Simran Jeet Singh:
Hi, everyone. Thanks for joining our program, “Becoming Less Racist: Lighting the Path to Anti-Racism.” I’m Simran Jeet Singh, your host and I’m so delighted to be here going today by Linda Sarsour, a good friend and nationally recognized justice leader and author of the new book, “We’re Not Here to be Bystanders: A Memoir of Love and Resistance,” and I’ve had it on my shelf since the day it came out actually right when the pandemic hit, and had been waiting for life to settle down enough to read it. And in the last 48 hours in preparation for our conversation, I just tore through it and I couldn’t put it down. And I’m so glad to have her here to talk about a topic that’s dear to my heart. And I think really important for us as a country –and that’s Islamophobia and racism.
Before we turn to Linda, I just want to give you a word on the program. Our vision is to offer the two things that we believe the world badly needs right now. First, we want to offer you insight into what’s actually going on with racism. What does it look like? And what’s happening? As James Baldwin stated beautifully, if I love you, I have to make, are you conscious of the things you don’t see. The other thing we hope to do here is to receive guidance from our expert guests on how to move from just understanding racism into taking action. And this may come as wisdom on how to grapple with the racist ideas embedded within ourselves.
It may come as guidance on actions we can take to make the society around us less racist, but at the end of the day, our real focus is to move from idea into action because, and as Angela Davis told us so beautifully and powerfully, in a racist society, it’s not enough to be anti-, sorry, to be sorry, in a racist society, it’s not enough to be non-racist. We must be anti-racist. So again, thank you all for being here and for being on this journey with me. For those of you who don’t know her already, Linda Sarsour is a force. She’s a Palestinian American, who like many second-generation immigrants, lives into both of these identities.
She’s got the baddest Brooklyn accent you’ve ever heard from a hijabi or otherwise, and her unwavering commitment to justice is something unlike many of us have ever seen. Her book, again, a fantastic read — “We’re Not Here to be Bystanders” — it chronicles her life as a Muslim woman growing up in New York City and her experiences at the center of so many justice issues of our time.
And I was — Linda, I was reading it the past few days and I was like, wow, you’re really in the eye of the hurricane at all times. Or at least that’s what it seems like. So, how are you? How are you holding up in this moment? I’m feeling really blessed Simran. I feel like I’ve been waiting two decades and working up to this moment.
I feel grateful to be alive during — we’re literally like in history and we just don’t realize it yet because we’re living in it and it’s in the present. But one day, you know, 20 years from now, we’re going to look back and say we were alive when America was in an uprising for justice and we were right there watching it or participating in it. So I’m feeling really blessed right now.
Yeah, I feel you. And it’s this strange, it’s a strange thing. When, when people ask you how you’re doing and in the middle of all this, all this chaos, and you’re like — good, actually like this, this is what we’re excited about. And we’re not excited about the pain and the suffering that people are enduring, but really this is moments of change.
And I think for someone like yourself and having read through your book and learned more about your story, it just feels like this is, this is the moment when people are finally paying attention to the kinds of suffering that you’ve endured personally. And I’d love for you to sort of shed some light on what it’s like to be you. Could you, could you give us a sense, or actually, could you reflect on, on a story — the first experience that you can remember of dealing with racism?
I think for me, Simran, I had a great upbringing in Brooklyn, New York. I was born and raised in Brooklyn. I live, I live in a place, I always tell people, Brooklyn is the place where you come to if you can’t afford to travel around the world, I can take you to China in Brooklyn. I can take you to Pakistan and India. I can take you to Middle Eastern communities. I can take you to West African and Latino communities and Central American communities. Like it really is the place to come to when you want to travel the world.
So, I actually grew up in a community where I didn’t really feel discriminated against because I actually kind of blended in with the people around me. I was not wearing hijab growing up in New York City as a kid, as a teenager, as a high school student. So, and because my name was Linda, I kind of blended in, you know, people thought I was Puerto Rican because I was from a particular neighborhood where there were a lot of Puerto Ricans that lived there.
And so, I kinda had a really great upbringing. I was, I went to a school that was about 80% Black. So, I’ve had deep relationships with Black communities for a long time. My father owned a bodega in a very predominantly Black and Caribbean community out in Crown Heights. So, I was just around a lot of diverse people and I felt good and I felt, you know, embraced. The one time, I think the first time I really felt a little otherized or, or felt like there was something different about me or political about me was, and I wrote about this in my, in my book — it’s being in a middle school and having to do a project that required us kind of picking a country and working around it as a group.
And I remember, the kids that were in my group asked me where I was from. And it was very, it was that moment for me, that radicalizing moment where the kids were like, where’s your family from? And of course, the kids in my group, one was Haitian. one was, from Central America, obviously, I was Palestinian and one of the kids in my group was African American.
So he was like, I’m from here, United States is how he described, obviously as a young person and another young man was able to point out where his country of origin was or his family’s country of origin. My Haitian friend was able to be like, Haiti’s right here. I wasn’t able to do that as a middle schooler because the map that my teacher had in her classroom didn’t have Palestine on it.
It was — that part of the world said Israel and I just, yeah, didn’t see myself in it. And it was one of those moments where I was like, what’s going on here? Do I not exist? And having kids who were not really bullying me or, or mocking me, but they were kinda like, confused, like what’s going on in your head?
You said you’re from Palestine, but where is Palestine? And that was a really hard moment for me. And I know that every Palestinian child, particularly those who grow up in the United States, have one of those moments. And so that was my first kind of introduction into understanding my existence, my heritage, my lineage, having really deep conversations with my family.
Although my family had been teaching me about Palestine from a very, very young age, that was like my moment when I, I started feeling like I was evolving in, into my kind of politicization of my identity as a Palestinian American.
Yeah, I’m remembering as you speak this idea that comes from Edward Said’s book on Orientalism, where he talks about — one of the challenges of modernity is, is that we trust people who we consider objective. And that ends up being Western Europeans, and we don’t trust people who seem like they don’t have access to rationality, like middle Easterners or uncivilized folk, South Asians, right. Anything that’s considered oriental.
And what you’re describing really reminds me of that because what you had in that moment as a kid, was you talking about your own lived experience. You know, you’re going to Palestine, being Palestinian and then you have a map in front of you and that tells you, and that, and that’s considered the authority figure as opposed to your own lived experience.
And I’m reminded of so many of my own childhood moments that were just like that. And, and it’s, it’s kinda, I’m smiling because like I, a lot of them I’ve forgotten, probably intentionally. But can you, can you describe as a kid, what does that feel like when, on the one hand, you have… you’re, you’re put in this position where you have to represent community, but, but also to be on the other side of the power dynamic as a kid, where you have to say, Oh, actually I exist despite what this map might be telling you.
What’s interesting Simran is that that’s a moment that you lived not just as a child, but you live in now as an adult. It’s I, every day I’m defending my existence. And what really hurts about it, especially with when you’re a kid, you’re like, how can I not, how can it not be there? I met my grandmother and my great grandmother. Like I was, I mean, my, I was alive, I mean, my great, great, great grandparents. At some point we had, I had a grandmother.
I had like a mom, a grandma, a great grandmother, and another great, great grandmother, like at one time. And so, for me, I was like, how is that possible? How, how is their story — they live in Palestine. They were born in, and their parents, parents, parents, parents, parents. I was just so confused. And then, you start trying to live in the world, always trying to explain yourself and also starting to understand that just your existence is political.
Like for example, if I ask somebody where they’re from and they say, Oh, my family’s from Mexico, you kind of move on from there. But when someone asks me where I’m from, whether it was when I was as young as a teenager, or even now as an adult, if someone says, Oh, where’s your family from? And I say, Palestinian.
The response becomes like, Well, I don’t really like to talk about politics. And I’m like, why is me telling you that my family’s Palestinian political? Like, can I just say that my parents are Palestinian? Like someone can say my parents are Pakistani or my parents are from, you know, Japan or my parents are from China?
Like this idea that just me saying I’m Palestinian already opens a political conversation, tells you everything you need to know about the politicization of our bodies and really of our existence. I just want to come to a time in life where someone asks me where I’m from originally or where my parents were born, and I say, Palestine, and that’s the end of the conversation. And we talk about something else. And that just never, ever happened to me. it’s always the, even if someone who is a friend or someone who’s actually asking me, who’s trying to get to know me, immediately when I say I’m Palestinian, then they want to talk about politics, even if they’re aligned with me.
And sometimes you just don’t want to do that. Can I just be Palestinian? And then can we talk about what we’re having for lunch afterwards? Or what’s your favorite coffee to drink? I don’t know. I just never really had that experience.
And, okay, so, so there’s, there’s this moment in the book where you have almost this, I don’t want to say opposite experience, but — okay, so your book opens up. At least one of the opening scenes is you as a 19-year-old, in Brooklyn, deciding to start wearing a hijab. And it’s not something you are obligated to do, right? Like unlike skin color, religious identity is often a choice. And, and you must have known it would come with some baggage.
I mean, contrary to your, your experience as a kid, looking at a map and seeing erasure, here you were as a 19-year-old, making yourself visibly, or at least choosing to make yourself visibly, different. And can you talk to us a little bit about that choice? What was, what was going on in your head and why did it seem important to you, despite the risks that might come with them?
I think it’s actually connected to the first conversation we had about being Palestinian. I grew up feeling erasure. I felt so ambiguous. I didn’t feel like I had an identity, because people never knew exactly what I was. Again, people — because I, because of the nature of the neighborhood I lived in, people thought I was, you know, Puerto Rican or some sort of Central American, because my name was Linda also, so that my name didn’t identify me. You know, like, as you know, in among Muslim women, there’s women named Fatima, Khadija, there are identifiable Muslim names. I didn’t have one of those names and I had dark hair. I had fair skin. So, people, again, I was just whatever people wanted me to be. And then it got to the point where you can’t even show people where your family’s from on a map.
And I realized that at a really young age, there was something always missing about my identity. And for me, hijab, it was a way to make myself feel whole. It was a way for me to proclaim and declare an identity — that the minute I walked into a room wearing a hijab. I was Muslim. And there was no question about it.
It was something about me that you knew. And I felt pride in that. And remember, I did wear hijab when I was 19, which was about almost a year and a half before 9/11 happened and I lived in New York City. I lived in Brooklyn. I lived in a Muslim community. So, when I walked out of my house, when I was 19 years old, there were other women wearing hijab.
It was actually, I didn’t actually feel like I was taking any risks at all, because I was very blessed to live in a very diverse community. I live near mosques. I, I, you know, my parents shopped at Muslim owned stores. A lot of the doctors we went to were Muslims from our community. A lot of my friends were Muslims.
I just didn’t really feel — and honestly, my neighbors who were from different parts of the world and many of them, which, immigrants, you know, again, like — they never treated my mom differently or our other neighbors were Muslim differently. So, I didn’t actually believe I was taking a risk at all.
For me, it was more about formulating an identity for myself at that age. And of course, as you know, a year and a half later, I went from being just a New Yorker, wearing a hijab and feeling embraced and feeling pretty still normal, believe it or not. Like in New York, it’s you can actually, yeah. You know, at some level, at that time in kind of 9/11 days, you could actually be normal and be Sikh American and be Muslim.
And it wasn’t, you know, I’m not saying that no one experienced any type of discrimination. I won’t take other people’s experiences away from them. But generally speaking, in my community where I was down in Southwest Brooklyn, I didn’t hear about a lot of discrimination cases happening against Muslim children, until that horrific day, when something really horrible happened at the hands of terrorists who claimed our faith.
And all of a sudden, we went from being, you know, regular New Yorkers to being part of a suspect class. And we literally, our whole identities were literally flipped upside down. We were no longer regular New Yorkers. We were no longer just your neighbors or just your classmates. There was something that became foreign about us. There was like a mistrust that just came out of nowhere. Like you’ve known my mom for two and a half decades. You’ve lived next door to her. Why all of a sudden is there’s a different feeling? Like nothing changed about my mom, you know, nothing changed about our family. So it was a really, just, what I think about is a really like confusing experience to have. You know, you know, I was 19, but remember where I was the oldest of seven.
So, I still had siblings who were younger than I, and just watching them see the different reactions we were getting from people who we considered to be really close to us was really confusing and really hurtful.
Yeah. And you have this moment in the book right after 9/11. I think you’re coming home from school, I think it is. and, and you’re you see your mother outside and she’s going to pick up your brother from school. And she, I think if I remember correctly, she doesn’t have hijab on and she’s, she’s saying, you know, now is not the time to cover or something along those lines.
And my sense was, and I don’t think you said this explicitly, my sense was like, there’s risk now, like things have changed and it’s kind of what you’re getting at here. Can you talk a little bit about what your response was in that moment? Did you, did you decide to take off your hijab for a little bit? Have you over the last, you know, 20 or so years since, when things have become a little bit more, vulnerable for Muslim women in particular?
It was actually the actual day of 9/11. As you know, in New York City, we had no public transportation. We didn’t have, you know, Twitter, no Facebook. I actually had no idea what was going on. So I walked home from my college campus for about two and a half hours til I reached my mother’s house where she was actually watching my children while I was at school and watching my mother run out of the house as I was coming into the house, without her hijab, jumping into her Lincoln Navigator to go pick up my brother who was in a school a bit farther from our neighborhood, ’cause he was in an honors program and so she felt so disconnected from him because he was so “far away,” which is really just the neighborhood over. And I said to her, Hey, like you forgot your hijab. And my mom looks back at me. She says we can’t wear it right now.
And I, at the moment, remember I didn’t, I still didn’t understand what had happened. Cause they were, again, there was no way, there was no cell phone service. I didn’t actually know what was happening. And when I walked into my mom’s house, my son was sitting on the floor in front of the TV. And then that’s when you realize what happened, I sat down. My son was like, look, mommy, fire, fire. And I’m looking at the buildings falling. And as you remember, the loop happened, it was literally every five minutes, the same images. And then of course the bottom of the screen, you know, Muslim terrorists, Muslims, Muslims, Islam, and I was just, just like horrified. And then that, of course at that moment, it clicked for me why my mom said that.
And I was like, Oh, my mom doesn’t think it’s safe right now. I think the difference between me and my mother is that my mother is an immigrant to this country. My mother came from living under a military occupation. My mom’s experiences growing up are much different than mine. My mom is immediately thinking, what’s going to be the response? Government, you know, law enforcement, like my mom’s mind goes somewhere else.
You know, what are people going to think of us right now? You know, my mom immediately was like, these people look like us. They have the same names as our husbands and fathers and sons. And my mom just went that direction. I think for me, my Brooklyn helps in this situation. My Brooklyn, I think people, from Brooklyn, there’s a double down effect that we have.
And I was like really upset actually, when I thought about it, that my mom thought that, you know, taking off her hijab was the way to respond in that moment. And so, when she came home, I actually was like, are you crazy? Like, put your hijab back on, like right now, like we’re not going to take our hijabs off.
And there’s a moment in my book also, where I talk about a woman who passed away, she was like an elder in our community, you know, who was also an immigrant. She actually was born way before the creation of the state of Israel. So, this woman has seen a lot in her life and she was even like, look, you know, faith is in the heart.
It’s not just about wearing a piece of cloth, you have to be, you know, you have children, you have to be safe. You know, God’s going to forgive you. Like, God’s not going to judge you for, you know, prioritizing your safety and the safety of your family. And I just continued doubling down ever since then.
I was like, no. I was like, I’m not going to allow this to be the reason why I’m not going to give in because these like horrible, horrific, barbaric terrorists are not my people. They are not, they are not the kind of Muslim that I am. They are people that do not represent my values, my principles. They are not the people who represent my faith, which I believe was one rooted in love and compassion for others.
And I’m just not going to give into this. And so, I’ve never taken off my hijab, since the day that I wore it. For whatever reasons I was, you see I’m out in with my hijab all day, every day, it could be 150 degrees outside. I’m still wearing my hijab. And I, and I think what I ended up getting to, Simran, is that as I got deeper into the work, I became a person that overcompensated for my own community. I mean, my role is not just an ordinary Muslim American who just wants to be connected to my faith and wear my hijab. I became a role model for young Muslim girls. I go to a lot of high schools. I go to a lot of, you know, Muslim student associations at college campuses.
And I want Muslim girls to see me and say, we are brave. We are courageous and see wearing hijab in America as an act of courage, because that is exactly what it is right now in the United States of America.
Yeah, I appreciate that. And for those of you who are joining us recently, this is Linda Sarsour, a nationally recognized, internationally recognized, justice activist, author of this new book “We Are Not Here to be Bystanders.” I read it over the last couple of days and really enjoyed it. Couldn’t put it down. Even mentioned to Linda earlier that my, my four-year-old got into it a little bit, too. So it’s good. It’s a kid’s book too.
Actually, now that you mentioned that, I do have a young adult book coming out for young readers between ages, like probably 11 to 13. And I also have a children’s book, like a very young, picture book, that’s also coming out. That’s going to be connected to the adult book as well. So that is coming soon.
Are they along the same lines? Are they around like what activism looks like and how to do it with, what, love and conviction?
So the, so the young readers’ book, I already titled that one on, I changed that a little bit, ’cause I feel like we are not here to be bystanders is a little bit, you know, kind of higher level than, you know, a little 12-year-old.
So the one, for the young adults it’s called, “We Are in This Together.” Right. I think that that’s something that young people can understand better and yeah, it’s just kind of sharing experiences in a way that is accessible to young people. And also, not shying away from being able to have hard conversations with these young people about things like 9/11 and police brutality in a way that I believe, is, that our children, in a way that is still compassionate and reminds them of their worth. So hopefully at the end of the book, you kind of come out of it saying, like, we are all in this together and we are all worthy to be treated with love and respect.
Yeah, I’m excited for those. And one of the things Linda and I were chatting about before the session even began was, what it’s like to be a parent of kids who have to deal with this stuff. And, and, and in my mind, it’s easy just sort of say, it’s a, it’s a responsibility, right? We should do this.
But the other way of saying that, is that it’s a privilege not to have to do that. And once you recognize that it’s a privilege, then the responsibility really hits hard that, that this is something that we need to teach our kids before they get to the age where it’s too late. Right? And I teach college and graduate students, and most of them haven’t had access to these kinds of ideas and don’t really know what it’s like.
And so that, Linda, that’s why I’m so grateful to you for the work that you do in educating us all. And I want to jump into this question that I get so often from, from Islamophobes. Any time — yeah, I mean, surely you get it a lot more than I do — but, anytime I, I refer to as Islamophobia as a form of racism, the immediate pushback is, well, Islamophobia is not a race or — sorry. Islam is not a race, so Islamophobia cannot be racism. So that’s one. The second is, a phobia implies something that is irrational and there’s nothing irrational about being fearful of people who are out to kill us. And so, I, I’d love for you to help us understand, if Islam not a race then how do we think of Islamophobia, and anti-Muslim hate, as a form of racism?
I appreciate that question. I think it’s really important because I think it’s not just the question that Islamophobes have. I think it might actually be in fact, something that people want to understand who are trying to address all forms of racism right now.
Actually, the Islamophobes are not totally wrong. I mean, obviously Islam is not a race. In fact, Muslims come from every racial background. I mean, a Muslim can be white. They could be Black and African American. They could be from the continent of Africa. They could be, you know, like Uighur Muslims, they could be from China.
They can be Japanese Muslim. They could be all kinds of indigenous Muslims like, and meaning like Native American Muslims. So, it’s true that Islam in fact is not a race because we do again, represent every racial group. The reason why we say Islamophobia is racism is because the way in which Muslims have been treated in America has been in a racialized manner.
So, the policies in which the government, in particular, has implemented, including the surveillance of mosques, for example, the ways in which the no-fly list works, the suspected terror watch list works, it singles out and targets Muslims based on faith. So based on one racialized group, so you could be African American Muslim, or you could the Egyptian Muslim, or you could be Pakistani or Indian Muslim, and you will all be treated the same way by our government based on this one factor of your identity, which is being Muslim.
So, Islam and Muslims have been racialized in the, in the context of the United States of America in a way that, we are experiencing systematic and systemic racism, or a systemic targeting of our community. So that is why we say Islamophobia .. Islamophobia, I think, was a term that eventually got garnered by a report that the Center for American Progress did at one point where they defined Islamophobia.
I think it’s more accurate to say anti-Muslim racism, but because the term has been used by media and used by academics and scholars, I think we just kind of go along with it. Yeah. Similarly, the same line as, and of course not the same experiences, but saying homophobia or saying transphobia or saying kind of some of the other phobias and racism, different kinds of racism or -isms that are out there.
But I think it is more accurate to say anti-Muslim racism. I think that’s how I feel like people are impacted by it, and again, it may be the context of it is different in other parts of the world, but in America, the ways in which the government has treated us has made it that we are all one group, which is why we ended up being one group, which is why it’s racism. And we, because we are racialized in America.
That’s great. That’s, that’s really helpful. And, and, and not to over plug your book, but if anyone really, I mean, I better me than you, I guess, but if anyone wants to see what this actually looks like — so Linda was speaking a few minutes earlier about how things changed after 9/11, and it’s not that anti-Muslim racism or anti-Muslim bias didn’t exist before. Of course, it did. But things, things changed from a policy perspective quite drastically. And so, one of the reasons Linda’s perspective is so instructive is that she was at the center of a lot of this. She talks about the NYPD mosque surveillance.
She talks about the ground zero mosque controversy. She talks about the — sorry, the Muslim ban, program, right? Yeah. So, so there are, the registry, some registry, right? The NSEERS program. So, there are so many ways in which this has become institutionalized, that makes it a lot easier for us to understand how these things are systemic, as opposed to somebody just pointing their finger at you on the — which they also do, right? Like pointing their finger at you on the street and being like, Hey, I don’t like you for whatever reason, but, but there’s, there’s a lot more to it. That’s that to me is, is the power of, of this book, is that it helps us see the things that we know are a problem.
Right? Anti-Muslim racism, we all have a sense of, of, of the existence of it, but the ways in which it manifests, yeah, it’s, it’s so different to, to see it from, from the insider perspective. Let me, let, let me just invite the viewers — if you have questions or comments for Linda, leave them in the comment section and I’ll try and I’ll try and get to you in a moment, but a couple more questions for Linda.
Can you talk a bit about — so, so much of your book and so much of your work, like one of the things I admire about you is that you don’t make it about yourself, right? It’s not about the hate that you receive, although you’re not, you’re not scared of, but you’re not scared to talk about it but, but it’s about larger systemic stuff.
But one of the things that really struck me in the book were these really tender moments where you talk about the things that hurt you the most, right? I’m thinking about the story or you share about your son, and, and, less about the discrimination that came his way and more about his shying away from even telling you, because he was like, you have, you have other, other people to serve. And I want to know, could you share with us a bit more about the personal side of things? Like, what is it like to be you? And what, what are those moments like when people come after you?
I think, you know, for me, some of the — I made sure that in my book, Simran, I did not make this a book about, I am not a victim. I am a survivor of anti-Muslim racism. I’m a survivor of, you know, smear and defamation campaigns. And I’m still here. In fact, I’ve been, reading a lot of articles recently about, cancel culture, about all this, you know, kind of, you’ve probably seen some of the controversy around it, and what does it mean for cancel culture?
And I’ve been at the receiving end of, quote, unquote, different attempts of cancelation, and that never happened. Because I think that my work and my track record have been so clear in the ways I’ve been able to show up and organize and mobilize and build deep relationships. I think for me, the personal aspect of it is having to come to terms with understanding that I made a decision and this decision was going to come with consequences.
And the decision was that I was going to stand up for my community. I was going to be bold and unapologetic about it, and I was not going to cower to opposition. I also wasn’t going to engage in respectability politics. I was not going to try to frame my community’s pain and trauma in a way that is palpable for people.
I was going to just keep it raw and keep it straight. And it’s also part of my identity. I’m going to keep saying this, I’m from Brooklyn. I don’t know how to do that anyway. Even if I try it, it’s just not part of who I am. And so I also understand history and I’m a student of history of this country. I have studied the Civil Rights Movement.
I have been trained in Kingian nonviolence. It’s not — Kingian nonviolence is not just something that, you know, is something we just know about, or we learn about, we are trained in the ideology of Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement in the six principles of nonviolence. That’s something I’ve been trained in as well.
I’m also someone who has been at the feet of, and the mentee of someone like Harry Belafonte, you know, being able to be connected to a long legacy of civil rights leaders who have been defamed, who have been vilified whose homes have been bombed, who have received death threats. And in fact, many of those have had their lives ended by those who were in opposition to their kind of goals, you know, when it came to human rights for all people. And so, I was not under any, you know, illusion that I was going to somehow, you know, swim free in this kind of work that I was doing. And so, I also have had these conversations with my own family and having to say, listen, life insurance. If this happens to me, this is what you’re going to do.
That’s what that person’s going to do. Here are the people in my movement, family who are going to have your back. And here’s the people — like I’ve already set this up. And, and I know it sounds scary to people that, you know, know that we have these conversations. It’s not just me, many movement leaders have these conversations and I’m content with that. And I feel that, I have built a legacy for my own family, my own children, and I take it at every corner. I mean, I can say good morning on social media and it’s like, good morning to who? Yeah. And what do you mean by that? Good morning. And they, you know, trying to decipher like every word that I say, I mean, I could literally, I will get guarantee you that someone’s going to take this whole recording and they’re going to take one word that I said and be like, see, we told you that Linda’s this and this and that.
Yeah. And to be honest with you, it doesn’t bother me at all. And I know people think I’m bothered by it, but I’m actually not. And I just keep focused. I keep doing the work, and I keep moving forward and I think my family has come to terms with that. I think at some moments, as I shared in the book, I think my kids were trying to find their role and their identity in this and what they’re doing.
You know, what are you doing? Your mom is like at the front lines, you know? And I think my kids figured it out and I’m very proud of them. They are, you know, my oldest are two college students. Brilliant. They are far ahead academically, but also in the ways in which they see the world. I mean, what can they do?
They’re forced into it, like look at who’s their mom? You know, and understanding that. I mean, although I wish they were trying to be in, you know, in positions that are going to help them be financially secure in the future, but of course my kids want to be like human rights lawyers and stuff, but — Hey, you know, I can’t complain.
I’m hoping that my youngest becomes like a pharmacist or a doctor. So, pray for me, Simran. But yeah, I just wanted to, just to say to people, I think, you know, for me, I have built a really thick skin. And I know what my mission is. I know what my goals and objectives are, I also know what my identity is and I’m very, and I have embraced my identity fully.
And I hope that the ways in which I’ve embraced my identity gives people the courage to embrace their identity lead wholly. And to also understand that I, Simran, had every right to defend the community that I come from with everything that I have, just like others are able to defend their communities with everything that they have.
And that my narrative and my story is just as important as anybody else’s. And that in order for someone else to show up in the world and to have a story, should not be at the expense of my story. That there should be space in this world for my identity, my story, my immigrant story, my, you know, Ay story of faith.
And my story of faith doesn’t take from Simran’s story of faith. You know, my, my pain doesn’t take away from Simran’s pain. And I think that there is a way we could live in this world like that together.
Yeah. I’m, I’m trying to think of where to go from here because I’ve so many, so many directions. And so, I’ll do one thing. I have a piece coming out about you and the book on Monday, and I don’t want to give away too much, but basically, I almost ignore the rest of the movement work that you do, because that’s what everyone already knows. And I wanted to tell the story of the Linda people don’t know.
And, and when you’re talking about your kids, you, you know, I think people have a hard time believing someone like you, when you say the attacks don’t bother you because, because they don’t know you personally, but, but, but it seemed to me those moments in which it was really like between you and your kids, that’s, that’s what really got me, especially as a father. So, so that’s what my piece will be on, on Monday, in case, in case anyone wants to check it out. I see a question here from Samia, who’s asking, can Linda talk about being a Muslim and a feminist? And I want to actually add to that a little bit.
Your work with the Women’s March, your constant attention to intersectionality. How does gender fit into the question of race and religion as it figures into your world, right? As a Muslim woman who is racialized. Right — that’s, that’s like a little bit of everything, right, at once. And so, and so what does that look like? And then how does that inform your politics and your activism?
I think, you know, I never really considered myself a feminist. It’s not a term that I use personally. I think feminism overall, the generations that people have used that particular term, particularly Western feminism, it’s really excluded people like me.
I’m an excluded Muslim woman. There’s always been kind of a foundation that. Feminism, particularly Western feminism, a Western liberal feminism means that they have to — white women or feminists are coming to the Middle East to like save women like me from a hijab or something. Like somehow this hijab that I wore somehow was some form of, you know, bondage. Like I needed to be liberated from my hijab.
And so, for me, my work in the kind of women’s rights movement in America has always been very challenging for people. I’m a very uncomfortable feminist for some, and it’s because I’m an intersectional feminist. And that means for me that I cannot just talk about reproductive rights without talking about racial justice. I can’t talk about, you know, equal pay without talking about racial justice. I can’t, we cannot talk about any issue, you know, separate — like an issue that’s specific, there is no issue specific to gender, you know, and I think that that’s something that a lot of white women haven’t really come to terms with over the many years of, you know, from the suffrage movement, suffragist movement in America.
And, you know, for me, you know, especially my participation in the Women’s March was a very challenging, position that I held as someone who was really trying to bring white women along to say, listen, I understand. And I’m with you. I believe in a woman’s right to choose also as a Muslim, but I also understand that reproductive healthcare requires us to also talk about the type of healthcare or lack of access to health care that Black women have an indigenous woman and other minority women and undocumented women.
We have to have that conversation. When we talk about equal pay, you want to get paid the same as a white man in America. That’s fine. But I want you to also to realize that you, as a white woman, still are getting paid more than a Black woman, an immigrant woman, an indigenous woman, and et cetera. And so being able to kind of interject that kind of analysis in the women’s movement has been very difficult, which is why we have struggled so much in the women’s rights movement in America.
It just, we just, when you think about all the different moments along the way, we keep going backwards because in the movement we’re a part of — and I don’t mean this about all white women. There are many wonderful allies, white women allies who are in this movement with us who have continued to elevate and center the voices of women of color.
And I’m grateful to know many of those women, but overall and particularly for newer, newer activists, especially in light of the Trump administration, in light of the Women’s March, 2017, there’s been a lot of education that has had to happen. And sometimes, you know, when the, you talked about this earlier Simran — privilege, right?
Some women have the privilege of when they are uncomfortable, to get up and, and walk away and say, I don’t need this drama in my life. You know, I just came here protest ‘cause I wanted equal pay. But if you’re going to start bringing up Black people and race and stuff like that, I don’t want to be a part of it.
And in fact, there was an article about that in the New York Times about a week or so before the Women’s March of 2017, where a woman at the New York Times wrote an article saying that she was watching the comments on our Facebook page, where white women were saying that we were being divisive. And when you, we, when we asked, you know, what do you mean divisive?
And she said, well, yeah, the women are saying that you keep talking about race and I’m like, why is talking about race, always the response to talking about race, is always we’re being divisive. And I said, no. Talking about race allows you to have a larger analysis that brings everybody in, that makes everyone feel seen in the conversation.
I mean, even, you know, the ratification of the 19th amendment or thinking about voting, when people say we’re celebrating, you know, the whatever hundredth or 200th anniversary, I don’t even remember right now, of the women’s rights to vote. And I’m like, which women? You know, we have to be clear here. I mean, it was, Black women didn’t get the right to vote ‘til like a couple, you know, like five decades ago.
So, there’s a lot of these hard conversations. So, so what I will say to, you know, Samia, is that it’s been difficult for me being a Muslim and a feminist, you know, as a feminist, I’m also a protester. So, for example, Simran, like I support the right of Americans to engage in boycott and divestment.
It doesn’t really matter of who, of what, boycott and divestment are constitutionally protected tactics and strategies that are literally enshrined in the Constitution of the United States of America. It is my right to engage in boycott of Goya. You know, the CEO of Goya just went to say that we were so blessed to have Trump as our president.
I am, you know, engaging, you know, engaging in the boycott, divestment and sanctions of Saudi Arabia. And with that boycott divestment and sanctions China for their treatment of Uighur Muslims. And yes, of course, that also includes the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement of Israel, which is something that I support.
And so for me, for example, as a protest during the Women’s March movement, I, I, I asked the women’s rights movement to endorse our ability to engage in BDS. And that was difficult for some white women. They were so outraged about it. And I was like, ladies, you’re protesters. Don’t you want to be able to have your right to boycott and divestment to be something that, that you have control over that is protected by the Constitution of the United States of America?
And so some women were like, yeah, actually that does make sense. I never thought about it that way. And then of course there were others who were beyond themselves. And my position always has been Simran that I’m going to stand up. I’m not going to, I’m not going to cater to the lowest denominator in our movements.
I’m going to try to take them and uplift them and bring them up to the higher moral ground that I believe that I hold. And I, I’m not saying I’m a perfect activist. I’m a flawed human being. I’m going to make mistakes along the way, because that’s just who we are. We are human beings that make mistakes, but my core values, and my core principles never change. And I think that is what is the most important thing about being a feminist. It’s about making sure that the women’s rights movement in America includes everyone. And also that when you think of the feminism, you should, you could think of someone like me, or you can think become a Sikh woman, or you can think of a Jewish woman, or you can think of an atheist woman, or you can think of an undocumented woman, a Black woman, you know, an indigenous woman, a woman with disability.
We all can be feminists. There’s no one way to be, or look, like a feminist. And I think that is kind of where we need to go, but we’re not there yet.
Yeah, I appreciate that response. And I appreciate the question too, especially in a context where we’re constantly told that Muslim women are oppressed and that Islam is patriarchal by design, and, and you know, this, whether we realize it or not, that’s the constant messaging we get. And for me, the most helpful two pieces that I’ve read, that helped me understand my own sort of baggage and the hypocrisy behind that thinking a one was Lila Abu-Lughod’s book, “Do Muslim Women Need Saving?” And she has A TIME article, for those of you who prefer articles over books, she has a TIME article of the same name, and then Saba Mahmood s “Politics of Piety.”
Just, it, it changed the way that I thought about Islam and gender. It also changed the way I thought of myself actually, in understanding like what it is to publicly display one’s religious commitment. And, and for me, at least, it helped me understand like why I was willing to put up with the bullshit that came with it.
Like, like what does it bring into my life? So anyway, those are, those are two really fantastic books that I would recommend. I want to make sure we get into a little bit of it pragmatic, because that’s what you’re so good at and what your book is a lot about. Instead of asking you something general, I wanna ask you something direct that comes from Claire. Is it appropriate or strategic to bring anti-Muslim bias into the conversation that’s currently happening about Black lives and police violence? So, so I guess part of the question is like, we see the intersectionality, we see anti-Muslim racism as a problem, but how do we do this without minimizing the message of the movement for Black lives at the same time?
I appreciate that question very much. I think that we have to also make sure that we are very clear that Black people in America are also Muslim. One-third of our community as Muslim Americans is African American and by extension even further, we also have African immigrants in our community who also have been victims to police violence, right?
Who have had to endure being Black and Muslim in America in 2020. I think it is very important for us to think about a few things — that we cannot show up to movement spaces and impose on movement spaces, particularly those that are Black-led specific to ending police brutality, and saying, I won’t as a Muslim who is not Black come to this table or come to the front lines unless you care about me.
And by nature, the Black lives matter movement is an intersectional movement. The movement for Black lives has an intersectional platform where they do name oppressions happening to other communities. Remember Black people are also undocumented, Black people are also LGBTQIA, Black people are also people with disabilities.
I mean, remember that Black people themselves are an intersectional community. And we need to make sure that we’re naming that. For me, I’m Palestinian and I’m a Muslim and the movement for Black lives will tell you — and you know, me, I have organized with some of the most stellar Black organizers in America.
I do not show up to the table and say, I am not going to sit here with you, okay, unless you say free Palestine, unless you say that you’re also against Islamophobia. What people have to understand about movement work — it’s also, it’s all relational. It’s all relationship building. So, for me, Simran, when I’ve come to the table, I’ve been at these tables for almost two decades now — I come to the table wholeheartedly to show up for Black liberation. No conditions, no imposition. While I’m there, giving my skills, giving my love, my compassion, really anything that I have, I offer it to the table, someone will turn around and say, who are you? And what’s your story? And that is my opportunity to say, here’s who I am.
Here’s what brings me to this table as a Palestinian American, as a child of immigrants, as a Brooklynite, as a Muslim. And by, you know, it’s almost natural, by people want to reciprocate solidarity. When they see you willing to risk for them, they will look at you and say, well, where am I needed for your community?
Where can I be of service to your community? So that’s how it’s not, we should never go into a space. And that’s what minimizes spaces — when you put in positions on different movement spaces. And so, I’m just very grateful to be part of a movement that is Black-led that has embraced me and embraced the communities that I come from and has wanted to learn my story.
And I’ve also had many profound experiences. If you remember, during the summer when Mike Brown was shot in Ferguson, these little Palestinian kids in Gaza who rarely have internet access were sharing across the world through Twitter suggestions on ways that the children of Ferguson or the young people of Ferguson can protect themselves from tear gas, because that was something they were experiencing there.
And to see that solidarity that was so natural and in this kind of digital era, and then to see the way that the people of Ferguson reciprocated that solidarity to Palestinians — when I showed up to Ferguson, I saw Palestinian, I saw young Black people carrying Palestinian flags. I didn’t give them those Palestinian flags.
I didn’t even talk to them about Palestine, but it was just this natural way of reciprocation. So, we should never impose. But I think that the movement naturally shows solidarity because it is built on this idea that yes, Black lives matter for sure. But there’s a sanctity of, there’s like this, this idea of about the sanctity of life, just in general.
And I think that the Black, the movement for Black lives was such a radical movement and that is so centered in radical love and compassion. There was another question that I saw, Simran, that’s really important. ‘Cause I think that as we talk about our communities, we also have to be accountable for our own communities.
And I think one of the questions was, as a Muslim American, how do we also address anti-Black racism within our own community? You know, our community again is one-third African-American. We also have again, you know, children of African immigrants, Somalis, Sudanese, other West, West Africans. And so, and we do have an issue with that as, as people have in every faith group, you have to be able to figure out how — we can’t just say Black lives matter as some sort of mantra.
It’s like, what is the work that has to happen within our own communities? Many of which our community have taken on some of those white supremacist ideology or not, and not necessarily ideology, but just entrenched racism in America, where we come to America or our families come to America with these already preconceived notions that they unfortunately even learned abroad by watching television, watching Hollywood.
And then they come to this country and sometimes they’re engaging in this type of behavior where, you know, non-Black Muslim woman, clutching her purse, or maybe there is some stuff sort of discrimination that happens at the mosques, and even segregation at our mosques. And I think that is something that our generation, that my generation and those younger than me, have really taking on a stand on and started have started to implement the actual anti-racist work that needs to happen. I’m not saying that I gave up on our older generation, I believe in our older generation too, but I think that we have an opportunity, to do more work in that area.
And as similarly, when we talk about gender and gender justice within the Muslim community as well, you said this earlier, you know, this idea that has been put out by Islamophobes that somehow Islam is inherently patriarchal. Can Muslims be patriarchal a hundred percent? Absolutely. Can they be kinds of things? Yes. Just like Muslim dictatorships and Muslim regimes.
Oftentimes Islamophobes use examples, like, you know, the regimes of, you know, Saudi Arabia to say, this is what Muslims are. And so I always say to people for me, Islam is different than Muslims. And Muslims are flawed human beings. Muslims can be racist.
Muslims can be all kinds of, but you know, they could be sexists and abelist and all kinds of things. And if they were truly following in the footsteps of our beloved prophet, Muhammed, may peace and blessings be upon him, we would all just be kind human beings. We’re already inherently anti-racist based on our faith.
And unfortunately, as has as happens with many faiths, including, for example, in America, with evangelical Christians and other conservative Christians, the perversion of faith to oppress others. And so, in fact, that happens amongst Muslims, you know, leaders in some parts of the Muslim world, I’m not going to deny that, I’ve never denied that.
I just want people to, to think about us as Muslims, that we are individuals who follow a faith. And we have bad individuals amongst our faith group. Just like every faith group does. There is not one faith group who can claim that every person in their faith group. Perfect. That’s just not possible. Do I believe my faith is perfect?
I think my faith, faith, is a, is a faith that really is rooted in justice, in love and compassion. And it’s unfortunate that there are going to be at times people who do not follow the true interpretation of that, of Islam.
Yeah, it’s heavy, heavy stuff. And I, I see we’re getting to the end of our time. And I just want to ask you one more question. It’s a tough one, and it’s not one that I really know the answer to. And so, I’m just interested to hear what you think. You know, Islam being the most ethnically racially, nationally, geographically diverse tradition in the world — like, like it’s not a joke to say, you know, you run across Muslims of all national and geographical distance, right? Like it’s, it’s everywhere. And so there’s also internally within the tradition, you, you often come across this bias and it’s true in American Islam as well, where you say, well, That form of Islam, like that geographical region, Indian Islam, African American Islam, like that’s all a distortion of true Arab, or what you might get from an Egyptian imam or whatever, right? Like whatever is considered the most authentic. And so, it’s, it’s a question about internal diversity and the previous question from Abdi that you, that you addressed was about internal diversity and dealing with. Anti-Black racism.
How do you, how do you deal with, as a Muslim, these, these questions around authentic versions of Islam? And being like, I guess within a tradition, like the idea of supremacy, like my version of Islam is real and yours is wrong and that’s why African American Islam is not authentic or whatever. Right? Like we see a lot of that. And so, what do you, what do you say?
I oppose that at every turn. I don’t think that any Muslim can claim authenticity or authority over Islam, which is why we don’t have like a Pope type figure in, in, in our faith. And it’s also that framework is actually been quite problematic. As you know, it’s led to bloodshed.
You know, when we think about, you know, sectarianism in some parts of the world. You know, for me as a Muslim, Simran, I wake up every morning. I believe in God. I believe that, I believe in Jesus, I believe in Moses. I believe that I follow the God of the Abrahamic faiths and I wake up every morning, thinking about how I’m going to uplift the creation of God and creation of God for me, is every single human being on this earth.
And it is not my place, and it is not the place of any Muslim to point out who is the real Muslim and who’s not the real Muslim. You have choice in the type of sect of Islam that you would like to follow. Sunnis, Shi’as, Sufis, there’s all kinds of people. And I feel like, you know, we are in a time in life where people are going to gravitate towards the thing that makes their heart full.
I grew up in a Sunni family. Believe it or not Simran, I didn’t know that I was Sunni until 2003 when I was already 23 years old. And the only reason I knew I was Sunni was because the war in Iraq started. I started hearing, Shi’a, Sunni, Shi’a, Sunni, ’cause in Palestine, we don’t really have diversity of sects, unfortunately.
And so I came home to my mom one day, I was like, lady, like what sect of Islam are we? And she was like, what are you asking me? And I’m like, what are we, are we Shia’s, are we Sunnis, like, what’s going on here? My mom was like, well, since you’re asking like, we’re Sunnis. And I was like, okay. But yeah, point was that my parents never even thought that that was something important enough to tell me they were like, this is what, you know, this is God, we went to the mosque, and it was just not something that my parents thought was important for us to know, because my parents also are under the belief that we’ll figure out who’s right one day on Judgment Day, right? For now, just be kind, you know, believe in God and that there’s always going to be a higher being, a higher power that is up there. and that you, you know, live your life righteously, that you are kind again to animals, to the planet, you know, kind to your grandparents and elders and respect and dignity and all these things that I learned growing up.
But I, I don’t, I do not engage in sectarianism. I have spoken and have built deep relationship with Shia’s in my community who are wonderful human beings, who are kind and compassionate, where we have maybe some little differences in things that we believe. They may pray a little differently than I do.
They may break their fast 15 minutes later. Again, I, one day I just happened to be, a long time ago, happened to have be breaking fast during Ramadan with some Shi’as, and all of a sudden I was like, wait a minute. Why are these people not eating? Like, what’s the problem here? Like it’s the time?
And they were like, Oh no, we, we don’t break fast. We wait till 15 minutes or something like that after sundown. It was fine. I broke my fast, and then I waited for them and I had the whole meal when they had it. So the point is, is that I, my generation has kind of rejected that, kind of separation of people by sect, we are Muslims and there is no one in our community that I believe should have the authority of telling someone who’s a good Muslim and who’s a bad Muslim.
Yeah, I appreciate it. And I appreciate all your time and everything, everything that you do in this world to, to, to make this world a better place for us. And as you say, in the book, really, really for, for our children. Yeah, you just do all of this with such passion and authenticity, and your ferocity is actually made me more comfortable in speaking truth to power. So, so thank you. Thank you for all of them.
Thank you, Simran. I just wanted to say for folks who are watching and folks that probably will watch later and read your thing. The only thing that I ask of people is, just give me a shot, folks. Just give me a chance. And if there’s a question or if there’s something that you read that you’re not really sure about, like I’m a very accessible person.
You can go, you can, as they say, dive into my DMs, my DMs are open on every social media platform, my email’s public. When you go to my website and they says, contact me, I am the one that gets the email. And so, I want you to feel like you can ask me questions. I think oftentimes how we get to this place, Simran, is that someone reads something that someone else said, and we kind of go with that.
And I always say to people, just go straight to the source of, of your confusion, the source of what you believe your pain is from. And then oftentimes, you’ve seen this in a couple of stories, I shared in my book that even those who have been the most vehement in opposition to me, when they have been in the same space, when I’ve had a conversation in the same space with them, they would walk away from me saying this — listen, I still don’t really agree with you, but I respect you. And that’s all I’m asking for. And I think that the most important thing about us in this world, Simran is even you and I, there might be moments where we might have a conversation about an issue or a policy where you and I might not agree maybe, but you know what I always say to people — that unity is not uniformity.
I don’t expect everyone to always agree with me. Imagine if we live in a world where everybody just agreed on everything, it just wouldn’t even make sense. Even within our movement spaces, with the people that I love, [inaudible] that I organize with, that I’ve been arrested with, I don’t even agree with those people all the time.
So if I don’t agree with those people, don’t expect to always agree with me and just say to yourself, you know what, I may not agree with Linda on this issue, but I do agree with her on 88 other issues. And so how do I find common ground to work with her on spaces where we do have some common agreement? And that’s all I ask for people to do with everyone.
Right? Totally. And also, if you think about your own relationships or our own relationships, like we don’t always agree with the people we love. And so that’s fine. That’s life. And so I, yeah, I appreciate that. And like you’re saying, also, I mean, that’s the first thing I teach my students in my, in my college classrooms.
Right? Like primary sources go, go to the direct word. Don’t go to interpretations, because that’s where we get lost a little bit. So, so that’s why, once again, if you haven’t read our book, get yourself a copy — “We Are Not Here To Be Bystanders.” It’s insightful and eye-opening and illuminating all at once.
And thank you all of you for joining us today. I really appreciate you the company, in my own journey to become less racist. And I’m hopeful that we can all continue moving towards anti-racism together. Next week we’ll have two amazing guests. Arno Michaelis, a former white supremacist and Neo-Nazi, will talk to us about how he felt into the white supremacist movement and ultimately how he got out of it, and Jennifer Harvey on her New York Times bestseller, “Raising White Kids.” And like today, as with every episode, we’ll try to learn as much as we can about racism, what it looks like in our country and what we can do about it. So, thank you all and take care.