The Trouble with Linda Sarsour

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.

Appendix

Malhar Mali

Malhar Mali is the founder and editor of Areo. He can be reached via malhar@areomagazine.com

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Malhar Mali

Malhar Mali is the founder and editor of Areo. He can be reached via malhar@areomagazine.com

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