Linda Sarsour is an activist and a co-chair of the Women’s March on Washington.
This week, conservative media outlets took a speech I gave to the largest gathering of Muslims in America out of context and alleged that I had called for a violent “jihad” against the president. I did not. Sadly, this is not a new experience for me. Since the Women’s March on Washington, which I had the privilege of co-chairing with inspirational women from across the country, my family and I have received countless threats of physical violence. These ugly threats come from people who also spout anti-Muslim, xenophobic and white-supremacist beliefs. Their sole agenda is to silence and discredit me because I am an effective leader for progress, a Palestinian American and Brooklyn-born Muslim woman. In short, I am their worst nightmare.
I began my work as director of the Arab American Association of New York in the wake of the horrific attacks of 9/11. As crisis after crisis struck Arab and Muslim communities, from the backlash to the “Ground Zero mosque” to the anti-Muslim hearings held by Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) to the rampant surveillance of New York City’s Muslim communities, I became more vocal about Islamophobia’s terrible impact on my community, city and country. Because of that, I become a target of the Islamophobia industry, a well-funded group of organizations and spokesmen who fuel anti-Muslim sentiment through misleading narratives, propaganda, local policies and the vilification of Muslim activists and public figures.
But the post-9/11 environment did not prepare me for the onslaught of vitriol that has come my way since January. First came a campaign to remove me as the commencement speaker at City University of New York’s School of Public Health and Health Policy. With hired security at my side, I gave a speech that focused on the rise of hate crimes and xenophobia and the importance of choosing to never be bystanders in the face of injustice. I honored Ricky John Best, Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche and Micah Fletcher, who saved two young African American women, one of them Muslim, in Portland when they were attacked by a white supremacist. Both Best and Namkai-Meche lost their lives that day.
Now comes the malicious twisting of the speech I gave at the Islamic Society of North America’s 54th annual convention.
In my speech — you can watch the unedited version here — I sent not a call to violence, but a call to speak truth to power and to commit to the struggle for racial and economic justice. I was speaking to an all-Muslim audience; as an American, I should be free to share and discuss scripture and teachings of my beloved Prophet. My statements were clear, and my activism track record is even clearer: My work has always been rooted in nonviolence as espoused by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Most disturbing about this recent defamation campaign is how it is focused on demonizing the legitimate yet widely misunderstood Islamic term I used, “jihad,” which to majority of Muslims and according to religious scholars means “struggle” or “to strive for.” This term has been hijacked by Muslim extremists and right-wing extremists alike, leaving ordinary Muslims to defend our faith and in some cases silenced. It sets a dangerous precedent when people of faith are policed and when practicing their religion peacefully comes with consequences.
Nevertheless, the attacks from xenophobes and the conservative media have continued. It saddens me deeply that my three children are frightened. It angers me that I have to think about securing my physical safety even while walking through the neighborhoods of Brooklyn.
Every day, I speak about women’s issues, indigenous rights, the necessity to fight for black lives and against the Muslim and refugee bans. I believe wholeheartedly that we must fight injustice and inequality — through marches and direct actions, through policy changes, and through our own voices permeating media spaces. My views are not unique or special, and many activists around the country express them as well. The reasons I am subjected to such particularly public vitriol are simple: I am a Palestinian American woman in a hijab who has become a familiar presence and name in American living rooms when it comes to nonviolent resistance and activism. Indeed, those targeting me have an even broader agenda: to silence and discredit racial-justice activists altogether because we are awakening the masses.
But I refuse to be intimidated. I will not walk away from the people and communities whom I love deeply. I will to continue to raise my voice for justice and equality for all, organize communities who want to defend the rights of black people, stand against policies that target and marginalize Muslims, and advocate for health care for all people. Dissent is the highest form of patriotism, and I intend to continue to push my country to respect the rights of all its citizens. I will not be silenced.