We Are Not Here to Be Bystanders: A Memoir of Love and Resistance
“Walking through the town square in El-Bireh, I’d noticed a little Palestinian boy selling Wrigleys — they call it taxi gum — five shekels for five pieces. The child was maybe ten years old and not well kept. His red shirt was too small for him, and was torn on one shoulder. Compared to him, I was a relatively prosperous American, and so as I passed by, I flipped him some change and kept walking. The kid ran after me and proceeded to give me a lecture I will never forget.
‘Sister, I’m not a beggar, I’m a salesman,’ he said. ‘You take your five gums or you take back the five shekels.’
Humbled, I took the gum, realising that when I’d tossed the change to a poorly dressed child, I’d assumed I was giving him something. Instead, he had given me a gift far greater — the assertion of his human dignity.”
A fleeting incident, yes, but a life-long lesson that the writer has taken heed of since that childhood visit to occupied Palestine.
Real heroes are people like Linda Sarsour, the Palestinian American political activist whose response to her experiences growing up witnessing the local police department’s stop-and-frisk tactics and Islamophobia, has been to try and improve the life experiences of others and restore their human dignity.
At the age of 14, living in Sunset Park, known in the Brooklyn neighbourhood at the time as “Gunset Park”, she went to John Jay High School. Students entered the school grounds and walked through large metal detectors — “Like the ones at airports” — and then opened their mouths and lifted their tongues for security officers to check for smuggled razor blades. For the author, this was the start of many observations that the “school-to-prison pipeline” targets children from low-income families. She witnessed first-hand the overbearing policies and practices that snatch brown and black children from classrooms and deliver them into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.
Sarsour notes how her life and identity as a Muslim American was “inextricably interwoven” with the lives of all people of colour, which intersect to influence her work as a political activist. Raised by Palestinian immigrant parents and having visited Palestine a few times, she was, quite naturally it seems, politically conscious. However, it was the ensuing surveillance and aggressive policing following 9/11 that led her to become one of the nation’s — arguably one of the world’s — most fiercely determined, well-known voices advocating for Muslim Americans, criminal justice reform and civil rights.
As a student at a local college in Brooklyn in 2001, she rushed into her home just a few hours after the terrorist attacks. She was stunned at the sight of her mother hurrying out of the house with her hair uncovered to collect her brother from school.
“Yumma, your hijab,” I called out to her. “You aren’t wearing it.”
“Linda, we can’t today,” she called back. “It’s too dangerous.”
She felt “queasy” as her mother coaxed the car’s engine to life and drove away.
When we read that Sarsour was also advised to remove her headscarf that she wears so proudly, we readers — whether we wear hijab or not; are male or female — must surely feel uncomfortable. Vulnerable, in fact, much like the visible Muslims in New York at that time.
However, despite the warnings, she never compromised. The hijab for her was about offering the world a visible sign of her identity as a Muslim. “I had a moment of clarity: if there was ever a time to represent the good in Islam, to act in opposition to the evil those men had unleashed in our world, this was it."
She articulates convincingly not only the importance of standing up against oppression and speaking the truth to power, but also the need to do so. It is also vital, she insists, to have an understanding of how crucial intersectionality is in today’s world.
Readers will be impressed by her passion. Like the ever-changing politics of America, the book is fast-paced. She is not interested in simply droning on about what people can and should do in a climate still rife with Islamophobia, racism and sexism, but rather seeks to draw attention to how the politics of it all are intermingled.
Sarsour co-led the Women's March on Washington after Donald Trump took office in January 2017, and ensured that all of the groups with which she identifies were heard during the event.
She notes how feminism in Western culture is often limited to a Caucasian perspective and leaves out the experience of women of colour. When she discussed how the feminist movement could be more diverse and inclusive during meetings leading up to the march, some white women felt uncomfortable. In order for a better feminism movement to truly liberate women, it is indeed necessary, as she suggests, to make “significant blind spots visible and relatable.”
“…many of the white women in our group didn't see that if you want to be paid the same as a man, you have to reconcile the fact that Black women still don't get paid the same as white women. And indigenous women don’t get paid the same as Black or white women. You can’t talk about economic justice without talking about racial justice… And if you claim to be a feminist who stands up for the rights of all women, then you have to also stand up for — to cite an example that hits close to home for me — Palestinian women in the West Bank and Gaza.”
The march protesting against the election of Donald Trump, a racist, misogynistic US president, drew more than a million people of all faiths, backgrounds and genders. It was possibly Sarsour’s biggest achievement as a community organiser to date. This can’t be overstated. To get the Muslim community engaged politically at a time when most hoped to stay under the radar was very challenging.
She has also served as the executive director of the Arab American Association of New York and advocated for the Community Safety Act of New York, addressing racial profiling. Actively involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, Sarsour assisted in the organisation of the American Muslim community's response following the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014, and helped to organise citywide protests calling for an end to racial profiling and the killing of Black people by law enforcement officers.
Although admitting to moments of regret about not being able to shield her three children from the vitriol and threats that she has received online — accusing her of anti-Semitism and sympathising with terrorists because of statements she has made about politics in the Middle East — she persists in her activism and has no plans to stay silent.
The book is written with a strong and invigorating moral purpose, as well as warmth. She shares with us some of the fruits of her struggles for justice. Surveillance operations in the city’s Muslim neighbourhoods, for example, continue to be dismantled, and she has worked with officials in City Hall to close public schools for two of Islam’s most important holy days, Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha.
In the stirring final chapter, “Love Is Not Done”, Linda Sarsour writes that addressing social injustice is not just a matter of selective struggles, or feeling “resigned” or “despair” in the face of tyranny, but working against the deep-seated inequalities by advocating for greater accountability to keep each other, particularly people of colour and women, safe. “I am calling on everyone who reads this book to join me in the struggle for a redeemed nation,” she writes, “one that will heal its divisions and affirm the sanctity and sovereignty of every life as it paves the way for a better world.”
This is a heartfelt appeal to all citizens, of all faiths and none, and of all ethnicities. At its centre is the quest for “human dignity” referred to above. What could be more important than this in a world wherein so many are shorn of their dignity by those in power?