Allies with Benefits: Linda Sarsour and the Muslim World in the Age of Trump

The recent lifting of the ban in Saudi Arabia on women driving is a historic moment not only for Saudi activists, without whose persistence and many sacrifices in the last decades — often painful — the royal decree would never have seen the light of day, but also for millions of women throughout the Muslim world. Despite the deep political rivalry between the two Islamic poles, the Saudi decision's ripple effect is likely to reach the shores of Iran and perhaps enhance the momentum of White Wednesday; a campaign that calls on women and men to wear white scarves or garments on Wednesdays in symbolic protest to the country's mandatory dress code for women imposed by law since the revolution in 1979. The winds of change are also expected to blow north to my birthplace of Baghdad where a considerable number of young girls took to the streets in February pedaling their bicycles in blue jeans at a time when the Iraqi parliament swarms with female members shrouded in black Abayas. One of the brave cyclists said she only wanted to practice a right that her mother and grandmother had taken for granted ages ago before the country started spiraling into a bottomless abyss of tribalism and sectarianism.

Such initiatives would have gotten Liberals in the United States cheering had they taken place just a few years earlier. But the news received only a lukewarm welcome abroad. US Liberals seem to have aligned themselves with quite a different agenda since the election of Donald Trump. His infamous executive order to bar immigrants and travelers from several Muslim-majority countries was too precious an opportunity to miss. America looked around for a Muslim figure to Snapchat or Instagram to rub in the president's face. It didn't really matter what convictions that person held. They only needed to look Muslim and sound Muslim. Oh, and be loud too! And loud was Linda Sarsour.

The self-proclaimed "unapologetic Palestinian-American, born and raised in Brooklyn" has since been invited to talk at nearly every prestigious university and appeared in almost all the major newspapers, magazines, and television networks in the United States. Sarsour has engaged in heated political debates arguing for the competence and benevolence of Sharia or at least her interpretation of it since there is much confusion and ambiguity surrounding the term. Linda has been keen to showcase her perfect Muslim life, including her mother's Maqluba (meat, rice, and fried vegetables) recipe, which the Sarsours offered New York Times readers. The sharing, however, didn't stop there. Wed in an arranged marriage at the age of 17, Linda Sarsour has advocated for the tradition and its validity for Muslim girls living in Western societies. She also finds head-covering a perfectly normal and non-oppressive practice, and has made a statement that banning women from driving is by no means a discriminatory act as long as they (women) get fully-paid maternity leave. Sarsour's regressive opinions, coming from a self-proclaimed "civil rights activist" who is often being introduced as a "feminist" are putting US Liberals' credibility and integrity to the test, and causing harm to real feminist movements by implying that Muslim females are happy to be considered inferior to males and treated as such in their countries.

They are not! I did a quick search in Arabic on Twitter and some results included numerous accusations of her being a terrorist or a Hamas and/or Muslim Brotherhood propagandist. Most of the "unfriendly" sentiments against Sarsour came from educated Arab Muslim females like herself. Only they refused to be deprived of free will in the name of religion. The pragmatic courtship between US Liberals and Sarsour has obviously empowered the latter and given her such extensive exposure we hardly get to listen anymore to the progressive voices that call for reform and gender equality in the Muslim world, like Nawal el Saadawi, Irshad Manji, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Speaking of whom, the Australian and New Zealand tour of the Somali-born Dutch-American author of Infidel was cancelled in April due to "a number of reasons, including security concerns." I may not share Ayaan's radically confrontational approach, but I certainly respect her viewpoints and was looking forward to hearing what she had to say about her journey from Islam to atheism. When I heard about the last-minute cancellation, I was disappointed, but not surprised. I wouldn't be surprised either if an announcement was made that Linda Sarsour is coming to Auckland soon.

This is an edited version of the original article that first appeared in The Dominion Post, New Zealand.

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