Linda Sarsour knows how to attract attention. She may be the most visible Islamist activist in the United States today, and her use of the word “jihad” during a speech to the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) July 1 generated a predictable response from opponents, followed by an even more predictable wave of sympathetic media coverage.
The Huffington Post and Time magazine published op-eds defending Sarsour, who until recently directed the Arab American Association of New York, and accepting that she did not use to word to incite violence. The Washington Post went further, giving Sarsour her own op-ed to cast herself as “a target of the Islamophobia industry.”
It might be easier to give her the benefit of the doubt if she didn't have such a deep history of hatred and extremism, especially against everyone who supports Israel's right to exist. It also might help if she didn't make a point of lauding radical Islamists and at least one terrorist.
In addition to mentioning jihad, Sarsour used her ISNA remarks to praise Imam Siraj Wahhaj as “my favorite person in this room,” calling him “a mentor, a motivator an encourager of mine. Someone who has taught me to speak truth to power and not worry about the consequences.”
Muslims shouldn't become politically active because it is “the American thing to do,” Wahhaj said in 1991. Muslims who do get involved should “be very careful [to remember] that your leader is for Allah … You get involved in politics because politics can be a weapon to use in the cause of Islam.”
In 1995, Wahhaj also described America as “a garbage can … filthy and sick.”
Does Sarsour agree with her mentor? She should say so publicly and with the same conviction that she uses to attack her critics.
Wahhaj was listed as an unindicted co-conspirator in the prosecution of the first World Trade Center bombing mastermind Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman. He defended Abdel-Rahman as a “respected scholar,” and a “bold, as a strong preacher of Islam.”
Years later, Wahhaj spoke at a fundraiser for Aafia Siddiqui, known as “Lady al-Qaida,” following her conviction on terrorism charges. “I studied the case a little bit,” he said in 2011. “I think that she innocent. And I think at least there is grounds, there's reasonable doubt. And by law, if there's reasonable doubt, you have to acquit.”
But Wahhaj wasn't the only extremist Sarsour embraced during the ISNA convention. She posed for a photograph with Nihad Awad – a Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) founder and its only executive director – and ultra-conservative cleric Yasir Qadhi. The picture was in response to a court ruling allowing President Trump's travel ban targeting seven Muslim-majority countries.
Sarsour is considered a progressive politically and emerged as a key surrogate for Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign. Wahhaj, Qadhi and Awad, however, all represent an ultra-conservative form of Islam. Wahhaj made it clear he wants to change America to serve “the cause of Islam.”
Internal documents link Awad to a U.S.-based Hamas support network created by Egypt's radical Muslim Brotherhood, which seeks a global Islamic state.
Awad joined other members of the network, called the Palestine Committee, for a key, weekend-long 1993 meeting aimed at finding ways to “derail” the U.S.-brokered Oslo Accords, which offered hope for a peaceful settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While that hope never materialized, Palestine Committee members made it clear that their opposition was rooted in the agreement's acceptance of Israel's existence, something they could never abide.
When he spoke, he followed the organizers' admonition not to mention Hamas by name, but to refer instead to “Samah,” which is Hamas spelled backward.
During a public appearance six months later, Awad announced that he used to support the PLO, but now supports Hamas. Hamas rejects any peaceful settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with its recently updated charter saying, “Hamas refuses any alternative which is not the whole liberation of Palestine, from the river to the sea.”
Sarsour claims to be inspired by the non-violent example of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., but in April, she said she was “honored” to share a stage with Rasmieh Odeh, a terrorist whose 1969 Jerusalem grocery store bombing left two college students dead.
The two women later embraced.
t's not surprising. To Sarsour, a “Zionist” automatically is a bad person. But a cleric who reminisces fondly about the time “when homosexuals were looked down upon … and how disgusted the average masses were with that segment of society” is a natural ally.
ISNA welcomed Yasir Qadhi despite such views, and despite his other preaching that women should not work unless they have no choice, because that is the role God created for them.
“Stay at your house,” he said in a 2012 sermon. “Your food and drink will come to you. What more do you want? Your husband will provide for you all that you need … you take care of the small, little things of the house. You please your husband. And in return your husband will give you the far more difficult things to do of earning money and doing this and that.”
Call attention to these facts and Sarsour will blast you as part of right wing Zionist conspiracy to silence her. This ignores liberal opposition to Sarsour, which we highlighted after January's Women's March.
One of those liberal critics, University of Chicago evolutionary biologist and author Jerry Coyne, sees manipulation behind Sarsour's recent actions. He calls her “a canny and self-promoting woman—a hijabi who believes in sharia law, demonizes Israel, accepts BDS and a 'one state solution' that would wipe out Israel” who still manages to be “seen as a feminist hero.”
Sarsour knew invoking jihad would create a stir, one which could become a vehicle for advancing a sanitized interpretation of the word.
“And that is why Sarsour is dangerous, and a terrible icon for progressivism,” Coyne writes. “She's trying to make the words 'sharia' and 'jihad' into progressive terms.”
Sarsour may work with progressive activists on their causes. But her core cause is advancing a conservative form of her religion. Her choice of heroes makes that clear.