The Palestinian-American mother of three has been a vocal organizer on behalf of Arab Americans and Muslims for decades. She never imagined that her activism would lead to building coalitions across constituencies on a national stage — or require security detail due to ongoing death threats.
Her new book, We Are Not Here to Be Bystanders: A Memoir of Love and Resistance, maps her journey from growing up as an outspoken oldest child of immigrants to former executive director of the Arab American Association of New York and national co-chair of the Women’s March.
Sarsour wants to get a few things straight. The Arabic word “jihad” does not mean “holy war.” Muslims understand it as something humans engage in every day, “whether reaching for harmony in a relationship or success in a particular endeavor, the nature of being human is ‘to strive.’” The concept is central to her life, and she opens the book with the following passage:
In one of my favorite stories from the Hadith, a man asks the beloved Prophet Muhammad: “What is the best form of jihad?” I have always loved the Prophet’s answer: “A word of truth in front of a tyrant ruler or leader, that is the best form of jihad.” For me, this call to peaceful yet courageous action expresses our highest human responsibility — to care for one another by showing up and speaking out for the voiceless among us. It’s a call that I believe is especially crucial in these times.
In a keynote address at the Islamic Society of North America’s 54th annual convention in Chicago in July 2017, she shared this story and reiterated the importance of standing up against oppression: “We are struggling against tyrants and rulers not only abroad in the Middle East or on the other side of the world, but here in these United States of America, where you have fascists and white supremacists and Islamophobes reigning in the White House.”
She didn’t mean for it to be provocative. But within days, the alt-right edited clips of her references to jihad and spread them on Twitter inflaming Islamophobes. One outlet published a headline that stated she was calling for “a holy war against the president of the United States.” The news went viral, and her life — along with her ability to take safety for granted — has never been the same.
Although the dominant narrative has trained people to see a Muslim woman wearing a veil as a victim, Sarsour and her friends see hers as a cape that empowers her. Before she began to wear one, with her light skin, straight black hair, and heavy Brooklyn accent, people often read her as Puerto Rican, Dominican, or Italian. The day she put on a hijab was the day she finally recognized herself in the mirror. “For the first time in my nineteen years, I appeared to the world as exactly what I was, unapologetically Muslim.” She explains:
My husband and the rest of my family really didn’t mind one way or the other, nor had anyone else tried to compel me. Instead, surrounded by my mother and sisters on an ordinary Saturday in my native Brooklyn, I freely chose. All my life I had yearned for a visible identity in the world, and that morning, seeing my reflection in the hallway mirror, I had found it at last. That was the day I began to feel whole.
That at the outset Sarsour addresses her jihad and hijab — two things that are essential to her identity yet are weaponized against her — reveals the author’s decision to use the book as an opportunity to set the record straight and to respond to the backwardness of the current political climate wherein Arabic words are demonized, women’s clothing choices are a battleground, and the very humanity of Muslims, and particularly Palestinians, is too often dismissed. And yet, the writing does not come off as preachy thanks to the storytelling, which weaves together the personal and the political with coming-of-age anecdotes and present-day struggles. The underlying theme that runs throughout the first two thirds of the book — that “Muslims are good people, too” — is painfully simple albeit understandable given the backlash the author and her communities have experienced.
September 11, 2001 propelled Sarsour into community organizing. She illuminates the brutality she and her communities have faced, from racial and religious profiling to right-wing media storms that paint the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims as a homogeneous group of extremists. Describing the toll, she writes, “[I]t sometimes felt to me as if the very air had been poisoned, and my whole body ached from breathing in all the hate.” In recent years, as the online vitriol aimed at her has increased, she has wondered if being in the movement is worth endangering her family and herself.
The third section of the book, entitled “The Sisterhood,” highlights the challenges that arise within social justice movements, from systemic violence and infighting. A nine-day pilgrimage over 250 miles from New York to Washington, DC, in the spring of 2015 is a case in point. A large group of people marched to deliver a three-point justice package to members of Congress that aimed at countering the overpolicing of neighborhoods and preserving community-based alternatives to juvenile incarceration.
I thought I’d understood the need for the Black Lives Matter movement before, but on that pilgrimage I began to grasp in a much deeper way why our tense passage through KKK country had left the African Americans in our group so shattered. Not many Muslims died in police custody, so for me to witness and hold the firsthand experiences of my African American fellow justice warriors was transformative. As so many BLM activists had explained: “Our demand is simple: Stop killing us.” I felt as if all my notions about freedom and justice in America were being cracked open, showing how inextricably bound were the struggles of all oppressed people, and how critical it was that we work together. For me, there was no going back from here.
The chapter “The Women Who Marched” explores Sarsour’s involvement in organizing the Woman’s March, the largest single-day protest in US history, with the qualifier that “other people might tell this story differently.” She documents how she and two of her closest allies came to be named three of the four national co-chairs and shares some of the organizing challenges within the group. She writes, they “slogged through” navigating “uncharted corners of our sisterhood” in order to “pitch a large and inclusive tent, one that would allow the whole beautiful rainbow of women in America to find their place in the march, too.”
The text reveals that no struggle is too small to take seriously, and the small fights get people in shape for larger ones. In June 2017, hundreds of activists and allies came together for iftar, the evening meal at which Muslims break their fast during Ramadan, intentionally held outside of Trump Tower in Manhattan as a form of peaceful protest against the administration’s continued anti-Islam rhetoric.
When Sarsour noticed a group of people in red Make America Great Again baseball caps watching them from behind a barricade, she approached them and invited them over. “Would you like something to eat?” she asked. “We have more than enough. Whenever we order food during a fast, we always end up ordering a bit too much.” They seemed curious. “But the only thing I ask is that if you come inside the barricade, you must take off your hat. It is triggering and hurtful to many of us here, so if you come into this space, I ask that you respect it.” No one accepted the invitation, but she noticed their demeanor was friendlier and less guarded afterward, which gave her hope. “Baby steps,” she thought as she walked away.
Sarsour invites these folks to join her family at the dinner table. She hopes you’ll do the same. In the final pages of the manuscript, she transparently asserts a call to action: “I am calling on everyone who reads this book to join me in the struggle for a redeemed nation, one that will heal its divisions and affirm the sanctity and sovereignty of every life as it paves the way for a better world.”
Stephanie Abraham is a writer, media critic, and communications specialist born, raised, and based in Los Angeles.