Facing Race Spotlight: Palestinian-American Activist Linda Sarsour

By Julianne Hing Oct 24, 2014

Linda Sarsour, the Palestinian-American executive director of the Arab American Association in New York City, has had plenty to do this past year. As Gaza burned, and the media drumbeat of ISIS grew ever louder, people in the U.S. were grieving and responding to a spate of police killings of black men, including Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Sarsour’s longstanding work on law-enforcement accountability converged with her Arab-American civil rights work.

Two weeks ago, Sarsour joined a contingent of activists who traveled to Missouri to participate in Ferguson October and to speak with Arab and South Asian business owners in Ferguson. "We were thinking about what our role is as Arab-Americans and Muslims, as the children of immigrants or immigrants ourselves. What is our role in the larger conversation about race and racism in the U.S.?" 

For the last decade Sarsour has been pushing for an end to racial profiling in law enforcement, primarily around domestic surveillance programs run by the federal government and the NYPD that target American Muslims. She says that has required Arab-American communities to "build solidarity with people and communities who have been impacted for decades by police brutality, by racial profiling, by stop-and-frisk and by broken windows policing."

November 15, in Dallas, Sarsour will break down racial injustice in the post-September 11 era at Facing Race, the biennial conference held by Colorlines’ publisher, Race Forward. She spoke with Colorlines about how she spent her summer and the lessons and laughs she’s taken away from young people on social media.

Can you talk about what you took away from your time participating in Ferguson October?

What I took away from Ferguson was that it’s OK to be angry. That anger is not something we should be ashamed of when we are each working against injustice. Injustice is supposed to make us angry. And that anger can be productive and translated into systemic change. I was proud to be angry, which is something we’re told not to be–angry Arab women or angry black women. But in Ferguson it felt good to be angry, and we were angry alongside people around us who also showed you love. It was something I never felt before in my life.

These young people in Ferguson are not waiting for national leaders to come in and tell them how to organize, when to sit in the streets, what to occupy, how to chant, or what their demands are. These are young people who taught me that I don’t need anyone else to lead me or guide me, I’m going to do whatever feels right at that moment.

I remember this one moment at the end of the rally; I’ve had nightmares about it since. People had congregated in a park. There was a fountain in this park and the water was colored red because there was a Cardinals game, and their team’s color is red. And right across the street was a historic building where they used to auction off slaves.

So there were these steps, and battles and blood. To think we were standing there talking about the murder of young black men across the country, and to think of Mike Brown laying in his blood for four hours while we were standing across from a place where slaves were auctioned off, it made me realize that history continues to repeat itself. Ferguson is teaching us that we can’t keep doing the same thing expecting different results. It’s time for radical organizing, and that’s exactly what they were doing in Ferguson. 

Can we talk about resistance elsewhere, too? This summer with the devastation in Gaza there were powerful protests in the U.S., and with ISIS dominating headlines, there’s been really creative resistance from Arabs and Muslims here. Can you talk about what you’ve seen this summer and fall?

In July we were watching the massacres happening in Gaza, and people made a connection between Gaza and their water supply and Detroit and their water issues. People were connecting the dots with creative messaging, saying, "From Detroit to Gaza, water is a human right." We are here supporting people. These are people of color, poor, living in a densely populated piece of land who can’t even get access to clean water, and we look across the world and have empathy for them. But right here in our own country in a place like Michigan, we have our own fellow Americans who are literally without running water in their apartments. We are a superpower, there should be no reason why any American should be without water. 

Did you notice any other connections being made?

Remember Ferguson, when that paramilitary response was brought [to protests]? People in Gaza, who barely have Internet access, were tweeting at people in Ferguson telling them how to protect themselves from tear gas. Even without our intervention as Palestinian-Americans–I’m Palestinian-American and have family living in Gaza and the West Bank–ordinary people in Gaza in a war found the time to reach out to fellow human beings across the world. [They said] you are in resistance. We are in resistance. This is how you resist tear gas. Somebody better write a book about that because it’s so magnificent and so inspiring. 

And in Ferguson, I saw Palestinian flags being flown, not by Palestinians. It was young black kids who were chanting: "From Ferguson to Palestine, occupation is a crime." I was like, "What?" It was beautiful. It inspires people wherever you are, whether you are in Detroit, or L.A., or New York or a little city in Gaza, it inspires you to keep resisting knowing other people across the world are resisting. 

Can we shift gears and talk about the cycle of Islamophobic fear-mongering, hate crimes, backlash and resistance? What part of the cycle are we in now?

Nothing that I saw post-September 11, [during] the first few weeks, months or even years is anything close to what I’ve seen in the past four years. Our community, and I’m talking about Arab, South Asian, and Muslim communities–unfortunately most Americans think we’re the same thing–live in the most hostile civic environment that I’ve ever experienced in my life, and I’m 34 years old. My parents, who’ve been here for over 40 years, say the same thing. 

We never saw mosque opposition. It’s a new phenomena. We never heard of people trying to pass anti-Sharia bills, which would basically ban Muslims from practicing their faith fully. We’ve never seen people on TV equate terrorists with an entire faith group. We’ve never heard pundits say: "a bullet to their heads," that’s the way we solve this problem.

For us, right now, there’s so much external pressure on the community, not just from media or elected officials, [but] from external terrorist groups all the way across the world. It’s gotten to the point where it’s brought some of our leaders to their knees. [They] apologize for any horrific thing [that] anyone who’s Muslim or says they’re Muslim does in the name of Islam. What’s different about this kind of heat is this doesn’t happen in any other community. You will never, ever see a person from the Jewish community or Christian community or the Buddhist community–no one is ever put in a position where they have to apologize for every single person that supposedly is from their faith group who does something horrifying. So why is that? That’s what hurts me the most, to see imams and leaders in our community who feel the necessity to continue to condemn, day in and day out things that have nothing to do with them, and have no association with them as American Muslims. And I think that is not sending a message of empowerment and encouragement to our young people, which scares me the most.

[Some of our] young people are like, "We can’t even be proud of who we are because we have to worry about people saying they’re Muslim like us, and we have to apologize for every Muslim who does something in the world. I just won’t tell people I’m Muslim. How about if my name is Mohammad, but I just tell people I’m Mo or Mike and I’ll be all right.

People say, "What are you talking about? Muslims aren’t a race, you’re a faith." And I’m like, duh, thank you. I kinda know that. But whether we like it or not, based on government policies, we’ve been racialized as a community. There are specific policies being implemented by the U.S. government and some law-enforcement agencies on the federal and local level targeting people who are Muslim or perceived to be Muslim. So we have become a racialized community. Stop-and-frisk focuses on black and brown young people. Well, surveillance programs are focusing on Muslim communities in all of their diversity. And, I’d add that at least a quarter of our community is African-American Muslims. These people have to deal with issues that black communities already have to deal with, plus the additional layer of anti-Muslim hate preventing them from doing things like going to mosque and dressing traditionally. 

Can you share your thoughts on a social media response to that, via #MuslimApologies and #Notinmyname?

Young Muslims on social media are the masters of using snarkiness and satire to make light of a situation that’s actually pretty serious. #MuslimApologies was hilarious. And a few years ago, when it came out that the NYPD was spying on Muslims, we did one called #MyNYPDfile. We were reading secret documents in people’s files and seeing nothing incriminating except for people going to mosque, hanging out in a bookstore or drinking coffee. So we started a hashtag where we asked people, "If there were a leaked file on you, what would it say?" It was hilarious and it was also powerful, because we were able to raise awareness. 

What are you looking ahead to in your work?

It’s really about integrating Arab-Americans and South Asian and Muslim communities within the larger work around combatting racism in the U.S. and continuing to see campaigns that are multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-faith and multi-sector. I think [that’s] the only way we will win. I saw that already happen in New York City with police reform. I want to see that become the norm and not the exception.