Linda Sarsour, a lead organizer of the Women’s March on Washington and one of the most high-profile Muslim activists in the country, gave an impassioned speech last weekend that at first gained little attention.
Speaking to a predominately Muslim crowd at the annual Islamic Society of North America convention in suburban Chicago, Sarsour urged her fellow Muslims to speak out against oppression.
In her speech, Sarsour told a story from Islamic scripture about a man who once asked Muhammad, the founder of Islam, “What is the best form of jihad, or struggle?
“And our beloved prophet … said to him, ‘A word of truth in front of a tyrant ruler or leader, that is the best form of jihad,'” Sarsour said.
“I hope that … when we stand up to those who oppress our communities, that Allah accepts from us that as a form of jihad, that we are struggling against tyrants and rulers not only abroad in the Middle East or on the other side of the world, but here in these United States of America, where you have fascists and white supremacists and Islamophobes reigning in the White House.”
In an interview with The Washington Post early Friday, Sarsour said she was advocating solely for peaceful, nonviolent dissent.
But since videos of the speech began circulating, conservative media outlets have accused the activist of urging Muslims to wage a holy war against the Trump administration.
“Linda Sarsour calls for Muslims to wage ‘jihad’ against Trump,” a Conservative Review headline said. The article called Sarsour’s references to jihad “a particularly vague, yet terrifying, segment of her speech.”
“Linda Sarsour Calls for ‘Jihad’ Against Trump Administration,” Breitbart wrote.”The context of Sarsour’s remarks indicate that she meant a jihad using words,” Breitbart clarified in its own article. “However, the term has also been used to describe violent struggle, including terrorism, against non-Muslims or against governments described as enemies.”
Sarsour vehemently rejected that interpretation. “For people to out of nowhere claim that I would be calling for some sort of violence against the president is absolutely ludicrous,” Sarsour told The Post. “That’s just not who I am. That’s never been who I am.”
Some on social media argued that by using the word “jihad” Sarsour should have known the general public would interpret it as a violent term connected to Islamic extremism.
“Jihad, while co-opted means something very specific to a lot of people,” writer Yashar Ali said on Twitter. “If you want to use it … expect the blow back.”
Once again, Sarsour was thrust into the crosshairs on social media. On Twitter, conservatives called her a “terrorist sympathizer” and claimed Sarsour should be placed on a terrorist watch list or be investigated by the Secret Service. Others threatened her and even called for her deportation. (Sarsour, a daughter of Palestinian immigrants, was born and raised in Brooklyn.)
Donald Trump Jr. retweeted a Fox News story and said, “Who in the @DNC will denounce this activist and democrat leader calling for Jihad again trump?”
Meanwhile, Muslims and non-Muslims alike came to Sarsour’s defense. Soon the hashtags #istandwithlinda and #myjihad spread on Twitter, with many Muslims sharing their own personal interpretations of jihad.
Jihad is a central concept in Islam, and the Arabic word literally translates as “struggle” or “striving.” While the word is indeed used by some to refer to a physical military struggle to defend Islam, most Muslims use it to refer to a personal, spiritual effort to follow God, live out one’s faith and strive to be a better person.
Over the years, Muslim advocacy groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations have taken out ad campaigns and other efforts to promote a peaceful interpretation of the word jihad and denounce its connections to violent Islamist extremism.
As a controversial activist in the national spotlight, Sarsour knew her speech was public and might be heard and shared widely. But her intention in that moment was to speak directly to Muslims in an effort to motivate and encourage them, she said.
Muslim leaders, Sarsour said, should not have to feel the need to “police the ways in which they worship in this country.”
“I should be able to speak to my own community, my own faith community, use my scripture and … not be criminalized for being a Muslim in America,” Sarsour said. “I’m not going to limit who I am and how I speak because people are ignorant and racist.”
Sarsour is accustomed to hostile messages and even death threats on social media, particularly since the Women’s March. Those threats escalated this spring when the City University of New York School of Public Health selected her to give a commencement address. Protesters, including conservative media personality Milo Yiannopoulos, called for her removal as the speaker.
“It doesn’t actually matter what I say … their blood boils at the mention of my name,” Sarsour said of many far-right conservatives. “The irony of these attacks,” she said, “is that the very people who claim I follow a violent religion are waging violence on me.”
In the past, critics have called Sarsour anti-Semitic, tried to connect her to terrorist groups and accused her of supporting sharia law.
The Palestinian American became a well-known activist in New York City as former executive director of the Arab American Association of New York. She has advocated for criminal justice reform and has been a vocal supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. Sarsour was also involved with Sen. Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Earlier this year, she became the lead plaintiff in a CAIR lawsuit against the Trump administration travel ban “overtly” discriminatory and said it “officially broadcasts a message that the federal government disfavors the religion of Islam,” The Post reported.
All this has left Sarsour and her family feeling constantly on edge. She said she has had to hire private security for appearances and events. She no longer takes public transportation, she said. “I don’t feel safe in my own city.”
She’s even afraid to walk with her children through New York City. While accompanying her children to order takeout food recently, she avoided walking beside them, crossing to the opposite side of the street. “I don’t want my kids to be in the crossfire,” she said.
“There’s not that many visible Muslim leaders in our country,” Sarsour said. “People don’t want to be this visible because they know what comes with this visibility.”
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