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Pathbreakers of Arab America—Linda Sarsour

posted on: May 22, 2024

Photo Wikipedia

By: John Mason / Arab America Contributing Writer

This is the forty-sixth of Arab America’s series on American pathbreakers of Arab descent. The series includes personalities from entertainment, business, sports, science, academia, journalism, and politics, among other areas. Our forty-sixth pathbreaker is Linda Sarsour, a political activist who has led significant liberal movements to improve human rights. She has fought for Muslim rights in the context of 9/11 and the Supreme Court ban on Muslim immigration, and then joined the BLM movement, linking Black and Palestinian human rights. President Obama called her “A Champion of Change.” Linda has been outspoken on the horrific results of the Gaza war.

Linda Sarsour, proud feminist Muslim Palestinian Arab American puts all five identities on the line

Linda Sarsour was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1980, the eldest of seven children of Palestinian immigrants. Not atypical of many Arab Americans, her father owned a small market in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. He named his store after his eldest, ‘Linda’s.’ Raised in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, she attended John Jay High School in Park Slope, followed by coursework at Kingsborough Community College, and then attended Brooklyn College. Linda’s goal was to become an English teacher.

In time, Linda Sarsour became an American political activist. Wikipedia describes, “She first gained attention for protesting police surveillance of American Muslims, later becoming involved in other civil rights issues such as police brutality, feminism, immigration policy, and mass incarceration. She has also organized Black Lives Matter demonstrations and was the lead plaintiff in a suit challenging the legality of the Trump travel ban.”

Linda became co-chair of the 2017 Women’s March, the 2017 Day Without a Woman, and the 2019 Women’s March. She is also a former executive director of the Arab American Association of New York. Linda and her Women’s March co-chairs were profiled in ‘Time’ magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” in 2017. Sarsour’s political activism is controversial, as one might imagine. Some liberals and progressives have praised her, while some conservatives and Jewish leaders and organizations have criticized her stance and remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sarsour has advocated for Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories and expressed support for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.

Linda protesting at the 2017 Women’s March on Washington — Photo Wikipedia

One of her first activist roles was to advocate for the civil rights of American Muslims following the September 11 attacks. She specifically protested police surveillance of American Muslims, advocating for the passage of the Community Safety Act in New York, which created an independent office to review police policy and widen the definition of bias-based profiling in the state. Sarsour’s activism has gone well beyond the support of Muslim Arab Americans to include organizing Black Lives Matter protests.

On a personal level, as of 2011, Linda lived in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. At age 17, she entered an arranged marriage and had three children by her mid-20s. Her family and her husband’s family are from the Palestinian city of Al-Bireh in the West Bank, just north of Jerusalem.

Vignettes from Arab America’s reporting on Linda Sarsour during a decade

An AA interview with Linda in 2015, described her Brooklyn accent: “Her accent doesn’t shy away from it.” You can hear the strong sense of pride in it and it’s admirable. “I let the Brooklyn out of me,” Sarsour laughingly admitted when she met with her supporters outside after she participated in The Brooklyn Academy of Music BAM’s Islamophobia forum. Reporting on that forum, AA quoted her, “I think it’s a debate that doesn’t happen often. I welcome it. I wish that they would have more true New Yorkers in places like Brooklyn. They had to bring a guy from London (Douglas Murray) to tell me what it’s like being an American-Muslim, I do find that a bit disingenuous, but I welcome the entire debate that had happened.”

In another 2015 article on Linda, AA reported on her efforts on behalf of Muslim Americans to support the Black Lives Matter movement. “Sarsour, a blunt-talking, hijab-wearing, 35-year-old Brooklynite forged in the crucible of New York City politics, has played a galvanizing role in this mutation. A veteran of nuts-and-bolts local work — for instance, to raise Muslim voter turnout and have the Eid festivals made school holidays — she is also a regular presence on cable, sparring with the likes of anti-Islam activist Pamela Geller. But as the mobilization known as Black Lives Matter has taken flight, Sarsour has thrown her effort into building its Muslim contribution.”

Linda, a co-founder of the 2017 Women’s March, in action — Photo Washington Post

A later, 2020 AA article reported on the Biden campaign’s repudiation of Sarsour. The reason, she was accused of anti-Semitism. Linda was opposed to Israel’s continued occupation and oppression of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. It was not against the right of Israel to exist. Such distinctions are hard to come by when people are in the heat of argument. Many critics thought that the Democratic Party had scapegoated her.

The AA 2020 article continued, “The brouhaha over Linda Sarsour during the DNC only serves to highlight the existential question of Palestinian freedom and rights. Donald Trump’s campaign for reelection, which has never stopped since his 2016 win, continuously reminds his evangelical Christian base that he has fulfilled their dream of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He never lets them forget that he is helping to fulfill divine providence in paving the way for Israeli domination over the Holy Land. Trump brags that he and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, engineered the United Arab Emirates’ recognition of Israel, suggesting that it is a dealmaker for peace in the region.”

Linda Sarsour’s recent take on the Gaza war

On January 25, Claremont Colleges’ Pomona Student Union hosted renowned author and activist Linda Sarsour for “A Discussion on Palestinian Liberation.” The discussion was in response to Israel’s continued assaults on Gaza. These assaults had, as of then, escalated in retaliation to Hamas’ attack on Israel last October. Since then, over 25,000 people have been killed in Gaza and over 60,000 wounded.

Sarsour started the discussion by sharing her experiences that led to her becoming an activist. “My aspirations and dreams were to be a high school English teacher,” Sarsour said. “And then the horrific attacks of 9/11 happened in New York, the city I was born and raised in.” Following this pivotal moment, Sarsour became a translator, “deciding to use her fluency in both Arabic and English to help Arabic-speaking immigrants navigate the American legal system.”

On Jan. 25, 2024, “Pomona Student Union hosted renowned author and activist Linda Sarsour for A Discussion on Palestinian Liberation” — Photo The ‘Student Life’

In addressing university students, Sarsour averred, “Sometimes, parents say that they sent you to university to get your degree and go home — I reject that.” “My issue here isn’t about whether you think Palestinian liberation is a fight worth having, the question is whether you agree that, on a college campus, students should be able to organize about the issues that they’re passionate about.”

Linda’s final message was, “I hope that one thing that you got here today in this room with me is to walk out on this college campus with your back straight and your head held high…that you can feel that you should be unapologetic about who you are and what you represent.” She is truly a role model, not just for Muslim American youth, but for all American youth.

–“Linda Sarsour,” Wikipedia Biographies of Arab Americans, 2024
–“Linda Sarsour: A True NY Arab-American,” Arab America, 5/12/2015
–“Linda Sarsour’s rising profile reflects a new generation of Arab-American activists,” Arab America, 8/26/2020
–“Mobilizing, finding hope and having courageous conversations: Linda Sarsour’s discussion on Palestinian Liberation,” The Student Life, Claremont Colleges News, February 1, 2024

John Mason, Ph.D., focuses on Arab culture, society, and history and is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo; John served with the United Nations in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID and the World Bank in 65 countries.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab America. The reproduction of this article is permissible with proper credit to Arab America and the author.

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