To Elan magazine Linda Sarsour is one of the 15 most inspiring women from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia region. Designated “the face of social activism” Elan credits Sarsour with empowering both Arab and African American communities.
Why, then, does self-styled US terror expert Steven Emerson describe her as an Islamic supremacist?
“I do not have any shame speaking out against what I believe are war crimes that have been committed by the Israeli government,” suggests Sarsour. “Of course that position is not popular among people like Steven Emerson. So he translates that into being a sympathiser with terrorist groups like Hamas, which of course is absolutely not true. But that’s Steven Emerson.”
Emerson made headlines recently when he appeared on CNN to say that Birmingham, the UK’s second city, was a no-go area for non-Muslims. Along with other names such as Brooke Goldstein, Brigitte Gabriel and Robert Spencer he is part of a well-financed group of thinktanks whose joint efforts – to spread anti-Islam sentiment – have been dubbed the Islamophobia industry.
A report released by the Council of American-Islamic Relations last year found that over $119 million has been funnelled through foundations and donors into such organisations. They offer up “experts” to speak on national television, to advise law enforcement, to testify at hearings and to work with state legislators. Often there will be a connection between funding organisations like Emerson’s and the funding of pro-Israel groups.
“It’s a very dangerous industry in this country,” says Sarsour. “This is not just Steven Emerson doing this as a side job, or something he just writes about when he has free time. This is what people like Steve Emerson do every morning from when they wake up to when they go to bed. Their job is to vilify Islam and Muslims.”
According to Sarsour, the average American citizen would take Emerson’s views seriously as they would expect major news outlets to vet people before they appear on TV as authorities on terrorism. “News outlets continue to give platforms to people who are not experts in anything and allow them to continue to spread misinformation and ignorance in bigoted communities,” she says.
It is the spreading of misinformation about Islam through the media that forms one of the root issues and driving forces behind the Take on Hate campaign launched by Sarsour and the National Network for Arab American Communities (NNAAC) last year. For the project, Arab American communities from across the US joined to address prejudice, bigotry, discrimination and hate crimes against their community.
Such prejudice has many consequences for the Muslim community in America. “Women who wear hijab and men in this country who wear turbans we’re all subject to – almost 100 per cent of the time – something called secondary screening. I always get my hijab checked every time I’m in the airport,” says Sarsour.
Besides the media, many factors have contributed towards anti-Islam attitudes in the US. Sarsour holds school systems partly responsible for not integrating studies about Arab or Muslim Americans within their curriculum. As well as this, context is not given in the event of an attack, “when there’s a terrorist attack all they hear is Islam and terrorism,” she says. Furthermore, Hollywood movies often depict Arab Americans as villains or as terrorists. “There is no nuance to depict them as heroes or someone who contributes towards society.”
In 24 US states there have been attempts to pass anti-Sharia laws “which are basically laws we can simply describe as restricting Muslims to practice their faith fully,” says Sarsour. The laws are designed to counter “the perceived threat that Muslims are undermining the US constitution and imposing Sharia law,” says an article in loonwatch.com.
“The fact that legislators believe that they can try to pass laws that restrict people’s freedom of religion in a country like the United States is absolutely shocking,” she continues, “and what’s more shocking is that you don’t really see a big outcry from Americans to say, ‘no – not in our country’. The US was founded on the premise of religious freedom.”
Gaining permission to build a religious institution can mean suing the government first. Historically it has been the same for other religions, for example building a synagogue or a church has been met with resistance in the past, but there seems to be a pointed effort against the Islamic community right now. “In the past few years, the numbers in terms of the opposition to building Islamic centres is absolutely outrageous,” says Sarsour.
“In the United States they talk about freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of religion and we’re given mosque opposition laws. People talk about freedom of speech as if they are only western values. If you were to travel the world there would be no one who would tell you, ‘I love to be censored’. Everyone values freedom and democracy and freedom of expression. Everyone, if they could, would want to have those things. But to make them seem like they are western ideas, for me I think they are the values for anyone across the world regardless of their race, religion, national origin but unfortunately that’s not the conversation we’re having.”
The Take on Hate campaign works to collectively address all of these issues. They hold events and offer resources to help mixed communities learn and teach others about Arab communities.
One measure of the campaign’s success is their media strategy. Sarsour tells me that when some people see her on the street they think she’s an immigrant who doesn’t speak English, but when she appears on CNN and Al-Jazeera America people are forced to challenge what they think they know. “For them we defy the stereotypes of Arab Americans or what people believe Arab Americans are,” she says.
Sarsour has also launched the #WhereIsTheSolidarity hashtag under which social media users can unite to discuss black and Arab solidarity. The African American community has similar grievances to Arab Americans when it comes to bullying, treatment by law enforcement agents, media misconception and bias and how they are treated within the school system.
“It was a great opportunity for us to build relationships, build power together and work towards ending racial and religious profiling. It’s been a really powerful experience to work with another community who also feel that they are often marginalised,” says Sarsour.
Despite such hard work being put into solidarity and grassroots campaigns, there’s no shortage of challenges for Muslim communities. The recent Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris will no doubt have repercussions across the world. “We again go back to having this conversation about Islam and Islam’s connection to terrorism and that’s a very problematic conversation to have,” says Sarsour. “Every time we feel like we went a couple of steps ahead, we find ourselves moving a couple of steps back because people then are immersed in the conversation that is not nuanced and again does not have context.”
Then there are the familiar calls on the Muslim community to apologise for what happened. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Rupert Murdoch tweeted: “Maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible.”
“What’s interesting and hypocritical about that is that we never do that to any other faith community. We never do that to any other ethnic or racial community in the US or in the West,” reflects Sarsour. “If a white man bombed an abortion clinic we don’t say: ‘Hey, all Christians please stand up and condemn this white man.’ I personally condemn acts because I’m human; I don’t condemn acts because I’m Arab American or because I’m Muslim. That expectation is absolutely ridiculous.”
“There is never any justification for the murder of innocent people, but in a place like France people don’t have freedom of religion – I can’t wear hijab and go to public university, I can’t wear hijab and work for the government. We are banned from praying outdoors. This past summer they banned pro-Palestine protests around the Gaza war. You can’t talk about freedom of speech and freedom of expression and then have these restrictive laws that impact predominantly Muslim communities.”