Linda Sarsour's rising profile reflects new generation of Muslim activists

Tough-talking hijab-wearing Brooklynite works on day-to-day local problems and knotty national issues

Linda Sarsour, director of the Arab American Association of New York, speaks to a crowd of March 2 Justice supporters on April 13, 2015. She was a co-chairperson of the 250-mile walk from New York to Washington, D.C., an effort to protest police brutality.
Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

Last August, watching the images of militarized police cracking down on protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, after a police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, Linda Sarsour decided to get involved.

Sarsour, a Palestinian-American activist from New York City, has a growing national profile in battles against surveillance of Muslims, discrimination and Islamophobia. In recent years, her work in New York has brought her closer to African-American activists fighting stop and frisk, biased policing and mass incarceration.

In Missouri, Mustafa Abdullah, an organizer with the local branch of the ACLU, was staring at his computer on the Monday after Brown’s death, feeling overwhelmed by the torrent of complaints about rights violations coming in from the protests, when Sarsour called.

“Mustafa,” she said. “Where is the Muslim community on this?”

“I hadn’t even thought of that question,” Abdullah, who is Egyptian-American, said later. “Linda’s call was almost a prophetic call, a call to conscience.”

Immigrant Muslims have spent the years since 9/11 largely on the defensive against increased suspicion and bias. But a new generation — social media savvy and versed in the new tools of decentralized activism — is asserting itself through multiracial coalitions that challenge the parochial approach and sometimes the prejudices of its elders.

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.

Walking her talk

Sarsour asked Abdullah to draft a letter to Brown’s family for Muslim groups to sign. Within days, they started a Muslims for Ferguson campaign, holding conference calls for college students, professionals and imams to hear from Ferguson residents and raising money for local organizers. In October, she visited Ferguson. “It was beautiful,” she said. “I was in hijab. I didn’t look like the other people there, and I was embraced.”

In April she walked 250 miles in eight days from Staten Island in New York to Washington, D.C., in the March2Justice with some 70 other activists to deliver a package of criminal justice reform demands. She co-chaired the march with Tamika Mallory, a former top aide to the Rev. Al Sharpton. A month earlier, Sarsour had been in the Capitol as the guest of U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand for the address to a joint session of Congress by the president of Afghanistan. This time, she rallied outside with Danny Glover, “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett and U.S. Reps. John Lewis, Yvette Clarke, Keith Ellison and Barbara Lee.

Linda Sarsour at the March 2 Justice on its stop at Staten Island in New York.
Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

Two days earlier, the marchers from New York had been at Sunday services at the Empowerment Temple in Baltimore when Pastor Jamal Bryant told the congregation that Freddie Gray, who was critically injured during his arrest the previous week, had died. Sarsour and Mallory changed their route to join protests at the Western District police station, at the risk of being called carpetbaggers. “We made the choice to go, even though we were not locals,” Sarsour said. “It spoke to why we were marching.”

Back in New York, she joined rallies in support of the Baltimore protests. She ran a national call, like those after Ferguson, with Baltimore grass-roots activists — both Muslim and non-Muslim, including one who worked with the Nation of Islam, which many immigrant Muslims hold in low esteem. And she sparred on Facebook with a leader of the Islamic Society of North America over a statement that she felt focused too much on condemning looting while neglecting deep-rooted discrimination.

Accustomed to being called a “Islamist supremacist,” a label she greets with derision, by right-wing site JihadWatch, Sarsour gladly calls herself a radical for racial justice, especially in the past year. “My radicalizing moment was when Mike Brown was shot,” she said.

Dante Barry, the executive director of the Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, said, “I think Linda is a great co-conspirator in the fight for black liberation.”

“She was able to see the intersection between what was happening to the Muslim and black communities and connect them,” said Murad Awawdeh, the head of the Muslim Democratic Club of New York, which Sarsour co-founded. “We can always march together, but organizing for policy — five or 10 years ago, no one was doing this.”

Proud Brooklynite

If there is a source for her energy and political instincts, it is Brooklyn, her lifelong home. She grew up in Sunset Park and lives in neighboring Bay Ridge, the heart of Arab New York City. Her parents came from a village near Ramallah in the West Bank and emigrated in the late 1970s. Sarsour, the oldest of seven children, was born in 1980.

Her father owns a grocery store in Crown Heights, which, to her embarrassment, he named after her — awkwardly — Linda’s Sarsour. “He’s a big, fat character,” she said. “You should see how he interacts with the Orthodox Jews in that neighborhood, how they tease each other.”

Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, speaks with her office director, left, on October 28, 2014 about an upcoming benefit. The community organization opened its doors in December 2001.
Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

In the mid-1990s she attended John Jay High School in Brooklyn, which would close a few years later because of chronic bad results. “Most of the Arab kids went to Fort Hamilton,” she said. “I should have gone to Midwood” — home to a program for gifted students — “but, of course, I was the first in the family, and my mom was like, ‘Where is Flatbush?’ For my parents, it wasn’t about better. It was about proximity to the house.”

John Jay had a bad reputation and security to match. “Your book bag went through a metal detector, you went through a detector like in airports, and you still got put up against the wall, and a guard frisked you,” she said. “They would make you open your mouth and put up your tongue because they said kids had blades.”

Sarsour felt comfortable as an Arab American at the mostly black school, where her identity as a Palestinian carried cachet. She didn’t think to question the security regime, which her friends at other schools didn’t face. Later, she drew the connections.

“In retrospect, John Jay would be seen as a school-to-prison pipeline,” she said. “Naive as I was, I thought maybe this is how the world is.”

At 17, still in high school, she had an arranged marriage and began wearing hijab. She enrolled at Kingsborough Community College, with plans to eventually become a teacher. By 2001, she was 21 and a mother of two. (A third child followed.) She felt politically conscious as a Palestinian, but it was 9/11 and the community response to the ensuing surveillance and aggressive policing that made her an organizer.

With Arab and Muslim men rounded up by law enforcement amid immigration sweeps, the Arab American Association of New York (AAANY), a community organization that opened its doors in December 2001, found itself on the front lines. Its founder, Basemah Atweh, was an atypical character — a Palestinian single mother who didn’t wear hijab, lived on her own after a divorce, worked as a patient representative at Lutheran Medical Center in Brooklyn and knew seemingly every Arab in the city.

A family friend, Atweh called Sarsour to ask her to volunteer and soon became her mentor. “I didn’t even ask what I was going to do,” Sarsour said. “I just showed up.”

In 2005, Sarsour, Atweh and others were returning from an event in Michigan when a tractor-trailer struck their car on a Pennsylvania highway, causing it to flip four times. Atweh died of her injuries. Sarsour, who was driving, was not seriously hurt. Despite the trauma, she went straight back to work, feeling compelled to pursue Atweh’s legacy. “This is where she wanted me to be,” Sarsour said. She became executive director at 25, building the AAANY from a shoestring $50,000 budget to about $700,000 per year.

Rooted in community

One morning at her office, in a former medical suite in Bay Ridge, while fielding phone calls and tweeting, Sarsour described the cases that come in daily — evictions, harassment, economic hardship, medical crises, isolated seniors, domestic violence. Down the hall, a woman was using the office wireless to FaceTime with her deported husband in Jordan.

“People come in and tell us they haven’t seen their loved one in three days because someone came and took them,” Sarsour said. “Who’s the somebody? They have no idea. Usually it’s the NYPD or the FBI.”

Her role leading a service organization gave her credibility as she became involved in politics, with candidates eyeing the vote of the city’s growing Muslim community.

Linda Sarsour leans in during a conference call on October 28, 2014, at her office in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn
Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

“The way she moves from kitchen to kitchen, Linda is always going to be rooted in community,” said Carlos Menchaca, the City Council member for Sunset Park, who was elected with her support in 2013. The head of the council’s immigration committee, he credits Sarsour for helping strategize and implement the city’s new IDNYC identification card. “She needs to be at the table whenever we do something big.”

Menchaca, who is Mexican-American and gay, called his alliance with the religious, hijabi Sarsour an unexpected but natural coalition. “She confronted my thoughts about what I was going to get,” he said. “There was almost no bridge to cross.”

With her family roots, her self-presentation and her fluent Arabic, Sarsour has advantages when it comes to confronting older, conservative immigrants with the issues of other communities and, sometimes, their anti-black racism.

“Because of her strong Palestinian identity and how she wears her Muslimness on her sleeve, she has a unique ability to bridge conversations with the aunties and uncles,” said Abdullah, of the St. Louis ACLU. “So much of what she is resembles tradition, but her activism is very progressive.”

Organizing to link the supposedly Muslim issue of surveillance with the supposedly black issue of police bias brutality, which Sarsour and others are doing at the national level, has borne partial fruit in New York City.

In 2011 an intrusive NYPD intelligence-gathering program in Muslim communities came to light. Advocating against it, Sarsour joined the rising movement against Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policy. The City Council passed reforms in 2014 that set up, among other measures, an independent civilian police review office. Surveillance of Muslim communities is now commonly associated with police brutality and disparate impact of policing on communities of color in the scrutiny of the NYPD.

Her work with elected officials and meetings with NYPD Commissioner William Bratton and other law enforcement figures has earned her occasional criticism from a left wing skeptical of incremental reform. Likewise, the Justice League NY, which sponsored the recent march to Washington, has been accused of being too accommodating to power and of parachuting into other cities.

But Sarsour, who used to muse about becoming the first hijabi mayor of New York City and has been mentioned as a possible City Council candidate, said she has become more oppositional in the past year, not less, and wouldn’t run for office if asked to now.

“As I’ve grown older, I’ve seen how politics works, and I feel like I need to be part of a movement,” she said. “I feel I have more impact on the outside.”

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