The Tone Policing of Linda Sarsour

Photo credit Kristina Flour

I don’t know much about Linda Sarsour. She’s a Palestinian-American, Muslim woman who was born in Brooklyn, New York. She’s a progressive activist who helped organize the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. She maintains that her particular form of activism is non-violence in the vein of Martin Luther King, Jr. One thing I know for sure is that she’s controversial. It seems that every word she says publicly is open to different interpretation by politically charged, partisan groups.

Earlier this month, Sarsour spoke at the Islamic Society of North America Convention in Chicago. During her speech, she told a story about a man who asks the prophet what the best form of jihad is and the prophet replied, “A word of truth in front of a tyrant ruler or leader, that is the best form of jihad.” She went on to say, “I hope that when we stand up to those who oppress our communities, that Allah accepts from us that as a form of jihad, that we are struggling against tyrants and rulers not only abroad in the Middle East or the other side of the world, but here in the United States of America, where you have fascists and white supremacists and Islamophobes reigning in the White House.” (Italics mine, but represent her vocal emphasis.)

Jihad has several different meanings. Its basic meaning is “struggle” but it is also used, primarily by violent extremists, to mean “holy war” against the infidels. But in the Muslim religion, jihad is much more than those simple and very different meanings. As I understand it, people of the Muslim faith are required to struggle with themselves to maintain their faith, to struggle with their neighbors to build a good Muslim community and to struggle in defense of themselves if attacked. There are, of course, more nuanced definitions, but the most recent controversy swirling around Sarsour resides in these two basic meanings.

It seems pretty clear to me, simply from reading the portion of her speech quoted above, that when Sarsour uses the word jihad, she is not using it to incite her audience to a violent holy war against their neighbors or the U.S. Government. It’s clear that she’s talking about speaking truth to power. If it’s unclear at all from reading the words, when you listen to the speech, Sarsour emphasizes the word “that” (italicized above) making it clear that she is referring to “a word of truth” and ultimately saying that she hopes Allah will accept speaking a word of truth to a tyrant as a form of jihad: i.e., a form of non-violent struggle against their oppression.

I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time on Twitter this week defending Sarsour’s use of the word from various critics. I found that her critics generally fell into one of two camps:

1) People on the right who claim that jihad always means holy war and by using that word, she must have intended to incite violence. Besides, even if she didn’t really mean to incite violence, she should have known better than to use that word because “everyone” knows that it always means holy war.

2) People on the left who say that because she’s seen as a representative of the Democrats (or at least the progressive left), she should have known better than to use the word jihad because “most Americans” freak out when they hear that word. If we want to win elections, people like Sarsour have to be careful not to make people think the left is in favor of the “bad” kind of jihad.

I think both of those criticisms are ridiculous but the second type made me angrier.

The first criticism is pretty easy to dismiss. It’s obvious that most of it comes from ignorance, racism and Islamophobia. Twitter trolls generously provided me more links to Fox News clips than I could ever hope to sort through in the hopes to enlightening me to what a horrible, Sharia-loving, woman-hating person Sarsour truly is. Total strangers had the gaul to tell me, “You better do your research on her extreme views before you defend her.” There are Muslims who do not like her and Fox News apparently loves to interview them in their shallow quest to appear fair. The details of these debates are, honestly, irrelevant. The critics didn’t care about context or nuance. They cherry-picked the one word in her speech that suited their agenda and ran with it. Ultimately, they made up their minds about Sarsour’s character and nothing could convince them otherwise.

The second criticism is much more insidious. I know there are people on the left who don’t like her for various reasons. A lot of it has to do with the constant clashes between the Palestinians and Israel. Some of her critics are probably racist, some probably aren’t. Those people don’t want her as any kind of representative of the progressive left and they weren’t defending her at all. But there were a few people that seemed to be defending her generally and who were okay with her being at least a token of diversity for the left. But what they said was “She should have known better than to use a word that’s so inflammatory to so many people.” Although no one said it specifically, it was clear that their argument revolved around not wanting to scare the white, working class people of America.

My response is this: I am sick and tired of seeing white liberals tell POC (people of color) and other marginalized groups to watch what they say so they don’t piss off other white people. I’m not saying I’m Ms. Woke White Lady of the Year or anything but at least I know enough not to talk out of both sides of my mouth when it comes to being an ally. Sarsour is a strong, outspoken woman who speaks for her community in the way they need her to. Remember, this was a speech to a Muslim audience. She and her audience know better than any non-Muslim what the word jihad meant in this particular context. This kind of tone policing of our allies is exactly what we, as Democrats and progressives, should NOT be doing. We need to stand up for a multicultural America and the right of each community to speak for itself. If we are going to build a strong, progressive coalition, we must include POC and Muslims and other groups. But we can’t welcome them with one hand while being paternalistic and controlling with the other hand. We don’t get to tell them how to fight their own oppression or the words they can and can’t use when they discuss that fight.

I’m sure that if I read more about Sarsour, I would disagree with her on some issues. I might not even like the words she chooses. But that’s not the point. As her ally in the progressive movement, I will fight for her right to choose the way she describes her struggle. Even if it makes my white neighbors uncomfortable.