A version of this article originally appeared in STAND Magazine, a publication for ACLU members and supporters.
TO THOSE WHO DON’T KNOW HER, Linda Sarsour might seem out of place in the lobby of the Public Theater on a blustery January night.
Sarsour, head of the Arab-American Association of New York, waits patiently to enter the theater’s concert venue, where the folk-and-blues musician Toshi Reagon is to play. A radical lesbian icon, Reagon boasts an incredibly wide-ranging and diverse following. But Sarsour stands out in her brightly colored hijab, the head covering associated with her Muslim faith.
Anyone familiar with her, though, would not be surprised at all, nor would they be surprised that tonight’s concert is a benefit for Sarsour’s group.
“One of the reasons I want to support this organization,” Reagon says between songs, donning a “Stop Profiling Muslims” T-shirt, “is that this organization is inclusive. I see them reaching out to all kinds of people.”
At Reagon’s invitation Sarsour takes the stage. “It’s really bad out there” for American Muslims, she says. Then Sarsour bears out Reagon’s plaudits, describing her group as “for everyone … grounded in love and compassion and creating safe spaces for people who don’t feel safe otherwise. Black, communities of color, LGBTQI, immigrants, refugees, people who have seen so much trauma in their life and they come to our space for safety. You’re more than welcome to come.”
“This is what solidarity looks like,” Sarsour says of the diverse crowd. “We show up for each other.”
LINDA SARSOUR, a fast-talking Brooklyn native, takes up fights large and small — from preserving her Arab- and Muslim-American communities’ basic rights, to helping a recent immigrant learn English. She sees her community’s struggles for equal rights as no great departure from momentous civil rights battles past and present. The outlook fuels the breadth of her activism: She works on immigration, women’s and economic issues, police accountability, and much more. And she is rigorous about showing up. After Michael Brown, a Black teenager, was shot dead by police in Ferguson, Missouri, Sarsour traveled there to join the Black Lives Matter protests.
Intersectionality, which describes the interconnectedness of seemingly disparate forms of inequality, is a word heard often these days among all manner of advocates for social justice. The term finds an exemplar in Sarsour. She is fond of quoting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s statement that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
“I’m very proud of this generation coming up — younger than millennials, younger than college age — watching our next generation immediately understand intersectionality.”
Sarsour is, in this sense, a leader in the truest form of the word. She is at the forefront of efforts to join together struggles and communities advocating for their own betterment. While not unique in her approach, she stands as a paragon of a new breed of Muslim activists who recognize that the remedies to injustice require collective action.
Steven Choi, head of the New York Immigration Coalition, of which Sarsour is a board member, says her agitation for increased crossover activism improves everyone’s efforts. “She’s pushed us to be involved in issues such as police reform and has helped us think through how enforcement affects immigrant communities,” Choi says, as well as the African-American and Latino populations.
When Sarsour’s fellow Muslims ask why she is so involved in others’ issues, she tells them, “This is why you are where you are, because you think rights are only for you.” For Sarsour, there were lessons to be learned, examples to be followed, allies to be gained, and strength to be found in numbers — something minorities by definition lack. And atop it all is King’s exhortation.
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Under Sarsour’s leadership, the Arab-American Association of New York has grown into a community stalwart that serves about 4,000 people a year. “In our community, we’re playing in the big leagues,” she said in her characteristic Brooklyn accent. She also helped found the Muslim Democratic Club of New York and this year launched a web organizing tool called MPower Change to bring her people political gravitas. And, more important, her work, with help from allies like the American Civil Liberties Union, has helped bring signal achievements for Sarsour’s community.
SARSOUR WAS BORN INTO SOUTH BROOKLYN’S Sunset Park neighborhood, the daughter of proud Palestinian immigrants. (“I’ve never left Brooklyn,” she says.) She had to arrive at her high school early every morning to pass through metal detectors. “I was like, ‘Maybe this is how it is?’” she said. “Years later I realized this was the school-to-prison pipeline.”
On September 11, 2001, Sarsour was attending community college classes on her way to becoming a teacher. But then two planes struck the Twin Towers.
Sarsour indignantly notes that Muslims died on 9/11 too and then faced “double trouble.”
“We became direct targets of the backlash,” she says.
“We were letting them in the front door, and they were coming in the back door.”
According to an FBI report issued after September 2001, data collected across the nation showed there were 481 incidents made up of 546 offenses having 554 victims of crimes motivated by bias toward the Islamic religion — a tenfold increase over the previous year. As of 2015, the numbers were still five times higher than the pre-9/11 rate.
Within months of the attacks, Sarsour began volunteering with the Arab-American Association of New York. Her first case was a Moroccan woman whose husband had been detained and couldn’t be located.
“I told her, ‘They can’t just do that here,’” Sarsour recalls. “It hit me that we are a community being stripped of our human rights.” The man, it turned out, was being held by the FBI.
The family brought her baklava for helping to sort out their ordeal. “And I was like, maybe I won’t be a high school English teacher,” Sarsour remembers.
Sarsour’s mentor was the association’s head, Basemah Atweh, whom she describes as being a feminist when it wasn’t cool to be a feminist. In 2005, Atweh and Sarsour were returning from a conference when they got into a car accident. Atweh died as a result of her injuries.
Sarsour’s father retrieved her at the hospital on a Friday, and she was back at work on Monday. “It was the only place I wanted to be,” Sarsour says. “This was her legacy that I wanted to carry on.” Soon after, at age 25, Sarsour became the group’s executive director.
“WELCOME TO MY TRAINING CAMP,” Sarsour jokes, as she leads a visitor into the Arab-American Association’s office on 5th Avenue in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge neighborhood. The two-story center sits across two storefronts and is surrounded by businesses with Arabic signage. A woman wearing a burqa tending a stroller sits in the waiting room. Inside, caseworkers meet with clients. There seems little reason for the New York Police Department to want to spy on the place — other than the Muslims there.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, profiling of Muslims proliferated through poorly designed law enforcement and national security policies. Thousands of Muslim immigrants were detained through dragnet roundups, and some were deported. As incidents came to light and discriminatory laws were passed, the ACLU sprang into action, lobbying in Congress and litigating to end profiling and surveillance and providing support to Muslim American communities across the country.
“When you’re going up against the largest police force in the nation, it can be scary.”
In New York City, however, Muslim communities’ knowledge and worst fears weren’t fully confirmed until late 2011, when a Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press series began revealing the full extent of the NYPD’s spying on Muslim communities. Sarsour’s organization — which had what it believed were good relations with the NYPD regarding community relations and safety — was revealed to be a police target.
One of the documents leaked from the NYPD’s Intelligence Division suggested that a trio of analysts were working to get a confidential informant onto the board of Sarsour’s organization. Intelligence also was being gathered from an association-fielded youth soccer team in a league sponsored, ironically, by the police.
In response to the revelations, one of the group’s board members stepped down from the NYPD’s Muslim Advisory Council, and Sarsour ended her center’s dialogues with the police. She felt betrayed.
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“We were letting them in the front door, and they were coming in the back door,” she says.
Sarsour and other Muslim community leaders in New York City asked the ACLU and allied legal groups to figure out the strongest possible challenge to unlawful police spying. The ACLU’s National Security Project, which had already begun the work, was glad for the communities’ invitation.
In mid-2013, Sarsour got a call from Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project. Shamsi was ready to sue on behalf of several Muslims who had been spied on by police and wanted Sarsour’s help.
“From the beginning, our goal was to ensure that the lawsuit reflected the concerns and goals of the impacted communities, and we wanted to ensure that it had their support,” Shamsi says. “Linda was critical to making that happen.”
Sarsour reached out to her community — a harder task than one might assume.
“When you’re going up against the largest police force in the nation, it can be scary,” she acknowledges. Nonetheless, about 200 people showed up at a news conference. “We asked for her help in ensuring that the communities were represented at that announcement,” Shamsi says, “and Linda came through.”
In January, the lawsuit — filed on behalf of area Muslims and Muslim organizations by the ACLU, the New York Civil Liberties Union and the CLEAR project at the CUNY School of Law — resulted in a groundbreaking settlement. The NYPD agreed to institute safeguards against unjustified surveillance of Muslims and other minorities, including barring discrimination based on religion. A civilian monitor would ensure compliance.
“This is the first time since 9/11 that any constraints have been put on law enforcement’s unjustified surveillance of Muslim communities,” Shamsi says of the settlement. “We hope it is a platform for even more reforms to come.”
SARSOUR HOLDS UP HER CELLPHONE with an article. The headline blares, “Ben Carson Says Islam Is Not a Religion But a ‘Life Organization System.’”
“Don’t you wish this were true?” Sarsour quips. “Cause my life is a hot mess.”
These days Sarsour is frequently out of Brooklyn. She leads a frenetic lifestyle, earning a reputation for being late. Today she is on a train from New York to Edison, New Jersey, where she is to participate in a panel discussion at an Islamic Circle of North America conference. Earlier this week she was in Park City, Utah, having random awkward exchanges with Robert Redford.
“She was the only muhajaba [hijab-wearing woman] at Sundance,” says Wajahat Ali, a lawyer and journalist who appeared on a panel with her in Utah. “She got eyeballed by people.”
In Edison, a pair of young women of Pakistani and Bangladeshi extraction in a sedan deliver Sarsour from the train to the community center, with its decidedly South Asian milieu. The women gush over Sarsour, asking her advice about an upcoming conference of a national Muslim organization. Charged with planning a youth program, the women say they faced resistance from the men’s committee when they tried to make the theme “social justice.” Sarsour urges them to go forward with their plan. She gives the women her phone number in case they need to get in touch.
“I’m very proud,” Sarsour says, “of this generation coming up — younger than millennials, younger than college age — watching our next generation immediately understand intersectionality.”
Characteristically, Sarsour arrives just before the conference begins. Once inside, she opens her talk by telling the crowd, “If you feel uncomfortable about what I’m saying, that’s your problem, not my problem.” She admonishes racism in the Muslim community with sloganeering (“Sisters and brothers, justice is not just us”) and religious inspiration (“If our prophet was calling for radical equality, why aren’t you?”).
But she also hits notes of pride and offers encouragement. “We have nothing to be ashamed for, we have nothing to be apologizing for,” she says, urging the audience to teach their young, “Not only do they belong here, but this is their country too.”
Later that week in Baltimore, President Obama says almost the same thing during his first visit to a U.S. mosque as president. Linda Sarsour is there to hear him say it. If you know her, she seems to be in the right place everywhere.