A few years ago I shared a stage on The Steve Harvey Show with Linda Sarsour, a prominent Palestinian-American activist. She was pleasant and insightful, and the show, which focused on religious issues, was entertaining. I did not know, or expect, that a few years later she would be the source of such immense controversy.
Linda, who served as co-director of the Woman’s March on Washington, gave the keynote address at a Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) luncheon on July 1. A week later, the speech was picked up by the wider media for some of its words, which not a few writers found problematic. In particular, they didn’t seem to like the “jihad” she seemed to have called for against US President Donald Trump.
The “best form of jihad,” she quoted the prophet Mohammed, was “a word of truth in front of a tyrant or leader.” She was speaking, she admitted, of the “fascists and white supremacists and Islamophobes reigning in the White House.”
Earlier this week, Sarsour took to The Washington Post to defend her address.
Her use of the word “jihad” was “not a call to violence, but a call to speak truth to power.” She claimed she was committed to nonviolence, and that jihad “to majority of Muslims and according to religious scholars means ‘struggle’ or ‘to strive for.’” The word, she added, had simply been “hijacked by Muslim extremists and right-wing extremists alike.”
Now, to begin, there’s a lot to respect about a woman like Sarsour who refuses to compromise her faith on the national stage and wore a head covering appeared on the Steve Harvey Show beside me. As an Orthodox Jew, I respected that. Sarsour should be commended for her commitment to Islam in the face a culture that often makes us feel the need to conform and assimilate.
I would advise her, however, to be clear and careful with her words, as should any activist in the public eye. The word “jihad” has been co-opted by a staggering number of Islamic terrorists throughout the world, who have used the word as a banner under which to launch attacks against innocents on every continent save Antarctica. If Sarsour chooses to call for jihad, she should be sure to condemn the violence that has so often been fostered under its verbal cloak.
This is especially true considering that one can’t be sure that Sarsour truly does repudiate the violent connotations of jihad. After all, she spoke alongside Rasmea Odeh at a dinner, and told the audience that she was “honored to be on this stage with Rasmea.” Rasmea Odeh was a member of the PFLP convicted in 1969 for her involvement in the bombing of an Israeli supermarket on a Friday afternoon, when the shops are most crowded by Jews preparing for Shabbat. One bomb, placed inside a can of instant coffee, took the lives of two young students and maimed nine more. A second bomb, set to detonate once emergency workers had arrived, would have killed many more had it not been quickly defused by security forces.
Even if we are to lay the jihad issue aside, however, Linda’s speech was still deeply troubling, albeit for very different reasons.
At the start of her speech, Linda extended her gratitude to her “favorite person in this room, Imam Siraj Wahhaj,” whom she went on to call her “mentor, motivator and encourager.” It should be noted that this man is no stranger to controversy himself, most notably for his hateful views toward homosexuals, non-Muslims and even America itself.
With regard to homosexuality, the imam said “the prophet cursed, la’ana, cursed the feminine man and the masculine woman,” a phenomenon he went to describe as “a disease of this society.” In 1992, Imam Wahhaj expressed his desire to burn down a gay-friendly mosque in Toronto, if only he could. His admonition of “woe to the Muslims who pick kafirs [non-Muslims] for friends” implies that Wahhaj is no fan of peaceful coexistence either, a fact I find surprising considering that Linda holds “radical love” to be a tenet of her faith.
Nor is the imam very fond of America, a country he’s described as “controlled by Shaytan [Satan]” with regard to both its “government” and “its way of life.” He was pretty sure about that one too: there was, in his own words, “no doubt about it.”
The greatest irony, however, of Linda being a self-proclaimed feminist amid her “mutual” love of Wahhaj is his unsavory views on women in general. In a speech given a few years ago Imam Wahhaj proclaimed that “we want our women back to their natural place. What’s their natural place? Feminine. Allah made them feminine.”
All of these speeches, of course, can be viewed on YouTube.
What was most concerning, however, about Linda’s speech was not her verbal commissions but her omissions.
In the keynote address to what Sarsour herself described as “the largest gathering of Muslims in America,” the social-justice activist did not once call on the American Muslim community to rise in action against the greatest humanitarian atrocity of our century: the genocide of Sunni Muslims in Syria. The killings in Syria – one of the greatest episodes of slaughter in the history of Islam – has been raging now for six years. In that time, Syrian President Bashar Assad has had no bars placed on his appetite for carnage. He has launched heavy artillery barrages at and dropped incendiary bombs on civilian neighborhoods, employed poison gas against women and children and even constructed crematoria to incinerate the remains of his political prisoners – of whom there have been 117,000 so far. I needn’t mention that over half a million have been murdered in what may be the largest humanitarian catastrophe since World War II.
And while all of this goes on, Linda has nothing to say to the largest gatherings of Muslim leaders in the one country that can do the most to stop it.
Even when she did vaguely allude to tyrants in the Middle East, she did so in a way that asked the audience to pass on their outrage relating to those tyrants in favor of the one she believes we have here at home. In her own words: “We are struggling against tyrants and rulers not only abroad or in the Middle East or on the other side of the world, but here in the United States of America.”
Regardless of what one thinks of Donald Trump, to lump him together with Bashar Assad under the shared term of “tyrant” is to show the deepest contempt for the suffering people of Syria, who are brutalized at the hands of a dictator in ways we Americans can scarcely imagine.
Even worse, far from trying to amplify Muslim-Americans’ so-far tepid response to the horrors befalling our brothers and sisters in Syria, Linda shockingly asked them to tone it down.
Here, her words must be quoted to be believed: “When you’re at a fundraiser and you’re giving $1,000 to Syria... I ask you to say to yourself, ‘I’m gonna give $1,000 to Syria? Maybe this time I’m gonna give $800 to Syria, and then I’m gonna take the other $200 and give it to an organization like ICNA Relief, ISNA... [or] a local organization.’” As a committed anti-genocide activist who runs an organization that heads anti-genocide media initiatives, I found these words to be the most troubling of her address.
In his brilliant article in the Washington Post
titled “The Muslim World Failed Syria Long Before Anyone Else Did,” Arsalan Iftikhar, an international human rights lawyer, lamented the fact that “our own American Muslim community of 7 million has also failed the Syrian people miserably by inadequately mobilizing to help them.”
The tragic abandonment of the people of Syria evident in Sarsour’s speech – a speech which, over the course of 20 minutes, did not mention Assad even once – sadly proves Iftikhar’s damning words true.
In a keynote address to some of the most powerful philanthropists, leaders and activists in the American-Muslim community, Linda Sarsour asked the audience to scale back their efforts to relieve those Muslims suffering the greatest atrocity on earth today. Those are words which simply cannot be clarified. And it is words like those, far more than her use of the term “jihad,” that represent the failure which Sarsour, and the entire American-Muslim community, ought to make right.
For a woman with apparently easy access to the opinion pages of the Washington Post
, Syria should be at the top of her agenda, and that of any American who believes in our dearest values of life, liberty and justice.
The author, “America’s rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” is founder of The World Values Network and is the international best-selling author of 31 books. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
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