By Hani Jawabrah
Muslim Americans protest Donald Trump's "Muslim Ban" (Photo from Al-Jazeera)
While Muslims only constitute 1.1% of the United States’ population, the events of 9/11 placed them at the center of the nation’s political fascination. “Should we ban them?” “Should we monitor their mosques?” “Should they go back to their country?” These are all questions that have been raised in American politics since 2001. Of course, the Muslim community didn’t take this lying down. These waves of Islamophobia, prompted first by 9/11 and more recently by President Trump, have inspired many Muslims to become vocal and fight existential threats to their community. We see this clearly in the increase of Muslims in politics, where they act as activists, campaign organizers, and politicians. That said, Muslims are also being placed artificially into Democratic presidential politics. Their image is appropriated as their plights are ignored. While Republicans largely embrace their party’s bigotry against Muslims, the Democrats don’t always embrace Muslim political aspirations. No case illustrates this better than that of Linda Sarsour, the latest Democratic prop who was tossed aside once conflict emerged.
A quick rundown of Sarsour’s activism characterizes her as a rare breed in the political arena: an effective progressive. Since her political awakening in the months following 9/11, Sarsour has aided voting efforts by Arab Americans, pressured New York City — home to 700,000 Muslims — to recognize Muslim holidays, forced the NYPD to stop monitoring mosques, and, as a board member of the Women’s March, organized one of the largest assemblies against sexism America has seen. She became a Sanders surrogate during Bernie’s campaign, shifting her efforts towards the DNC and speaking at its convention to mobilize Muslims to vote for Joe Biden. Sarsour is a committed activist, which means that she will often rub people the wrong way. In 2019, Sarsour found herself at the center of massive controversy when numerous politicians, publications, and Jewish organizations accused her and two other organizers of the Women’s March of antisemitism. Sarsour, as well as Tamika Mallory and Carmen Perez, stepped down from their leadership positions soon after.
Despite Sarsour’s track record of progressive activism, the Democratic Party has refused to defend her. In August of 2020, Joe Biden publicly disavowed Sarsour after she spoke to a group of Muslims who were campaigning for Biden’s presidency. Historically, Biden hasn’t been particularly skilled at protecting women from conservative ire, especially during the Anita Hill incident. So, his near-immediate disavowal of Sarsour came as no surprise. Moreover, Biden’s disavowal was expected due to Sarsour’s stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict. As a Palestinian American, Sarsour has been vocally opposed to what Jimmy Carter calls “apartheid” in the occupied territories of Palestine. She posits that Israel’s nation-state law, which promotes Jewish self-determination over Palestinian self-determination and sponsors settlements “as a national value,” is inherently supremacist and bigoted. This, alongside her call to use boycotts, divestments, and sanctions to force Israel to cease violating human rights, has made her a menace in the eyes of “pro-Israel” politicians who accuse her of antisemitism.
Despite Sarsour’s sum of public controversies, her calls for nonviolent action against apartheid should not be counted among them. That said, Sarsour’s words have proven to be too much for Democrats who want to signal their commitment to Israel. However, other controversies — namely, Biden’s inappropriate touching of various women on camera and Bill Clinton’s sexual scandals — are virtually non-problems for Biden’s campaign. The double standard is obvious: while these powerful men are allowed to do as they please without consequence, Sarsour’s criticism of apartheid led to her complete removal from the Democratic Party.
The Democrats need to realize that when they turn on activists like Sarsour, they are sending a specific message to Muslims. This message is that when Muslims participate in political life, they will be used as props and their wishes won’t be taken seriously. Ultimately, this will be a huge folly for the Democratic Party. It cheapens their position as the “defenders” of minority groups and divides their base along the lines of the Israel-Palestine conflict. This bigotry on the Democrats’ part, however, will not stop Muslims from organizing. Muslim American political action is predicated on the existential threats that the community faces, and, as long as those threats continue, Muslims will be active in politics.