SIO60: An Objective Look at Linda Sarsour

… to the degree that’s possible on the internet these days…

When Dave Rubin tweeted that we need to stop giving money to the ACLU and Sam Harris retweeted it, simply because they wrote a profile on Linda Sarsour, I decided I needed to look into this person. This is certainly a minefield… So here we go… my best effort at an objective look at Linda Sarsour.

Links: ACLU profile on SarsourWomen’s march missionSnopes on accusations against SarsourSarsour opinion pieceNY police Muslim spy unitJihad speech being taken out of contextWomen’s march Assata Shakur tweetSarsour 2011 tweet on AyaanSarsour response to being called out

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10 Replies to “SIO60: An Objective Look at Linda Sarsour”

  1. I have two quick points.

    1. Knowing very little more than what was said in the episode about Assata Shakur, it seemed to me the reason for the tweet was provided in the follow up tweet, in which they elaborated on this woman’s work prior to the shooting incident (i.e., her work to empower women in the black liberation movement).

    While she is famous for being involved in that incident, as well as her subsequent escape and life in Cuba, she’s not defined by just that one action, and I get the sense they tweeted about her to acknowledge and endorse the work she did as it relates to women in the civil rights movement, not the fact that she was involved in a police officer’s death.

    I bristled when you echoed Jake Tapper’s use of the phrase “this cop-killer,” and I got the sense (I could be mistaken) that you bought into the framing of this tweet as “honoring someone who (potentially) killed a cop” rather than “honoring someone, who also (potentially) killed a cop.”

    An extreme analogy might be somebody like Thomas Jefferson. He did incredible things for this nation and humanity as a whole, but he also owned other humans (who were beaten, mutilated, and raped). In much the same way that it would be ridiculous to reduce Thomas Jefferson to “a slave owner,” ignoring the impact he had on forming this nation, I think it’s easier, but no less ridiculous, to reduce Assata Shakur to “a cop-killer,” while ignoring the apparent impact she had on civil rights, specifically coming from the organizers of a movement which is pointedly affirming the experience of disenfranchised women of color.

    That’s not to say there aren’t times when it’s important to point out just how and why someone is problematic, but again, even if we remove the ambiguity and cultural context surrounding the incident, I have to wonder if our willingness to reduce this woman to this one action, and to conflate it with her work as a civil rights advocate isn’t heavily influenced by racist societal conventions.

    Just to be clear, I get that this is a complicated thing, and that it’s not absurd to ask whether this was a good move for this movement, but I just wanted to push back a little against the idea that tweeting about this woman was a completely stupid idea with no valid reasoning behind it.

    2. As for the Rubin fans dismissing somebody for articulating their shared prejudice in an overt way, I think part of it could be that the urge to call out someone using “their own standards” is a perverse and satisfying impulse, of which we are also sometimes guilty (e.g., mocking “broflakes”).

    Maybe more relevantly, I think being able to point at “the real racist” (i.e., someone who has expressed an overtly racist opinion) conforms to their misunderstanding of the ways racism operates structurally, and it allows them to cognitively distance themselves from the implications of their rhetoric (e.g., “I’m not saying racist things, that guy’s saying racist things, I’m just talking about data”).

  2. Great idea for an episode!
    One thing about the “I will not assimilate” line. I know that phrase from Erdogan (but he is talking about the Turkish-German immigration which is a specific context) and there it was used to basically say that Muslim Turkish Germans are not really Germans and that Muslim Turks are Muslim Turks and any change of that is racist (by Germans) or treason (by Turkish people). If Sarsour used the phrase because of how Erdogan used it, I think it reflects very badly on her. But I feel in general, while the right overdoes it, your podcast shows that a lot of stuff she said reflects very badly on her.
    I also think that Sarsour definitely supports A LOT of antisemitic positions and organizations (BDS most obviously, this organization is also linked to Hamas, so that is where that claim might come from) but I only have German sources to support that in a summarized way. If you google around, there all the things are out in English too. I think a good place to start is with Rasmea Odeh adn Sarsour. The fact that some Jews also support organizations or say similar things doesn’t say much, since a lot of Jews have supported antisemitism throughout history. She probably is not an antisemite in the way the Nazis would be, but then a lot of antisemitism is not that overt anymore, especially on the Left and just like racism, a lot of antisemitic sentiments probably happen subconsciously. Antisemitism is a huge problem in Muslim communities all over the world (and has lead to several outright murders and a lot of lower key hate crimes such as vandalism or assault by Muslims in the West alone) and at the very least, this is just another thing that Sarsour has no awareness of whatsoever and that she doesn’t care about. Zionism is very often how antisemitic sentiments are phrased overtly and it is very often assumed that since Israel exists and has a powerful military, Jews are oppressors that you can do anything to them in the fight for justice. That she says things like “I support a one state solution” alone speaks volumes if you think about how impossible that would be in practice. She basically says she wants the distruction of a Jewish state. She is too smart to say that openly though of course.
    I am not in the position to march in a US womens march since I am German but if I was, Linda Sarsour would be a reason for me to not do it. I think she has done too many things that “reflect badly” and seems resistant to criticism and even with a charitable reading just sort of glosses over a lot of issues with regard to her own community – a lot of people do that, but the stuff that aren’t in order in Islam with regards to antisemitism, sharia law, misogyny etc. are pretty big things to overlook.

    Here are the German sources in case anyone can read them

  3. Lol… Generally killing a police office overshadows any good someone did prior. Kind of the risk you take when shooting a cop, Kyle.

    Are there not plenty of other feminist activists who could be honored? It’s just really put of pocket to say happy birthday to a murderer, regardless of who they murder. Not a great look, and an obvious reach.

    Not sure why someone would take issue with Thomas’s take on that.

  4. I take your point, and I partially see where you’re coming from. It seems clear that this tweet was a provocative act, but I’m not convinced, as Thomas implied, that the only motivation for it was stupidity.

    Again, putting aside the cultural context of the moment (i.e., extra-judicial execution of black civil rights figures conducted by law enforcement, as noted by Thomas), and ignoring the ambiguous circumstances of the incident itself (i.e., what happened, who instigated, who did the shooting, etc?), even if we take it as granted that this woman willfully killed a police officer, can you see a valid argument being made that honoring the work this woman did (overshadowed as it may be), despite her having killed a police officer, can have utility for a civil rights group that wants to push back against society’s (i.e., our) tendency to reduce people of color to their crimes?.

  5. Sorry to post twice, but I just listened to Politically Reactive, and they raised some interesting points on this, if anyone’s interested.

    They interviewed Sarsour last episode, and recorded with Tapper before the tweets, so they recorded a new episode and addressed the topic somewhat with a cyber-sociology professor.

    One of the relevant points they mentioned was Sarsour including the alt-right comment in her response to Tapper’s criticism, and how it functioned not as an accusation about Tapper or a rebuttal to the argument, but to highlight the effect it can have for a mainstream, national news figure to echo the alt-right’s stance, using their terminology.

    Moreover, they touched on the way in which privellege operates as Tapper steps into an ongoing conversation, and feels free to “call it as he sees it,” without recognition of the context, connotations, or interraction between the alt-right and civil rights activists on this issue.

    Definitely worth a listen.

  6. “Lol… Generally killing a police office overshadows any good someone did prior. ”

    That’s potentially true but just keep in mind that the court determined that it was impossible for her to have killed the police officer. Her arms were paralysed from being shot multiple times when her arms were up, the officer testified that she did not have a gun and was not seen firing a gun, and no gun shot residue was found on her and her clothing.

    So her crime was that she was part of a group committing a felony, which means that legally she gets charged with everything the group does.

    That doesn’t necessarily excuse her from all criticism, but it’s like calling a getaway driver a “cop killer” because while he was being arrested outside his friend in the bank shot a cop. Legally he’s responsible but morally I’d argue not.

  7. Thanks for doing this episode, Thomas. I was in the same position as you where I didn’t know much about Sarsour, then had to try to make sense of all the hyperbolic criticisms of her. I’m not sure I fully agree with everything you said but I think I broadly reach the same conclusion – that she’s flawed but not as bad as the far right has painted her, and she’s done a lot of good work.

    At the beginning you mentioned her comments about assimilation and you were on the right track to speculate that she probably meant something like not being forced to change their cultural clothes. If you wanted more specific information then the debate is usually framed as “assimilation vs integration”, where assimilation is understood as erasing everything unique about your culture to become indistinguishable from others in the culture you’re in, and integration means adopting new values from the culture you’re in while retaining the good and important aspects of your own. Sarsour argues that immigrants should integrate, rather than assimilate.

    I disagree that she should have said “no” to the question about implementing Sharia law because that would have been a lie. She wants Sharia law, she just wants to educate people on why that doesn’t mean what ignorant or far right people thinks it means. To her (and many Muslims) it’s no different from Jewish or Christian law – it’s a set of rules religious people live by to properly serve their God. There’s no implication that it should be applied to the country as a whole as the formal legal system. But I assume I might hear more about this in your upcoming episode!

    I’m also probably a little more lenient on the Hirsi Ali tweet. It’s an insulting thing to say but it’s not particularly egregious and we certainly don’t slam anyone else as hard as Sarsour for saying much worse things. For example, Hirsi Ali has argued that all Muslims are radicals and that they need to be “crushed” through military action ( Yet we praise her, buy her books, invite her to talks, etc, even though she continues to say these things but dismiss Sarsour for an off-the-cuff PG-rated insult that she deleted.. I think it’s good that she called it stupid and distances herself from it, but I can understand why she’d get frustrated with trolls invading her talks just to ask her about something so minor.

    As for the Women’s March celebrating the birthday of Shakur, I can’t really see a problem with it. As I think you noted, we know that she personally didn’t kill the cop (and couldn’t, as it was impossible). So at best we have someone who was part of a group where a cop was killed nearly 50 years ago. When we consider the other facts you mention, that black civil rights leaders were being assassinated, that she was shot with her hands up and back turned, that there was an FBI task force dedicated to attributing crimes to her even when they had no reason to think she was responsible, etc, I think it becomes very difficult to view it as a simple issue where criminals killed a cop as people like Tapper were painting it.

    And I know your argument wasn’t that we should dismiss all of her good work, instead it was just that maybe it isn’t a good idea to celebrate this woman given her baggage – but would we accept that argument for anyone else? We don’t seem to have a problem with black rights groups celebrating Malcolm X despite him openly calling for and inciting violence (because we understand the context and importance of his work).

    For me personally I wasn’t aware of Shakur or any of her work and troubles, and because of them mentioning her birthday I was exposed to all of her good work – which seems like a good thing to me. And of course a group that fights for women’s rights needs to do so for all women, including prisoners and criminals. I think it was intentionally provocative, not in a trolling way but in the sense that they knew it’d get people talking and now a lot more people will be aware of the injustice that occurred during Shakur’s trial and her subsequent treatment.

    Anyway, I hope this didn’t come across as too negative, I view them more as quibbles as ultimately I found myself in strong agreement and really appreciated having a rational voice on this issue when everyone else seems to be losing their heads. Can’t wait to hear the upcoming episode!

  8. I figured I’d start off by saying thanks, Thomas, for the rundown. It was informative, and I’m glad you’re not the sort of person to shill for a convenient narrative.

    The tweet about Assata Shakur didn’t quite bother me as much as it seems to have bothered you. I agree it was pretty poor from a PR perspective, though. I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt as far as her being framed, knowing that COINTELPRO pulled some pretty despicable stuff. But that would have been a situation where I’d say it’s a good time to bow to political reality and pick someone less controversial to use as an icon of a movement.

    Then again, it occurs to me that saying Sarsour should have bowed to political reality there isn’t the best way to address that. I’m a white guy. For me, that’s all it is. For a Muslim woman activist, taking an easier route was left in the dust years ago when she first started speaking out. She’s no stranger to controversy anyway, so maybe she feels less of a need to try and avoid it. Or she’s got a different tolerance for it based on what she’s been through and didn’t really see this as that outrageous.

    I’d made the point about the jihad thing to someone else about her. She goes out of her way to make it clear she’s talking about non-violence and cites a source within a holy book that backs up her view. Plus, I’d already known about the concept of inner jihad. It really is used that way quite a bit. Between longstanding context and the citation she made in her speech, there’s simply no way to interpret that as a call to terrorism.

    As far as her response to the fellow in that video, that seemed completely inappropriate. I don’t see any way that race or sex should come up in her answer to that question. It was a pretty underhanded way to deflect from it and it seemed like it was attacking the guy asking the question some. Then she purposefully misled people further to try and wiggle out of it. On top of that, she’s saying she wants to take the vagina away from a victim of genital mutilation. She said someone who went through FGM doesn’t deserve to be a woman. That makes those remarks even worse.

    There was no reason for that remark or for her response to it. That behavior, and especially her reaction in that video, makes it pretty tough to counter the strawmen put out there by people opposed to social justice, feminism, colleges, and so forth.

    Definitely a flawed activist, definitely not a terrorist. I would have to see more to judge on the anti-Semitism thing. Just being critical of Israel isn’t enough for that label. Considering their stance on religion, it would be a rare atheist in the U.S. who wouldn’t be critical of how they run things over there.

  9. You mention that there doesn’t seem to be any good excuse for the Happy Birthday tweet, but if it did nothing more than to get you, and maybe others, to research Assata Shakur and learn about all of the horrifying actions of the FBI and police around the country during those times. Having grown up in the sixties and seventies, I remember the turmoil caused by people who only wanted to be treated as equals. And I can see much of that turmoil being fomented again, and again the worst aspects are being perpetrated by government agencies, and by the media deliberately putting fear into the minds of people about those who are only trying to be equal.

  10. I’m gonna send a birthday tweet out for Ted bundy.

    Sure he killed all those women, but he opened our eyes up to a certain type of serial killer, and also helped catch the green river killer!

    Just ignore the murders on his birthday.

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