn’t it appropriate for her to also inform us of a few thing good things about it? Why not have the most balanced picture, whenever possible?

    As for Sharia, We should not blind ourselves to the nuances of a 2 millenium tradition, just because extremists have currently hijacked that name. Those extremist interpretations of Sharia frequently disagree with each other, and disagree even more with the forms of Sharia that were among the most tolerant law traditions during the Middle Ages. This was why so many Jews immigrated to the Islamic world after the Inquisition. If you are going to say anything about Sharia, you need to be familiar with something like this book to avoid the bigoted hysteria that usually surrounds this topic.

    https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00M80KZ64/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

  2. Teed Rockwell

    I agree with most of what you are saying but there are plenty of excellent reasons for criticizing Hayan Irsi Ali, even though Sarsour doesn’t seem to be aware of them.

    I used to think that Ayaan Hirsi was a heroic woman who unjustly extrapolated from her own ill treatment to blaming all of Islam. Now it appears that these stories of ill treatment were completely fabricated.

    Her version: She fled civil war in Somalia. She was forced into an arranged marriage with a man she had never met, and she was not present at her own wedding. When she fled the marriage, she was forced to go into hiding in Holland, because her father brothers and ex-husband would have been required by Somali custom to perform an honor killing.

    The facts, as confirmed by several witnesses in this Dutch Documentary: She left Somalia before there was any violence, and lived a comfortable middle class existence in Kenya. She attended a Muslim Girl’s school in Kenya, where she received a full western style education in the Humanities and Sciences. Her brother attended a Christian school. She lied to the Dutch immigration service about coming from Somalia so they wouldn’t send her back to Kenya.

    She met her husband a few days before her wedding. After several meetings with him, she agreed to the marriage, even though her mother said Ayaan should finish her education so she could afford to leave him if things didn’t work out. She was present at the wedding, and according to several witnesses appeared to be enjoying herself.

    A week after the wedding, her husband gave her money for a plane ticket to Canada, so she could join him there. She took the money and went to Holland instead. During her stay in Holland she regularly received letters from her father,and was visited there by her ex-husband. He tried to persuade her to come back with him, but when she refused he granted her a divorce.

    There is no tradition of honor killing in Somalia. This custom exists in Arabia, Turkey and Pakistan, but not in Somalia. The Koran has several passages that forbid anyone from killing their own daughters.

    All of this is documented in the film below, which contains footage of Ali herself admitting that much of this is true.

  3. Anonymous

    Israel is not a settler colonial state. If anything it is the POLAR OPPOSITE of a settler colonial state. It is the world’s first nation state built by a repatriated indigenous people on their ancestral lands.

    Anyone who believes Israel is a colonial state is either misinformed, or antisemitic.

  4. jay slesherman

    Oops meant Koran 3:28 not 5:28, and Koran 5:51 and the interpretations of those make them infinitely more racist. Wrote fast with many grammatical errors.

  5. jay slesherman

    Hamas Charter: You mean the one which puts the Jesuit forgery the Protocols of the Elders of Zion on equal footing with the Koran? The one which quotes many Haddiths requiring all Muslims to murder all Jews? You mean Hamas the part of the Muslim Brotherhood which proves the relationship between the Shia terrorists and all Sunni terrorists, when it comes to murdering Jews
    (and in fact every anti-Semite on earth, no easier way to tell an anti-Semite)?

    Also think about it the books criticising the Jews at all levels even their peopleness are considered intellectual EVEN SCIENCE, by the ex-soviets pretending to be Jews who write them, and the world, no one is a bigger genius than someone who says the Jews do not exist and never did, strange it is somehow always cutting edge and deep to lie about and censor Jewish history, while questioning a people who really never existed is somehow controversial. William Ziff, and Robert F. Kennedy among many others questioned the existence of the ‘palestinians’ (also they really never existed, ever.) they play off of the natural antisemitc censorship of Jews by all Christians and Muslims historically, and the fact that Jews gain power by kissing up to antisemites.

    The first ‘palestinian’ newspaper was called South Syria Daily (in arabic) they wanted to go to war with anyone who called the Arabs of Syria ‘palestinians’ while ‘West Bank’ may actually the purest colonialist fraud in all of human history, no one on the whole planet had ever called it that even once, not ever until about 50 years ago. The UN was calling it Judea, as had every other document in existence, even the people who invented the term ‘palestine’ called it Judea. Also the hardest book to censor is a sacred one, there is not a single author of the entire New Testament, Talmud or Koran, in their original languages who used the term ‘palestine even once, and we are talking about a 600 year period between those. Show me the term ‘palestine’ in the original Greek New testament even a single time!! Or in the Aramaic and Hebrew original talmud, even just once!! And the Philistines are not the same that’s a cute trick but is not reality, there were no Philistines to anyone’s knowledge since 2700 years ago, how blatantly antisemitsm is allowed to lie. Philistines are not mentioned in ANY of those holy texts, even once, as an existing tribe while the texts were written. Also comparing Herodotus or Josephus or Cornelius Tacitus (who also never used the term ‘palestinian’ for some reason), is not fair those were censored and would have been easy to censor they were propaganda of the Roman state and were sacred to know one’s family ever.

    Non-thinking Jews and antisemitc British reinvented the term ‘palestine’ then used it to abuse the Jews after the fact.

  6. jay slesherman

    This article leaves out so much. She said all Israelis are animals, or something to that extent, I know Sanders, in my view, and his actions correlate is an antisemite and would agree with that. She said she has a problem being friends with Israelis this is straight from the Koran, (5:28, 5:51 and many others) yet Obama pretended she was saying it at random in a speech in his presence a few years ago. Diaa Hadid said something very similar, she is the hero of the evil NYT, she ‘at random’ said she can “no longer” be friends with any Israelis, referring to her leftist Jewish friends, that is sharia not random.

    Also in your article about Gaad Saad you just called antisemitism in the Islamic occupied world, merely religious persecution, please anyone reading this look it up, while here you call questioning a book the evil Koran, racism!!!!!! You are insane and should be laughed out, and not a journalist. Firstly, Jews have more genetic markers in common than Muslims, and the evil Koran is a book, how is being against Islam “racism” and insanely being against the most hated, and permanently obsessed upon since long before the Dark Ages, Jews is not?!!!!

    Answer: We are in a dark ages on the left.

    Let’s just get it straight criticising the country which gives millions of Jews refuge and rights, is not antisemitsm, of course not, there are kapos with Jewish sounding names, criticizing an evil colonialist book, the Koran which forces you to take over the world, which gives no one anything is racism.

    We are in a dark ages in the globalist law.

  7. bootjangler1

    Exactly. All “legitimate” criticism will now attract the “far-right” insult, when before, it was “only” Islamophobe and racist. How people fall for this is astonishing, but it has been happening for a few years, with even now, some who were friends on tackling Islamism, are now drifting apart, because a few are determining what a “bigot” is and how far anyone can go in criticising Islamism.

  8. C. Hardy

    Madonna’s Women’s March proclamation that she will not accept “this new age of tyranny” was just silly and sort of pathetic, however the outpouring of admiration for Sarsour is troubling. I taught English to middle-schoolers in Leicester, the UK’s main destination for people immigrating from Pakistan, W. India, and Somalia. 99% of my students were Muslim, brand-new to England, working-class & working-poor, devout, and challenged by some culture-clash (as I was too – at first I mistook water leaking from a boys’ bathroom as evidence of a plumbing problem rather than of foot-washing.) As an American, what struck me about my British school administration was their insistence on boy/girl seating (“All pupils must learn to accept gender integration”) and music lessons (“This is England and all pupils will study English music”), despite any possible charges of religious insensitivity. What struck me about my students was their eagerness to learn and their generosity. I was also struck by the bullying of girls by boys – although it was infrequent, it was vicious and unlike anything I’ve seen in the U.S. (“I can smell your period, I can see your pad”). This behavior was also heavily punished. Islam is no more or less noble than any religion. American women who ignore Sarsour’s contradictions are doing a disservice to other women in favor of appearing progressive.

  9. Caleb Powell

    Oppose Hamas because of their policy in fighting the only moral democracy in the Middle East, Israel.

    Hamas shares ideology with Daesh, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban, but also perpetuates self-inflicted Palestinian misery by their evil agenda against Israel. That anti-Semites support them just shows the depths of evil Israel faces.

    PS – Criticizing settlements or Zionism, in itself, is not anti-Semitism. Calling Israel an apartheid state, a lie that ascribes moral inferiority to Jews, is anti-Semitic.

    Indigenous Jews have lost land in Arab countries 44 times as large as the state of Israel, Arabs occupy 99.4% of the Middle East. Israeli-Arabs have thrived in Israel, going from 200,000 in 1948 to 1.8 million today. Israel is the only democracy that recognizes minorities, homosexuals, and all religions.

    What is the matter with Israel haters? I cannot say.

  10. Redordead

    Agree on all counts except one – simplistic conflation of Hamas with run of the mill terror groups like Taliban and All Qaeda. Agreed it’s Islamist and so on but it’s locked in an important struggle against an apartheid state. One’s support should be dialectical then.

    Support Hamas insofar as they fight Israeli settler colonialism and oppose them for endorsing an Islamist agenda.

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